This post contributed by Adeline Falk-Rafael
For the past several years I have taught leadership to internationally educated nurses in a 4th-year BScN course. Given professional and disciplinary expectations that nurses demonstrate leadership, regardless of their practice role, the course is designed to provide related knowledge and skill development through classroom and experiential learning.
After the initial exploration of contemporary leadership theories we begin development of some related skills, the first being communication and collaboration. At the outset of the course, students are assigned to a group of 7 or 8 students. Each group is expected to complete a project by the end of the term, but the primary purpose of the group is to provide an opportunity for applying leadership principles and practicing related skills, such as effective communication, (for more information, see my “Peace and Power blog post)
It is the difficulties that students experience in this practice and application that provides an opportunity to reflect on why that is – on how we have been taught to how to act, communicate and be in relationship as nurses in the health care environment and women and men in our society. It is about at this time, that I show them the parable of the chicken and the eagle, which you can watch below!
The basic premise of this parable is that a young eagle has found itself in a chicken yard and learns to believe it is a chicken and thus behaves like a chicken. Although I have seen various versions of this parable, in this particular one, although an eagle tries to “mentor” the young bird into realizing its potential as an eagle, it retreats into the safety of the chicken barn to live out its life as a chicken.
My belief is that it is irresponsible to emphasize the professional imperative for leadership without examining some of the systemic barriers to enacting that leadership; what stands in the way of us fulfilling our potential as eagles, how have we been taught to think of ourselves and behave as chickens – or less than we are? It is only in recognizing the barriers that we can begin to discover ways of overcoming them. Throughout the remainder of the course, it seems that whether we are speaking of communication, collaboration, advocacy, change agency, conflict resolution, or visioning for the future, we encounter “chicken” messages or confining structures that need to be overcome before we can soar like eagles.
What keeps us from working to our full scope of practice, for example? Is it the safety /comfort/ security of working within a defined job description? To what extent have we internalized an identity of an ancillary medical worker?
What keeps nurses so often from being acknowledged as credible knowers? In 2003, I was President of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, during the SARS outbreak in Toronto. At one point, officials deemed the outbreak over, but nurses in one hospital began seeing patients present with the same symptoms and warned of possible new cases. They were silenced with the words, “if I need an expert, I’ll ask for one.” (For more information, see “Lessons Learned from SARS”)
Ceci,1 in a brilliant analysis of the proceedings of an inquest into the deaths of 12 children who underwent cardiac surgery at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre, in Manitoba, Canada, similarly described dismissals to nurses’ repeated expressed concerns with the competence of the surgeon, leading the judge presiding for the inquest to observe that the nurses eventually silenced themselves. Ceci concluded: “nurses were presumed to be, acted upon as if they were, the sorts of persons whose concerns need not be taken seriously and gender ideology was a resource that could be strategically drawn upon to make the presumption true” (p. 76).
My guess is that most nurses reading this would be able to recount similar incidents, although more than 10 years have passed since these events. It is a challenge to keep believing and acting like an eagle when you continually get messages that you are a chicken! It is all too easy to become discouraged and give up but in the words of May, “What becomes important for nurses is not that we somehow expect that we may free ourselves of the effects of gendered, gendering discourses, but that we begin to understand how these work in constituting our experiences, . . . that we begin to understand their hold on us and try to make choices about what, if anything, we want to do about this” (cited in Ceci, p.80)
1Ceci, C. (2004). Gender, power, nursing: A case analysis. Nursing Inquiry, 11(2), 72-81.
3 thoughts on “Nurses Who Soar Like Eagles”
What a powerful post! I am continually astounded by nurses’ readiness to take on the role of the chicken when they are eagles waiting to soar. I have been guilty of it myself…. Countless times over the past year I have said to myself and to colleagues, “There is no time to be small. Go big. Be bold.” It is important to understand the barriers associated with leadership, change, and forward motion; however, over-emphasis on barriers draws us deeper into the abyss. At some point, we need to break the barrier cycle and re-write the script that allows us to soar like eagles. Thank you for such a thoughtful post.
This is a great example of oppression, silencing of nurses’ voices. I think we should consider educating every nursing student and every nurse around oppression, and what we can do about it.
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