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Has the pandemic changed leadership in nursing?

Dr. Sarah McGloin is the Head of Grants and Impact at the RCN Foundation, and a registered nurse. She reflects on an RCN Congress panel discussion about what leadership in nursing looks like in 2022.

When the RCN Congress returned as an in-person conference for the first time in two years, I was excited to be involved in a session put on by the Foundation in partnership with the Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum at the RCN.

The session looked at the leadership roles that nurses took on at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The RCN Foundation funded a research team Queen Margaret University Edinburgh to conduct a study on this topic, titled HeaLiN, and the findings were to be presented. I was curious to see how the study would be received amongst an audience of nurses.

An evolving discussion

Panellist Sue Tranka, the Chief Nursing Officer for Wales, spoke of her recent role as Deputy CNO in England throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. She spoke of the challenges of making strategic decisions in an unprecedented situation defined by many unknowns.

Sue observed that the innovative approaches to leading and decision making that individuals and organisations adopted during the pandemic has created a real legacy of leadership that continues to evolve.

The session then gave us an example of leadership emerging from the grassroots of the nursing community. Sue’s comment on leadership legacies created by the pandemic was explored further by panellist Caitlin Davies, who looked at this through a different lens as an early career nurse who qualified during the pandemic.

Caitlin explained that recently qualified nurses are, frustratingly, still overlooked for input on leadership issues within clinical nursing practice. She presented findings from the HeaLiN study, which found that healthful leadership can be identified by authenticity, equanimity, and clarity of leadership. Sue listened to Caitlin’s points and agreed that there is more work to be done in these areas.

Paul Jebb, RCN Nurses in Leadership & Management Forum, responded within the session. His work in senior leadership roles within an acute Trust and mental health, learning disability and community Trust throughout the COVID-19 pandemic meant that he saw how the sheer scale of the pandemic caused untold anxiety across the profession.

As a senior leader, Paul was involved in supporting colleagues with compassion whilst keeping up to date with government policy. Delivering up-to-the-minute evidence-based care was challenging as more and more evidence was developed. He noted that the NHS increasingly adopted military terminologies such as ‘control and command’ and ‘battling against’.

Authenticity, self-expression and creativity

After the session, an attendee tweeted: “For me this was the best session of #RCN22 so far, and the shining star was Caitlin. She spoke eloquently about authentic leadership, expressing meaningful emotions and enabling creativity in hierarchical institutions.”

From my perspective, it was valuable to see the functions of leadership and listening be explored by nurses at different stages of their career journeys. I feel confident that the HeaLiN study findings cited by Caitlin will be a useful resource for nurses exploring opportunities for leadership within their roles at any and every stage in their career.

The session Sarah attended was a Learning and Wellbeing Programme event facilitated by the RCN Foundation and RCN Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum at the RCN Congress 2022, Glasgow.