Celebrating Women’s History Month—Learning Important Lessons about Leadership

In 1821, one of the most significant female leaders in American history was born right here in Massachusetts. Clara Barton is best known as the founder of the American Red Cross, as well as a noteworthy leader in my profession of nursing. She was a self-taught nurse, providing care for countless soldiers in the Civil War before bringing the international aid group to the United States.

Barton was quoted as saying “You must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.” Like many fellow nurses, she was fueled by a dedication to service and helping others. I believe this type of empathy and dedication creates the most amazing leaders, and I, like many other leaders, try to follow this advice every single day.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I felt it was appropriate to draw on some of the leadership lessons I have learned from my own career to share with my team and partners.  When I became a nurse, I was motivated to create the most excellent and caring experience for my patients. Today, this is what drives my work as Executive Vice Chancellor at ForHealth Consulting™ at UMass Chan Medical School, where our team is devoted to creating a better healthcare experience for everyone.

To me, leadership matters at all levels and not just in the boardroom. As a nurse, I learned to lead at the bedside by advocating for patients or in the community by speaking for those who could not speak for themselves. Being a leader means being authentic, honest, transparent, trustworthy, and acting with integrity.

Overcome Fear and Take Risks

The lessons I have learned have guided me through challenging and unprecedented times in the last few years. In March 2020, I was asked by state leadership to be the incident command leader for the Veterans’ Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, which faced a horrible outbreak of COVID-19. Although I was confident that I could take on the job, I was scared due to the unknowns. However, as a healthcare professional, my sense of duty and service led me to say “yes” without hesitation. I learned to never let fear stand in the way of doing what you know is right and what you are capable of. Although I knew it would be a very tough task, I had to take a calculated risk which was also an important lesson. Sometimes true leadership requires taking a chance that may scare you initially.

Rely on What You Know

I knew the threat that taking the job at Holyoke could pose to my health and to others. But I also knew that, as a nurse, I had the preparation and knowledge to protect myself and prevent the spread of the virus as much as possible. It’s so critical to rely on your education, training, and experience to guide you during these times.

It Takes a Team

I also learned that during a daunting task like the one that I experienced, it is necessary to rely on others for assistance. Our team at Holyoke could not have managed well during the outbreak without a comprehensive approach that leveraged everyone’s unique skills and talents. It is necessary to learn to ask for and receive help when you need it.

Partnership is Key

I spent nearly six weeks in Holyoke, and the conditions were so severe that we needed assistance from the National Guard. Brigadier General Driscoll was their commander and my partner in coordinating civilian and military efforts; he never left my side. When I finished my work in Holyoke, I thanked him for being such a good partner. And he taught me to never leave your wingman in times of good and bad.

Believe in the Possibility and Relationships Matter

Shortly after this, my father, a 90-year-old Korean war veteran, unfortunately contracted COVID-19. He declined quickly, and, thankfully, he spent his last days peacefully at home surrounded by my siblings and me. One of his biggest wishes was to have full military honors at his funeral, but due to the pandemic, those honors had been suspended. Then, I learned to never say never, because General Driscoll offered his help to fulfill my father’s wishes. When I pulled into the cemetery with my family, the General was there with four other members of the military, and he handed me a flag and thanked me for my father’s service. If I had not gone to Holyoke and served with the General, those military honors would not have been possible. I learned that relationships are everything, and that everything happens for a reason.

These are valuable lessons I have come to appreciate and live by, and they continue to guide what I do professionally and personally. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I think it is important to share what we have discovered with the next generation of leaders, to guide and mentor them as they grow. We learn from those who come before us, model from their experiences, and strive to build upon it to make the world a better place than it was before—just like Clara Barton.