“My definition of a leader”

By Shazia Safi, RN-C, BSN, Nurse Manager @ Kaiser Permanente


My first exposure to a “leader” was at 18. I worked as a Medical Assistant and I remember watching the clinic Director stroll around with his cup of coffee every morning as he critiqued our work. Back then I thought leaders were the people who drove shiny cars and had the corner office. And I knew that’s what I wanted to be some day.

I went on to spend the next several years working all over the country as a travel Nurse. Through every experience, I sub consciously defined what I thought a leader should be. There were many that didn’t make it in to my definition.┬áBut there were many along the way that did……

They were that charge nurse who spent the night reviewing cervical dilatation with me because I had mistaken a cervix as fully dilated and got a scolding from the resident for waking him up. She used every object she could find to teach me, and we laughed in to the morning about the silly mistake I had made. I will never forget how much she simply cared to see me succeed, a new grad Nurse.

She taught me the value of a good mentor and to always pay it forward.

It was the fellow Nurse who insisted she would take care of the full term still birth because I had just found out I was pregnant, and I must have had a look of dread when I saw my name next to that assignment. I had only just met her a few shifts before. Later that night she shared that she never had kids of her own despite years of trying.

She taught me the depth of compassion and empathy.

It was the new C-Suite Executive who threw on scrubs and spent a 12-hour shift with the nursing staff in my department because she wanted to walk in our shoes, she said. She asked about my family and wanted to know my aspirations. From then on, any time I saw her in the halls she stopped to ask how my son was doing – she remembered his name.

She taught me to always be humble and the true meaning of employee engagement.

It was the Anesthesiologist who watched as I stumbled to find the fetal heart rate of a pregnant woman. She had been rushed in to the ED; burned from head to toe by her husband. As the OB Doctor screamed at me to tell him if there was a heartbeat, all I could focus on was her leathery red skin. Suddenly my shaking hand was controlled by that anesthesiologist’s. He calmly guided the doppler as tears trickled from under my mask. He found the heart rate for me and never exchanged a word, but he didn’t need to.
He taught resilience and how to find an inner calm even within the most chaotic moments.

It was the security guard who propped open my office door (it was more like a closet) and placed a fan nearby because he said I didn’t have enough ventilation. He would later become my closest confidant as I navigated the lonely waters of Nurse management. He saw things in me that I never noticed about myself and could read my mood before I spoke.

He taught me self-love and just how valuable it really is to be emotionally intelligent.

But the most important lesson these people taught me was that a Director with the corner office is not necessarily a leader but a caring security guard with a high EQ may very well be.

These are the types of leaders I have learned to trust. The ones I strive to become. And I’ve learned that I can’t sum up the definition of a leader in one sentence. It is one that I continue to add to every day as I come across new leaders and look back on ones that forced me to re-evaluate what it takes to truly be given that title.


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