It’s 5am on a Friday morning, and I am already up and vacuuming my house. I have had coffee’s one through to three, and am chipping away at my fourth, whilst desperately trying to keep busy. The pantry has been itemised, the fridge cleaned, and every item of clothing in the house that could be washed has been washed. And yet, I am restless.
I have been in self-isolation for the past two weeks, at a state of constant readiness, waiting to be called to duty in support of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) whole of Government (WOG) COVID-19 response.
The current COVID-19 crisis has brought many challenges, but self-isolation has been by far the biggest for me. It has derailed my physical routine and thrown my regular social engagements into chaos. Most significant of all, it has seen me learn to have to stay at home, and away from the day-to-day patient interaction I had not realised was so central to my sense of self. It has also given me a gift - one that took me a little while to realise. It has finally taught me to be reflective.
Asking a nurse to stop nursing, at a time when the world needs them the most, is a near impossible task. We are naturally busy and driven creatures. We have chosen a profession where every moment of the working day is dedicated to the service of others. We are dynamic and physical; constantly moving from one task to the next. We advocate, educate, drive change, and care. We do not readily sit still.
And yet, this crisis and self-isolation has forced me to realise that we should.
Once I had completed every possible physical task in my house, and baked every kind of bun or cake imaginable, I was forced to sit down with my own thoughts and reflect. And I have come to realise that while I pride myself on being a dynamic and adaptable nurse, I have a long way to go as both an Officer and a leader.
Thanks to the Gibbs reflective cycle, all nursing students become familiar with the concept of clinical reflection. Over time, and with experience, this positive feedback loop is applied unconsciously to all areas of clinical practice. We learn what works, what doesn’t and what we can do better. We modify our interventions and plan for the next occurrence. However, we do not necessarily apply this concept to our interactions with our co-workers. We can become so task-focused that we often forget to care for those around us as readily as we care for our patients. Sometimes we view our colleagues as essential to helping us get through our day without breaking down. Sometimes we view them as obstructive to tasks we need to complete, or as outright competition. Rarely do we stop and think “what works for this person?” or “how can I do better when interacting with them?” It is interesting to consider that in an organisation that prides itself on its emerging leaders, these questions form the very basis of transformational leadership.
The realisation that there is a disconnect between my clinical leadership and my professional leadership lead me to reflect on my own communication style, and the interactions I have had with teams or colleagues in the past. The Nursing Corps itself is an incredible collection of strong, driven and motivated individuals. We each strive for excellence and are driven to leave our mark on both the Corps and the wider ADF. This can create an ultra-motivated sub-culture where each individual feels they need to carve out a space for themselves from day one. I remember my first days transitioning from Long Term Schooling to my new unit as being terrifying, overwhelming and stressful - not least of all because I felt the pressure to leave my mark early on. Instead of communicating with my colleagues mindfully, I was abrupt and challenging. Instead of learning to lead teams as a transformational leader, I was focused on rapid product generation with a view to making myself indispensable. I made a significant faux pas as a junior Lieutenant, and instead of fully appreciating the learning opportunity this would provide, I was defensive. I was sure of my clinical strengths. I didn't think to stop and reflect on my own behaviour, and the impact it would have on both my peers and the culture around me. I was a poor professional leader.
Whilst experience is the mother of all teachers, and I can look at my professional self now with a greater degree of comfort, I still have a long way to go to reconcile the leadership disparity. To this end, I have begun to unpack what it really means to me to be a good leader. Throughout my fledgling career within Defence, I have had the privilege of working for, and with, some phenomenal leaders and mentors. While they come from different backgrounds, and sometimes different Corps, what is common to all is reflection.
They demonstrate strong introspection and professional reflection, and they take ownership over their own behaviour. They embody transformational leadership. They encourage their teams to develop a collective consciousness and to develop autonomy over projects. Most importantly, they inspire their colleagues and subordinates to perform well beyond their perceived capabilities. The art of reflection, well mastered, brings about a deeper sense of self, and enables a leader to truly influence people.
COVID-19 has changed the face of our social landscape. It has forced us to become adaptable and to extend our comfort zones beyond where we ever thought possible. For me in particular, it has taught me that I cannot move forward as a leader, or indeed as a clinician, until I master the art of standing still to reflect.
I wonder if there is a distinct difference between specialist and general officers for an innate process of reflecting on personal leadership? Ab initio training at RMC-D does spend a significant amount of time discussing and developing leadership, including asking learners to reflect own their experiences and practices; this is something specialist officers are not exposed to in any depth during training. It would be interesting to assess if this reflective training develops over time to create naturally reflective leaders.