Nurturing academic leadership the NFLA way

Angela Opsahl, Sara Horton-Deutsch, and Barbara Manz Friesth |

Sigma’s Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy supports junior faculty. 

Faculty Advisor Barbara Manz Friesth (left), Scholar Angela Opsahl, and Leadership Mentor Sara Horton-Deutsch.

A Scholar, Leadership Mentor, and Faculty Advisor share perspectives about the academy.

The nursing profession is faced with an inadequate supply of nurse leaders with the expertise to take on challenging roles in academia. Fostering an environment conducive to retention and advancement is critical for schools of nursing. As higher education becomes increasingly complex, faculty members need support to develop positive leadership skills that increase productivity, improve outcomes, and sustain nursing programs. How do we meet the challenges of global nursing leadership succession?

Since 2012, Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma), in partnership with The Elsevier Foundation, has offered an international leadership development program, the Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (NFLA), to support nurse faculty early in their careers.  

The purpose of the NFLA is to help aspiring junior faculty in personal leadership development, foster their career success, promote faculty retention and satisfaction, and cultivate high-performing and positive work environments. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, provides a supportive framework to identify areas of improvement. A key foundation of this approach is that leadership in any setting must be nurtured and, most importantly, can be learned.

The academy curriculum supports NFLA Scholars in three domains: 1) developing individual leadership, 2) leading a team project to advance nursing education, and 3) expanding scope of influence within academic institutions, communities, and the profession.

The members of our triad—Scholar Angela Opsahl, Leadership Mentor Sara Horton-Deutsch, and Faculty Advisor Barbara Manz Friesth—offer their perspectives on the NFLA leadership journey.

Angela Opsahl: My perspective as NFLA Scholar
The NFLA program has offered me, a junior faculty member, an opportunity to improve my personal leadership skills through mentoring from veteran nursing education leaders. Many nursing faculty encounter administrators who are transactional leaders. With assistance from my Leadership Mentor and Faculty Advisor, I have become a more transformational leader. The challenges I experienced helped me to stretch and grow both personally and professionally to better support the school of nursing and larger community. Although personal and professional growth are not mutually exclusive in the three domains identified by Kouzes and Posner, I will address them separately.

Developing individual leadership
My Leadership Mentor and Faculty Advisor supported and nurtured me as I developed leadership skills. They shared their knowledge, encouraged and challenged me, and were my advocates. At our first workshop, I stepped out of my comfort zone to seek feedback, and I made our regularly scheduled communication a priority. Their observations and suggestions contributed to my development, and their encouragement to reflect on my actions while engaging in leadership activities was helpful.

I learned that I need to slow down when I am trying to accomplish several tasks in a short period of time. I also became aware of the importance of delegating tasks to others (allowing them to shine) and taking extra time to invite input from others, thus introducing more diverse opinions for a richer overall exchange.

The mentoring I have received through the NFLA has helped me examine and build my leadership skills so I can support fellow faculty members and facilitate initiatives more effectively in the larger nursing community.

Before I participated in the NFLA, my long-term professional goals were centered on being promoted and achieving tenure on a smaller college campus. Now my long-term goals have expanded to teaching in a much larger nursing education program while serving in a leadership role beyond the local level to have greater influence on my profession. Through the academy, I have learned the importance of reaching out to others and voicing my preferences for future consideration, which I would not have done in the past.

Leading a team project
During the academy, I became more personally engaged with my previous school of nursing through my team project, which involved leading a multivariate program assessment dashboard. Most schools of nursing are looking for enhanced opportunities to connect with the community and build closer relationships through collaboration. My individual leadership changes focused on taking more time to pause, inquire, and reflect on peer relationships and interactions with others. These changes have helped me model the way for others and enable others to act, while becoming a more effective, mindful leader. Through the NFLA process, I have increased my self-awareness and social awareness and have grown as a faculty member and leader—we always have room for growth.

Angela Opsahl and Barbara Manz Friesth Professionally, I found that when I used active listening practices, more members of our program offered suggestions and contributions, resulting in a richer, more cohesive process as we worked together to define our core values. I also learned to build in time for discussion when leading a meeting and, through active listening, to convey my understanding of what others say. By seeking input from my peers, I recognized the skills and value of others. With significant support from the community based on data from the dashboard, the decision was made to expand both the number of students enrolled and the types of education levels offered in the nursing program.

Expanding scope of influence
My scope of influence has flourished with dissemination of my scholarship and community recognition of my contributions. Within the nursing education community, they included publication of five manuscripts and acceptance of three grant submissions, six abstracts for poster presentations, and four abstracts for national and international podium speaker presentations. In addition, I was honored to receive the 2017 Sigma Alpha Chapter Excellence in Leadership Award.

Before participating in the NFLA, I did not see myself as capable of taking those steps toward advancing my professional career and expanding my role in the community. Most recently, I accepted a tenure-track faculty position at the largest campus within the statewide university system, affording me greater opportunities for professional growth and expansion. Two examples of my advancement at the regional level are my elections as president of the Indiana Association for Healthcare Quality and treasurer of Sigma’s Alpha Chapter.

The NFLA program has given me the opportunity to build on my gifts and talents, gain valuable personal connections, and capitalize on the support of expert mentors to realize my potential!

Sara Horton-Deutsch: My perspective as NFLA Leadership Mentor
What is so crucial about the NFLA is that it is not as much about the project as it is about how one engages in the process—an inner journey of expanding self and other awareness and then practicing new leadership behaviors based on this new understanding, knowledge, and wisdom.

From the examples Angela Opsahl provided above, we see how her increasing self-awareness expanded her capacity for other awareness as well. She became more curious, asked more questions, and spent more time listening. As a result, she built stronger and more trusting relationships. She became more open to the ideas of others and developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for her colleagues. She began to see that attending to team collaboration was just as, if not more, important than accomplishing the goal.

As Leadership Mentor, I supported Angela in the process of developing an expanded self and other awareness by regularly processing her interactions, asking questions, listening and guiding, and encouraging her toward a deeper understanding of herself and others. During regular triad conference calls, we processed challenges by looking at multiple perspectives to broaden our understanding of each stakeholder in a given situation. Through this new lens, possible solutions arose that were previously hidden. The beauty of the triad was that we each brought a unique set of skills to the team and were able to capture a broader viewpoint by bringing those skills together.

Over the course of the 20-month program, the emphasis moved from inner work to outer work. As Angela developed greater self and other awareness, she naturally developed skills in relating more effectively with others. She readily transferred what she learned from triad meetings to her work with administrators, colleagues, community partners, and students.

Ultimately, by taking the time to slow down and include others, Angela and her colleagues expanded their contributions to the college. Both personally and professionally, she expanded her influence and set the stage for a more challenging role in a larger academic setting that resulted in professional advancement.

Barbara Manz Friesth: My perspective as Faculty Advisor
The NFLA is an intense international leadership development experience built on the foundation of the three domains described earlier. Scholars and Leadership Mentors actively engage in two intensive leadership development workshops over the course of the 20-month program and commit to meeting regularly within their dyad and triad relationships.

In addition, Scholars had monthly opportunities to connect with their peer Scholars, while engaging in ongoing learning activities designed by Faculty Advisors. Throughout the academy, the Faculty Advisor serves as a resource for the Scholar in navigating the associated NFLA experiences. The triad works together to ensure the Scholar is meeting his or her leadership development goals.

Seeing the leadership development and growth of junior faculty members, such as Angela, is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of my role as Faculty Advisor. In addition, the relationships forged among Scholars, Leadership Mentors, and Faculty Advisors are both deep and enduring—and probably the second most rewarding aspect to me personally. These relationships continue to foster collaboration and provide a support network long after Scholars leave the academy.

Many nurses of the baby boomer generation are retiring, and developing junior leaders to advance nursing education now and in the future is more important than ever. The NFLA provides the mentoring and support to develop leadership behaviors so in demand in nursing education today. RNL

Angela Opsahl, DNP, RN, CPHQ, is assistant professor at Indiana University School of Nursing in Bloomington, Indiana, USA.

Sara Horton-Deutsch, PhD, RN, FAAN, ANEF, Caritas Coach, is professor at University of San Francisco School of Nursing and Health Professions in San Francisco, California, USA.

Barbara Manz Friesth, PhD, RN, is assistant dean of learning resources and clinical professor at Indiana University School of Nursing in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.

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