Let’s talk about the qualities of leadership.
A little while ago I was at a nursing function, and the speaker was a nursing leader I tremendously respect. There was a bit of back and forth (as there often is at these things) and the conversation somehow fell to outpost nursing, then nursing in First Nations communities, and then to aboriginal communities in general — and then it went off the rails. I won’t say the discussion was racist — actually, let’s forget the tact and diplomacy and call it for what it is — it was racist and ignorant. It was certainly disturbing how little reflection and thought went into the comments from the nurses in the audience, and even more so, how the speaker seemed to enable the discussion.
I am flaming left-winger. I’ve told you this before. I am that person Glenn Beck warned you about. I believe that free speech is not just for the rich and the privileged. I think torture is an absolute wrong, and that politicians who tacitly permit it are criminals. I believe prisons are not only for justice, but for rehabilitation and restoration. I am anti-death penalty. Climate change is fact. And so on. Through my faith community I actually do some direct work associated with First Nations. Their issues and problems (our issues and problems, really) are complicated and, to be honest, controversial. I know, if superficially, some of the challenges faced by aboriginal peoples, not the least of which is the overwhelming legacy of 400 years of policy designed to marginalize them.
I was upset. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve with these things. I had to think about this for a while. I didn’t suppose the speaker (or even her audience) had a racist intent, but then, if the effect is racist, what’s the difference?
At the end of conference, the speaker came up to me. “I saw you were upset,” she said. “I don’t want you to think I was being racist.”
I was, I said, and I did, a little.
“I was speaking,” she said, “out of my profound distress over conditions on the reserves.” She paused. “Can you tell me why I’m wrong?”
So I did. I felt immensely better about the situation. She saw my distress and was able to validate it. I was able do some education around an issue deeply concerning to me, and she asked me to follow-up with more information. I’ve made a contact and a genuine connection with someone who, as I’ve said, I respect greatly. But the real point is how many people — nurses — would see someone obviously upset about the content of her discussion, and not only act on it, but consider their own assumptions flawed?
Leadership takes courage. It takes courage to listen carefully, courage to face contrary opinion, and courage to face the possibility of being wrong. And of course, courage to fix a problem when you see it, and especially if you have created it.
My respect for this nurse, which was pretty high to start with, just went up a few notches.