Building Blocks of Leadership: Character

2012 by Frances

Years ago I had a group of nursing students on a med-surg floor as part of their clinical rotation. One morning one of my students was performing a 24-hour urine collection for a patient about to be discharged. The charge nurse had emphasized to the student the consequences of not collecting all of the patient’s urine output: a delay of one day in discharge of the patient, which meant an increase in the cost to the patient, a reduction in the number of available beds and inconvenience to the patient and her family. Unfortunately, the student failed to properly complete the collection – the patient went to the bathroom on her own and flushed the toilet without collecting the output. Yikes!

When she realized the mistake, my student appeared at my side. Ashen-faced and distraught and with tears in her eyes, she explained exactly what happened.

All of us can identify with the panic and fear that my student felt as a result of having failed to do her job correctly. Whether as a student in a clinical setting, or as a new employee or a veteran manager or executive, we’ve all fouled up, causing losses for our stakeholders.

So what’s all this got to do with leadership? In my mind, this story is about the most important aspect of leadership, and not just in nursing but in any organizational setting: Character.

Without her own full disclosure, no one except the student would have known the patient’s urine specimen was incomplete. But my student put the well-being of the patient and the hospital ahead of getting a good grade. She suffered embarrassment, true. But she learned a good lesson about nursing, she protected the interests of the patient and her profession, and she earned the respect of her teacher, her charge nurse and her fellow nurses.

This student, today a Nurse Practitioner who I’d be proud to work with, demonstrated honesty and a willingness to admit a mistake. When found in an organizational leader, these traits reveal the leader’s human dimension and inspire confidence in the staff he or she leads. While not the only traits effective leaders must have, they are all about character, which is the most important.

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