Ask any oncology nurse leader and nearly all will tell you: they didn’t get to where they are without learning a few things along the way. Leadership is a process, building the future while learning from the past. And with a leadership position comes responsibility: leading by example; guiding, motivating, and inspiring others; and developing the next generation of oncology nurse leaders. 

ONS members Deena Gilland, MSN, OCN®, acting vice president and chief nursing officer of Emory Ambulatory Services in Atlanta, GA, and Eileen Danaher Hacker, PhD, APN, AOCN®, associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing share their paths to leadership and the things they learned along the way

Becoming a Leader of Integrity

“Although I have had several influential leaders, my mother has had the most overall influence. She taught us to put others first, work hard at everything, not let a moment pass by without truly living it, value relationships, and look for the good in all others. She is a role model for how I want to lead,” Gilland says. Hacker likewise recalls many powerful mentors but also pinpointed her mother as the person with the most impact. “She is one of the strongest women I know. Four traits were and still are particularly important in our family: willingness to work hard for things that are important, perseverance, integrity, and compassion.”

Many leaders develop desirable leadership qualities by modeling and observing others. “I learned to make good decisions by listening to others. I am cognizant that I need to take off my blinders and see the big picture. I need to keep my eye on the horizon, not the weeds, and pay attention to what is happening around me,” Gilland notes. “I believe that leaders need to listen more and talk less. I learned to do this through trial and error and by observing those around me with more experience, leaders whom I wanted to emulate.” 

Key Traits of Successful Leaders

“I think every leader should treat others the way they expect to be treated. This is the golden rule that is as salient today as it was centuries ago,” Hacker says. “The most important resources in any organization are the people, the human resources.” 

Beyond that human component, one of the crucial roles of a leader is to establish a vision and direction for the team. “The key for me is clarity: having a clear vision and communicating that vision with clarity. If people within the organization do not know, understand, or agree with the vision, it becomes that much harder to achieve the desired results,” Hacker continues. 

Gilland agrees, but adds, “It is a leader’s responsibility to set a vision, but it must be shaped and formed with input from others. It is key to have everyone actively participate. Also, we grow our next leaders by involving them in strategic planning processes. These are the ones who will help carry that out and bring it to full fruition.”

Developing leadership traits is an ongoing journey. “I am a life-long learner and am continually looking for opportunities to improve my decision-making and leadership skills. What works in one situation may or may not work well in another,” Hacker says. “To continue to grow and develop as a leader, I believe it is important to seek out new opportunities that broaden perspectives and experience. I keep a five-year strategic plan that I update on a regular basis. I find that it is important for me to know what I want so that I can make a plan to get there. The road may be obscured at times with bumps and blocks. Dealing with these obstacles, however, frequently reveals hidden opportunities.” Taking on difficult challenges can lead to enormous growth for oncology nurse leaders. “I continue to look for opportunities to stretch myself and step out of my comfort zone. I realize that taking on a challenge that stretches me leads to further development of leadership characteristics and opens all sorts of new doors,” Gilland says. 

She shares her own path to leadership as a testimony of stepping out of that comfort zone. “About seven years ago, I was very comfortable as the inpatient oncology director of a 50-bed unit. Inpatient services is what I knew, what I had done for 18 years, and I was humming along very nicely, being effective, really liking the work I was doing. Then, my chief nursing officer asked me to step into the brand-new role of chief nurse in the outpatient arena. At the time, I really did not want to do this, because I was so comfortable in the role I had.”

Gilland explains that it was a new role, which made her apprehensive, but she accepted the challenge and is thankful for the professional growth that came with it. “I did not think that outpatient services would be my career path, but through this experience, I have grown and developed in ways I could not have without this. I learned that it is okay to not know everything and still go ahead. If you wait until you know everything and feel you are ready, the opportunity will pass you by.”

Assuming leadership roles also leads to changes in perspective. “As I moved into a more comprehensive role, I became more humbled. I really came to appreciate the awesome responsibility of caring for those who are delivering direct care. I need to advocate for them, and this is a serious responsibility,” Gilland says.

Developing the Next Generation of Leaders

“If I were to give advice to someone new in a leadership position, it would be to seek out role models and mentors inside the organization and in other organizations,” Gilland says. “They provide feedback, advice, and guidance and serve to challenge me to take the next step. Mentors provide a sounding board, a safe place to discuss and talk through ideas. This type of trusting relationship is really important.”Hacker agrees. “Surround yourself with people whom you respect and who will be honest with you. If possible, find someone willing to mentor you. A strong mentor can help you develop leadership skills and open doors to key opportunities. Likewise, become a mentor to someone else. I have been particularly impressed by the new ideas put forth by people I mentor, as they look at situations with fresh perspectives. I work with students at all educational levels to help them develop their leadership skills.”

In addition to looking outward toward more experienced leaders, Hacker recommends “making time to develop your personal career and life vision, and taking time to review and revise your vision as necessary. It is important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Look for opportunities to showcase your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses.”

Finally, remember that even leaders are only human. “You will make mistakes,” Hacker says. “When you do, admit it, take responsibility, and move on.”

You Tell Us! What leadership qualities do you wish to cultivate? Tell us your story in the comments.