“Tell all the truth but tell it slant–” (Emily Dickenson) I have been re-reading Dickenson’s poem as well as Foucalt’s “Fearless Speech” series of lectures while thinking about the state of truth-telling in nursing leadership. Truth-telling to me connotes honesty, integrity and courage, which are all essential ingredients of good leadership. Truth-telling in the classical sense involves self-reflection and truth-telling to oneself. There is an art to good truth-telling. I believe that the current nursing leadership in our country has a lot to learn in all of these areas of truth-telling.
First though, just who are nurse leaders? My working definition of “nurse leader” is anyone who is a nurse of some sort who has the power and position, or the power of position to be able to effect change on systems–whether the system is a hospital unit, an entire hospital, some other health-related agency public or private, a public health program, a unit of or an entire school of nursing. Perhaps they are the nurses chosen (by other nurse leaders) to be part of the RWJ Nurse Executive Nurse Fellows Program, or chosen (by other nurse leader/fellows) to be a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing (FAAN). Do you notice a pattern here at all? The inner circle, the “old girls’ network of nurse leaders chooses who to let into the inner circle. This, of course, is human nature, and nursing is no different in many ways from say, medicine. Except that it is significantly different from medicine in terms of power and prestige–not essential ingredients to truth-telling, but they help in being heard and not being killed in the process.
The Dean of my school of nursing, Marla Salmon, ScD, RN, FAAN recently said that the focus in nurse leadership should not be about increasing the status of nursing as a goal, but rather to have nursing be partners in leading improvements in health care: It’s not just about nursing getting in the door, but it’s what happens when they’re at the table. I like this, but I like thinking about this table not as a sandbox with people (and nurses especially) “playing nice” and not throwing sand in Jimmy’s face–but rather thinking of the table as the Ancient Greek marketplace where truth-telling, open debate and reflection were encouraged.
We do not practice or encourage truth-telling in our profession of nursing. As nurse educators we actively discourage our students from voicing different viewpoints from our own, or from the accepted Cannon of Sacred Nursing. I recently read a document on revising the BSN essentials (e.g.: the most important things we want BSN-prepared RNs to be ‘taught’) and it stated that we should not teach/practice critical thinking “because it is too critical.” And in the practice of nursing it is obvious that nurse leaders shoot the messenger when line staff RNs “speak the truth” about patient safety issues.How is any of this going to change if the existing nurse leaders don’t start modeling more truth-telling in all of it’s ancient connotations?
2 thoughts on “Truth-tellers and nursing leadership”
Perhaps nursing’s narrative about itself as vulnerable and victimized has supported a culture that emphasizes a superficial (we’re all nice here) coherence over deep engagement and critique. Our literature rarely has extensive critical reviews and responses. Add to that the deepening corporatization of the university and the similarities with your Greek analogy fade even further. “Truth” telling only matters to me in the context of respectful dialogue. Other than that, it shades into a sort of authoritarianism.
David, thanks for the comment. I agree that nursing needs a new narrative of itself, and that the increasing corporatization of higher education (and of health care) erodes truth-telling. But I don’t agree that aspects of truth-telling other than respectful dialogue ‘shade into’ authoritarianism. Truth-telling (parrhesia) is “free speech” and as such is the foundation of democracy. It is interesting to look at the meaning of parrhesia and see that it can only be “free speech” when there is a risk or danger to the speaker, and the speaker is in a lower position/status than the person/people being spoken to.