Leaders of the Pack
Molly V. Strzelecki
"Crave the responsibility, not the power."
These are the words of former District of Columbia mayor Sharon Pratt to incoming mayor Adrian Fenty in a November 2006 Washington Post article.1 Pratt may have been giving the advice speaking as one mayor to another, but when it comes to strong leadership, her words ring true no matter what the context.
It goes without saying that leaders come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and any other variable you can throw in. But oftentimes, when we think of leaders we look immediately to elected officials in the profession, be it at the national, state, or local level. Finding everyday leaders in occupational therapy sometimes means taking a closer look at surrounding colleagues, but once the spectrum is widened, leaders in the profession are not hard to find, and seeking out a leadership role is practically at your fingertips.
Start With a Dash of Vision
Defining what makes a leader is not always easy. Ex-mayor Pratt's words are both essential and a good start, but for those unsure what being a leader pertains to, there are a few other common threads.
"A leader has to have a vision," says Rebecca Argabrite Grove, MS, OTR/L, ATP, special education supervisor for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, and past president of the Virginia Occupational Therapy Association. "They have to lead not only with their heads, but also with their hearts."
"A leader has a passion that fires them up," adds Peggy Neufeld, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, assistant professor in the occupational therapy program at Washington University in St. Louis. "They become a champion for something that needs change. Leaders are people who lead change, even if it's a small change—say, in a particular home or hospital floor that you're working on."
"A leader has to be one who engenders trust and respect from other people," says Penelope Moyers, EdD, OTR/L, BCMH, FAOTA, president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. "You can't be a leader without followers, and people won't follow just anyone. A leader is someone who is able to have a vision about where you need to go, and then helps chart a course on how to get there, and is able to help other people get there by removing barriers and developing facilitators."
Although passionate and forward-thinking, leaders, it should be known, do not necessarily seek out the limelight. Rather, they are willing to be part of a process and see problems as opportunities and challenges. A person can be a good leader in any job at any position; what matters most is recognizing opportunity and acting on it.
"Usually a good leader is one who is able to work within a system, and is able to make things happen within a system," Moyers says. "They know who the players are, and they know who they need to get on board with their ideas."
Networking and a genuine interest in getting to know other people are essential in good leadership. Whether you network within the profession, in an outside volunteer opportunity, or in a professional education course, the possibilities to make connections that help create change are abundant.
At age 27, Neufeld became the chairperson of a small occupational therapy program, Downstate Medical Center of State University of New York, in New York City. Although she didn't know if she had all the experience needed to take on such an enormous responsibility, she knew she was up to the challenge, and she knew she would work hard.
"I was excited about it. I knew there were things I could offer, and I knew I wouldn't be doing it alone, but I also knew I needed more skills," Neufeld explains. So she signed up for a women's breakfast course in Manhattan, which helped her build the personal skills she would need in her position as chairperson. "I found a supportive environment for myself. I needed more information and validation that I had skills that I could put into practice.
"Every time you get involved with other people, whether it's a breakfast course, or learning about what you have to offer your employer, and what you think you can do together, you need to be able to reflect on and evaluate what you learned," she continues. "It's an ongoing process. Learning to reflect, evaluating your experience, setting goals, and then seeing how you're doing—that's important."
Looking back, Neufeld credits both the small steps and the bold moves early in her career with getting her where she is today—teaching at a major university and deeply involved with her community. "When I was a young person, I never thought of myself as doing anything I've done now," Neufeld says. "I think [I'm here] because I put myself in a position where I had to learn more. I had to learn how to talk to people and how to negotiate, and exciting things happened."
Combining Practice and Leadership
Being a leader is more than just spearheading projects or stepping out of your comfort zone in your work environment. Sometimes being a leader is as simple as being the person others turn to in time of need. Other times, being a leader is being able to combine leadership qualities and practice skills with ease. Grove describes a way of embodying this form of leadership through a concept she calls "Leading with the 'I's'":
Lead with Intelligence: "Whether you're a practitioner, a manager, or a supervisor, you need to be knowledgeable about what occupational therapy is—the science and the theoretical basis, and the more practical, hands-on, art of occupation—and use that knowledge to make informed decisions," Grove explains.
Lead with Imagination: "Be willing to try something different. Always evaluate and challenge the status quo in order to come up with proactive solutions."
Lead with Inspiration: "You want to get others excited about occupational therapy and what we do, and that's one of the things I thrive on," Grove notes. "It's not about what I do as much as the fact that I can be around people and get them as excited as I feel about occupational therapy and the kinds of things I'm involved with. Inspiration and passion can be contagious when combined with altruism."
Lead with a strong sense of Integrity: "Make sure your actions as a professional really align with your stated value system," Grove concludes. "For all of us as practitioners, our value system is that belief in occupation. If you're always aligning your actions with your beliefs and values, you're building trust and respect with anyone you interact with."
Neufeld adds that practice and leadership go hand-in-hand. "Your actions every day and how you carry out your everyday job show what you believe in and what you see is possible," she says.
Earning trust plays a big role for any leader, but it is especially relevant for leaders in their daily practice. "If people are going to be turning to you for ideas, or if you're going to be sharing something that might be out of the box," Neufeld says, "gaining respect and trust from others is the kind of thing you do as a practitioner." She notes that being able to hand control over to others at times is the key to establishing a mutual sense of trust in daily practice.
Leading Into the Future
Leaders do many things, but one of the most important is to enable others to reach their goals.
"It's a leader's job to build other leaders and create a legacy of leadership," Moyers explains. "Otherwise, whatever you're doing is going to fall apart. As soon as you're gone, it will go away." She adds that even as a young leader, mentoring others and surrounding yourself with other leaders are essential to establishing a successful legacy. "You can tell that you didn't leave a good legacy if you leave and your department doesn't function as well because you're not there," Moyers says. "It should go smoothly, whether you're there or not.
"If we want occupational therapy to really act on changing society, more of us have to be leaders in all kinds of ways," Moyers says, "and not just in the professional association. We need practitioners to be leaders not only in their jobs, but in their communities, and running for elected offices, whether it's on school board or county commissions, or as legislators. We need more practitioners who are not only willing to lead our profession, but to lead the nation."
"Leadership builds community," Neufeld says. "You don't want just one leader, you want lots of leaders to sustain that community. As occupational therapy practitioners we have so much to offer in terms of facilitating leadership and building communities."
1. Pratt, S. (2006, November 5). Advice from an ex-mayor to the next mayor. Washington Post, B8.
A Circle of Leadership
Building the capacity of the profession to influence and lead in the health care arena has been identified as a priority necessary to achieve the American Occupational Therapy Association's (AOTA's) Centennial Vision. As a path toward fostering leadership within occupational therapy, AOTA and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF) launched a cosponsorship of leadership fellowships this year for occupational therapy faculty.
"Three years ago, AOTA, AOTF, and the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy came together to work on common issues within the profession, the need for leadership development was one of those issues," says Ruth Ann Watkins, MBA, OTR/L, FAOTA, president of AOTF.
Watkins notes that in occupational therapy, as in other professions, a large cadre of the work force is made up of baby boomers, many of whom will be retiring in the next several years, particularly from the academic arena. "We decided that we needed to develop leaders throughout the profession for the future, with an initial focus on the academic setting. We looked around for a way to sponsor a leadership initiative and became aware of mentoring circles."
Pairing with Colorado-based The Mentoring Company, mentoring circles is a concept that has been used successfully in large corporations, with lessons consisting of people's personal successes and failures. People share stories and advice, and all the participants within the circle act as mentors for each other, adhering to a strict code of confidentiality. A network is built among the group to continue to help and support each other, and act as sources of information when possible. At the end of 16 mentoring sessions (over a 9-month period), each of the participants have an individualized leadership plan to follow. AOTA and AOTF combined funds to establish fellowships for mentoring circles, and then put out a call for nominations. Out of 58 applicants, 18 were chosen, and the first face-to-face session was held in Colorado in January. "We are focused on the academic setting," Watkins explains, "but it's a very mixed group of people. Some have had a lot of experience in leadership in academic settings but aspire to higher levels. There are people who come from research-intensive programs and universities, and some are from programs and universities where research is not a huge emphasis. There is a mix of years of experience in occupational therapy, levels of academic leadership, areas of interest and expertise, and geographic location. The energy from the group is extremely high.
"We want to build a leadership community. We want to develop leaders and strengthen leadership skills and style, and develop new areas with these people," she continues. "Each individual came with his or her initial aspiration of where they would eventually like to be in a leadership position. With these things in mind, as they go through the mentoring circles they can learn from the mentor, Wendy Coster, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, and each other on how to get where they want to be. Issues include forging interdisciplinary collaboration in a university setting, how to address issues with higher administration, and how to develop scholarship teams with community partners, faculty, and students".
Although this is a pilot program, the initial observation is that many more like it will follow. Watkins notes that the next circle could be on a different focal point of leadership altogether, or it could be concurrent mentoring circles, possibly one in academia and another in a different specialized area. The possibilities are numerous, and the need for leaders in all areas of the profession is prevalent.
"We need people who are occupational therapists at a variety of leadership levels, in a variety of areas," Watkins says. "We would like the people who are in this mentoring group, and in future groups, to get to positions of influence and power where they will also be able to develop others along the way, not only for the benefit of the profession, but also for people who are served by the profession."
A Military Perspective on Leadership
When Len Cancio, OTR/L, MPH, CHT, a colonel in the Army Medical Specialist Corps, talks about what makes a good leader, he cites setting goals, surrounding yourself with good followers, listening to suggestions, and empowering others. "You've got to have good followers who in turn will become your leaders in the future," Cancio says.
The military has formal leadership positions and a formal ranking structure, but good leaders everywhere share similar qualities. The difference with the military lies in the expectation of leadership, and the knowledge that the task will be accomplished.
Recently, the Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, was opened to serve soldiers returning from war with amputations or with severe burns. The army's surgeon general and orthopedic consultant gave Cancio and his colleagues in the army rehabilitation community the assignment to help design the facility, tapping their expert knowledge.
"[In the military], not only do you have the role of being an occupational therapist, but you're also an officer," Cancio explains, "and that gives you responsibilities commensurate with your rank. Not only are you responsible for providing excellent patient care, you're responsible for developing programs, even in areas you might not be familiar with, like the architectural design of an occupational therapy clinic. So you have to research it, and that's part of being both a practitioner and a leader."
Professional knowledge and experience are factors in leadership and rank structure, both formal and informal, Cancio notes. He adds that the military strives to develop its officers, and will test their limits to better develop leadership skills and qualities.
"For example," Cancio explains, "if a captain is working for me in my clinic, I might give him a project that he is not comfortable with, and he would have to go a little bit beyond his comfort level to get that mission accomplished. When officers do that and realize their potential, that's when they become the person others turn to. We are mentoring the leaders of the future and getting them ready for higher responsibilities."
Like civilian leaders, military leaders need to take risks, Cancio says. Occupational therapy practitioners in the military have gone on to highly recognized and respected positions, due in large part to stepping out of their comfort zones, knowing the profession, and capitalizing on personal strengths.
Cancio adds that a good way to become a leader in the profession is through the military. "You're recognized for your strengths and you're given opportunities to challenge yourself. There is no question that what we do as occupational therapy practitioners is absolutely necessary for the rehabilitation of soldiers, and it is totally rewarding. You use all of your skills, and are challenged by the extreme nature of these injuries. It's a fantastic way to improve yourself both professionally and personally."
Why Your Leadership Is Needed Now
The American Occupational Therapy Association's (AOTA's) Centennial Vision (to be realized by the profession's 100th anniversary in 2017) is the following:
We envision that occupational therapy is a powerful, widely recognized, science-driven, and evidence-based profession with a globally connected and diverse workforce meeting society's occupational needs.
"To truly embody that statement, the profession must have the capacity to influence those who make decisions about the care clients receive, about public policy, and about payment for services," says Penelope Moyers, president of AOTA. "We must have people advocating on many different levels and with different audiences on behalf of occupational therapy practitioners and our clients so that people understand what occupational therapy is and how it benefits them. We also must build a cadre of scientists and scholars who can blaze new trails in occupational therapy research and theory and lead new generations to keep expanding those paths. And, we must have the educators and mentors who can transmit their knowledge to students and colleagues and, in the process, contribute to increasing the profession's overall capacity to influence changes in the health care system and lead the way in providing solutions to society's needs." The end results of leadership may sound lofty, but small actions can make a big difference.
Molly V. Strzelecki is the associate editor of OT Practice.
For More Information
Looking for ways to get involved? Go to the Calls to Action Center on AOTA's Web site at www.aota.org. You'll find opportunities to participate in surveys, review papers, provide advocacy, share you ideas for statements, participate in the AOTA governance process, and help make the Centennial Vision a reality.
Strzelecki, M. (2007). Leaders of the pack. [Electronic Version]. OT Practice, 12(7), 16-19.
©Copyright 2007. The American Occupational Therapy Association. All rights reserved.