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Alumni on the path to nursing leadership

| Jan Adams

Two alumni, Michael Jaeb, BSN, RN and Kristin Brunsell Merss, BSN, RN are both facilitating the Wisconsin Nurses Association (WNA)  Health Policy and Advocacy Workshop. The virtual event held in October and December 2020 focuses on the nurse’s role in advocacy, policy, and politics. Workshop sessions support Wisconsin nurses’ engagement in the legislative process to improve the health of our citizens. 

Jaeb and Merss are recent graduates from UW-Eau Claire and current PhD students at UW-Madison School of Nursing. Their interest in public health policy and advocacy grew while participating in a variety of campus, state, and national initiatives, including attending the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Student Policy Summit in Washington DC. Their leadership skills were also acknowledged by UW-Eau Claire faculty when upon graduation they each received the WNA the Future Nursing Leader Award.

We touched base with them to learn what propelled them down the path of nursing leadership in Wisconsin. 

What has prepared you to take a leadership role within nursing?

(MJ) A variety of experiences helped me develop leadership skills and further fuel my interest to be engaged. Initially, I explored leadership theory and observed individuals that I considered to be leaders in the nursing discipline and profession. Some of these individuals included staff nurses, deans of nursing institutions, thought leaders, and healthcare executives. I also committed myself to attending workshops, webinars, and other educational activities to further enhance my leadership skills and thinking. In addition to those, I also served in more formal roles including a student advisory board, university councils, and professional nursing committees. Overall, all of these items contributed to skills development and understanding the purpose of leadership.

(KM) My mentors have played a tremendous role in preparing me for leadership positions. Additionally, going to events like conferences and workshops has helped me learn by watching, as well as providing opportunities to practice the skills necessary.

Were there any UW-Eau Claire experiences that impacted your decision to take on a leadership role?

(MJ) There were multiple UWEC experiences that impacted my decision to take on a leadership role. I had the opportunity to serve as council member within housing and residence life, as well as on the local Sigma Honor Society advisory board. These were powerful experiences because I was able to engage with a variety of individuals and implement shared governance models within portions of the student body. It also allowed me to further engage with faculty, staff, and other students that were seasoned leaders. Additionally, I loved how I could flow from being the leader of a group to being a follower.

(KM) There were so many opportunities at UWEC that prepared me for leadership after graduation. First, I have to say that the faculty at the School of Nursing and Health Sciences always encouraged me to push myself and seek out opportunities to learn. My adviser and faculty have become mentors that are still encouraging me today. Secondly, involvement in Wisconsin Nurses Association has served has presented so many chances to learn and engage in leadership.

What qualities do you think are most important for leaders to exhibit?

(MJ) Two qualities that I deem critical to take on a leadership role is humility and courage. A leader knows when to take a step back and act more as a follower. Not only is this critical in more linear teams, but it is also critical to supporting the voices of peers. Humility also connects with courage. Being a leader may put you in a vulnerable position where you may need to take risks. When these moments occur, think critically about how to respond to them, then lean into the discomfort that may arise. It is also critical to be humble about decisions that don’t result in anticipated outcomes. Perhaps a “wrong” decision was made, or a peer has a “better” idea. Engage with this realization and use it to drive your team or organization forward.

(KM) I truly believe that communication is the most important quality in leadership. Communication is usually thought of as making yourself heard, but I challenge that. I think that true communication begins with the ability to take in information, process it and respond. This quality, which is composed of many skills, is what defines good leadership and what differentiates the effective leaders from ‘people in charge’.

What do you like most about taking a leadership role?

(MJ I enjoy how a leadership role can morph and evolve over time. Being in a leadership role allows me to envision what my team or organization should do to meet its goals. The pursuit of goals may shift the structure or values of the organization which in turn may impact the function of the leadership role. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Rather, I believe it to be a positive product of change and one that will ensure the team or organization continues to thrive.

(KM) My favorite part is by far all the people I get to meet. I have crossed paths with so many interesting people, and it has created this amazing network of colleagues and friends. I also love the opportunity to give back to nursing and help other nursing students to learn more about our role in advocacy.

What would you advise to student nurses interested in developing leadership skills?

(MJ) Identify how important leadership it to you. It is important that the nursing discipline and profession fosters future leaders. That being said, students need to be intentional in their approach to leadership. Have goals in mind and reflect on how leadership skills are important to your practice and the people you interact with. Once you have done this, reach out to people that you believe exhibit high-quality leadership and engage with them. In my experience, many of these individuals want to foster the next generation of nurse leaders and will be more than happy to offer guidance and advice that fits your goals. It is also a good idea to read, read, read. Consider written and verbal conversations that are happening around leadership both within and outside of nursing. Leadership is a broad concept with a variety of contexts. Find what resonates with you and dive into it. Not only will this be more fulfilling, it will also support your interest in developing skills further.

(KM) My biggest piece of advice would be to take advantage of every opportunity. You never know what will be helpful. I can clearly tell you three different things that I did that, at the time, I thought to myself “And why am I doing this?” but later in my education and/or my career it paid off. There is no way to tell who you’re going to meet, what connections will be made, and what you will learn. So do it, take risks, put yourself out there and take advantage of everything possible.

Are you interested in pursuing leadership roles at the national level? 

(MJ) I envision myself being more active at the national level, especially in professional nursing organizations and policy work. However, I’m not sure if that will result in a formal position or rather a product of my civic activities.

((KM) I believe that leadership roles are something we prepare for, but not always plan for. I am excited to approach any opportunity that comes my way regardless of the scope or level, as there is always something to learn.