Lessons in Leadership

Forefront Magazine, Spring 2019

AAN Living Legend Ruby L. Wilson, EdD, MSN, RN, FAAN, reflects on how effective leadership drives progress

Ruby Wilson's resume reads like a 60-year history of nurse leadership and innovation. Before she earned her master's degree at Case Western Reserve University in 1959, she had already worked with colleagues in nursing and medicine to develop the first clinical master's program in the country. It became a national model for graduate nursing specialization. She later used that expertise to help develop the physician assistant program model.

In 1963, she was appointed the first clinical nurse specialist at Duke Medical Center, with faculty appointments in the nursing school, the medical school and a special appointment in Duke Hospital. She was the only nurse at Duke at the time to have this powerful triad of appointments. In 1971, she became dean of the Duke School of Nursing, with full professorships in nursing and medicine. She maintained that position until 1984 when she became assistant to Duke's chancellor for health affairs.

At the national level, Wilson testified before Congress and helped draft nursing legislation. The American Academy of Nursing and the Institute of Nursing Research. Always the innovator, she she even advocated for a hospital smoke-free policy finally adopted by Duke Medical Center in 2007.

Forefront asked Wilson, now Dean Emerita of Duke Nursing and American Academy of Nursing Living Legend, to discuss the role of the nurse leader.

Forefront: Who was your greatest inspiration?

Wilson: God and my mother. My mother took in convalescents from the nearby hospital, collected used clothing for the less fortunate to wear to church, and used naturopathy techniques passed down for generations.

Forefront: What makes a great leader?

Wilson: A great leader is a visionary guide for an organization. You need to consider the objectives as well as emotional factors when planning for change and its implementation. You also need to recognize progressive steps that others can make while giving them new challenges.

Forefront: Are nurse leaders different from leaders in other fields?

Wilson: The skills that nurse leaders possess are no different from other leaders, but the subjects on which they focus are different. Effective, strong leaders need to be knowledgeable, self-confident, assertive, but flexible. Leaders should eb enthusiastic learners. Take it all in. You should encourage reticent peers to be expressive. At the same time, encourage those who are more activist in nature to be observant. Learn from both.

Forefront: What obstacles did you face in becoming a nurse leader and how did you overcome them?

Wilson: Securing enough funding for research was one of the toughest aspects of my work. I developed a team of people who shared my goals, which helped immensely in this endeavor. Leaders must serve unselfishly, and recognize leadership roles are ones of privilege. You serve no one if a leadership position is misused for self-aggrandizement.