Critical Leadership Lessons from a Cancer Care Nurse

By Marit S. Knutson, RN

Experience to Lead’s Experiential Leader Scholarship Winner

At Experience to Lead we celebrate leaders at all stages of their career. This post comes from our Experiential Leader Scholarship winner, Marit Knutson, who won our $1,000 scholarship towards furthering her education. We are proud of all the young leaders who submitted essays and look forward to great leadership stories from all of these young people.


If you were a fly on the wall…you would see what my job is like. I’m part of a profession that is misunderstood, popularized on TV but actually very different. Only those within it understand the variety of experiences encountered on each long twelve-hour shift. Sometimes I dream of an ordinary job. Working as a barista, or being the orchid expert at a local nursery. But I’m a cancer care nurse and I love what I do.

Reflection on Emotional Impact

My day involves many different patients at many stages of disease. They’re coming to me after surgery, or being admitted because they suddenly can’t keep food down, or, tragically, they are in their last days of life. Family at the bedside, holding their loved one near, I am let into their long history and lives during these incredibly intimate moments. Sometimes crying with them, sometimes embracing them, meanwhile providing technical medical information in between. This is no ordinary job.

When I reflect on my workday and contrast the seemingly mundane (dressing a wound) to the incredibly profound (washing the fragile body of a dying person). It can be overwhelming. How do I serve these people in these intimate moments of life? How do I lead by example to care and love the work and the people?

Here is a glimpse of my story and three leadership lessons that I have learned as a cancer care nurse and throughout my education. I hope you’ll also be able to learn from these lessons:

Get Buy-In From Stakeholders

 Early in my education I decided to pursue nursing. Medicine did not have the heart that I sought, but nursing did. I had an innate passion for organizing, which continued through school where I led a student organization. I made dear friends doing this work. Yet I was unknowingly alienating those friends by organizing without gaining buy-in or seeking input. I did not learn of this error until years later when one of those friends told me why our friendship had deteriorated.

“Why did you leave me out of organizing?” She asked in an email recently.

I paused and thought. “I have no idea, because I definitely needed help.”

Although I was stunned to realize the error. I had always been motivated and strong willed; pushing forward sometimes carelessly without the careful consideration of others’ opinions. In this I realized that I needed to adopt more tact, and her words were a reminder that not working in coalition can leave friendships damaged and organizing efforts stalled.

As an experiential leader, there are critical moments especially during change where gaining buy-in is crucial to achieving success. Even when all opinions are not applied to the outcome, people are more likely to comply if they feel their opinion has been heard and they understand why the decision isn’t in their favor.

Don’t Let History Repeat Itself: Look Back at Lessons Learned

To dedicate myself to my greater professional purpose, I pursued a leadership role in my union. Last spring along with several nurse colleagues I sat opposite of hospital management at the bargaining table to demand continuation of our excellent benefits as University of Washington Medical Center nurses. These were the benefits that had originally attracted me to my job, and the pay that supported my colleagues and their families. Our voices and demands were heard, and our contract was ratified!

Having learned through my lost friendship, I took my old lessons learned in nursing school to heart. I carefully worked to build coalition, and as a result I believe I truly made an impact.

As a leader, time is precious and free-time nonexistent. It’s too easy to let the to-do list overwhelm you and never pause to look back. Don’t let your own history repeat itself by not pausing to reflect on lessons you’ve already learned. If you don’t, you’ll be more likely to have to learn the lesson all over again when the stakes are higher.

Be Empowered by Personal-Growth & Learning

Despite these gains, our membership needed to increase. I wondered to myself: how do I effectively reach my nurse colleagues? I clearly had a need for more growth. So, to broaden my perspective and skills I started training as a nurse practitioner. In doing so, I became aware of the great need for policy change.

Nurse practitioners are limited in practice compared to physicians. For nurse practitioners to have greater impact on the lives of their patients, particularly in low-income and under resourced areas, policy change would have to be affected. Enter a new opportunity for leading positive change! This time I contemplated my steps carefully, not pushing forward without a plan in place. In this I hope to effect positive change for nurse practitioners and most importantly, for better outcomes for our patients.

As a leader, it can be tempting to turn down formal growth opportunities just for the time it takes to be in a learning mode. However, your personal growth will often lead to greater career opportunities, ideas for improvements to better achieve your and your organization’s goal. Keep your eyes open not only for learning opportunities but also the unlooked-for fruit that will come from that learning.

 

There are stories from every walk of life and business that can relay meaningful leadership lessons to you and your leaders. Explore our programs or subscribe today to our Blog Digest to receive stories in your inbox of leadership lessons that you can apply today, and become an experiential leader!

2018-08-27T14:28:49+00:00July 25th, 2018|Leadership Lessons|
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