Shortages of nursing faculty are expected to worsen at a time when interest and demand for nursing education is increasing. In a national survey of nursing programs, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2017) noted that, in 2016, there were 1,567 faculty vacancies, resulting in a vacancy rate of 7.9%. Over the next decade, it is estimated that one third of current faculty will retire, which will generate concern over the impact to schools of nursing (Fang & Kesten, 2017), particularly academic leadership succession planning efforts.
A decade ago, a national survey of nurse faculty and academic administrators revealed that 63% do not plan to pursue formal leadership positions in nursing education (Adams, 2007). This has translated to an ongoing shortage of academic leaders today (Giddens & Morton, 2018). Numerous challenges to nursing faculty assuming leadership positions in academia have been reported. Issues related to workload, budgetary restrictions, poor relationships with colleagues and current administrators, the potential for conflict, and home and family responsibilities have been cited as rationale for not considering leadership opportunities (Adams, 2007; Delgado & Mitchell, 2016). Many of these same barriers inhibit the ability of nursing programs to maximize leadership qualities of newly hired nurse faculty. The emergence of formal leadership development programs by professional organizations demonstrates the commitment of the nursing profession to the success of current and future leaders (Patterson & Krouse, 2015); however, the demand for leaders still exceeds the supply.
Strong academic nursing leaders are needed to address critical issues in nursing education and clinical practice. A widely recognized gap in leadership development opportunities could be leveraged to bolster interest and confidence for nurse faculty to assume academic leadership positions (Patterson & Krouse, 2015). Acknowledging the importance of both informal and formal leadership roles, recently published studies have investigated competencies necessary for nurse faculty to succeed in all leadership positions (Delgado & Mitchell, 2016; Patterson & Krouse, 2015).
Military nurses, retiring or separating from active duty service, may be a viable solution for filling faculty vacancies, providing informal leadership within the program, or possible succession of formal academic leaders. Military nurse role responsibilities often include supervisory duties, formal and informal mentoring, lifelong learning, and ongoing professional development (Ross, 2010). As such, the military invests significant time and energies toward leadership development for the duration of military service (Elliott, Chargualaf, & Patterson, 2016; Ross, 2010). The result is the addition of highly educated, well-trained, and hardworking faculty to the academic workforce.
A descriptive, qualitative study was conducted to explore the transition experiences of new nurse faculty with previous military experience. The themes representing the process of transition from military to academia are reported elsewhere (Chargualaf, Elliott, & Patterson, 2017). The finding presented and discussed here addresses the theme Meeting the Challenge, through a closer examination of the subtheme Using My Leadership Toolbox, within the context of informal leadership development and succession planning in academia. Institutional review board approval was received from the university.
Aligning with the naturalistic paradigm (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), a convenience sample of nurse Veterans employed for at least 1 year as nurse educators in an accredited nursing program in the United States, following separation from active duty service, were recruited through snowball sampling. The sample was comprised of 13 retired Veteran nurses representing all branches of the Armed Services that commission a nurse corp. The participants were female, averaging 25.8 years in the military, 38.2 years in nursing, and 10.5 years in academia. The participants taught across all degree programs.
A single semistructured interview lasting approximately 60 minutes was used to collect data. Regardless of the number of years in academia, the interview questions and subsequent responses focused on the early transition period representing the time when the Veteran nurses were new educators. Data analysis occurred simultaneously until saturation was achieved. Rigor was demonstrated through triangulation of data sources across academic programs, military branches, and geographical locations. In addition, the research team independently and collectively analyzed data until consensus on themes was reached before validating the findings through member checks.
Meeting the Challenge
Despite previous teaching and staff-development experience, participants acknowledged that the transition from the military to academia was often a difficult one. Nevertheless, they stepped up to meet the challenges. One participant stated:
I guess I thought it would be somewhat similar to teaching what I had taught before, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Because most had no formal preparation for the faculty role, they were caught off guard by unfamiliar academic language and a culture that is fundamentally individualistic in nature—opposite of the team-centered ethos in the military. A participant acknowledged the importance of collaboration in academia, saying:
It's hard because you're trying to foster teamwork with people but at the same time there's a lot of individual accolades that they're trying to get…. Your team is also your competition.
People are much more collaborative in the military. They want to help you.
The participants quickly recognized the dichotomy of values and stressed the importance of “modeling colleagueship.” Regardless of perceived differences between the military and academic cultures, they voiced “a commitment” to doing the job well and “figuring things out” regardless of the challenges encountered.
The participants were self-directed in their pursuit of learning the role and fitting into the academic environment. They were transparent in divulging their needs and sought guidance from colleagues and mentors to bridge perceived gaps in knowledge. As such, they were both assertive and proactive in their approach to getting what was needed, commenting that Veteran faculty were not “going to sit back in the weeds and wait for the dean to tell them to do something” stressing the importance of not “waiting for people to come to you because they won't.” Having the confidence to ask “difficult questions” and sometimes even disrupt the status quo demonstrated the participant's initiative and commitment to fit into the academic environment. One participant even noted, “sometimes you have to make waves to make progress.”
Using My Leadership Toolbox
Opportunities to apply leadership comportment proved invaluable during the transition. A keen sense of situational awareness helped the participants better determine what needed to be done, often before others could, and provided opportunities to assess risk. A willingness to take calculated risks in their teaching practice was exemplified by one participant, who said:
It was trial and error and you see how things go and how it works, and then you adapt and change things based on that.
It became clear that the participants were willing to challenge tradition in favor of innovation. However, one participant acknowledged that your best effort may not yield the intended result, in which case “you have to know when to fall on your sword.” This awareness also translated into an appreciation for the boundaries of rules and the times when the rules could be bent. One participant commented:
Sometimes you have to make allowances within reason, the rules are the rules but sometimes you have to be lenient depending on the situation. Luckily for me, having the military, you get that leadership.
Self-reflection and witness to student successes motivated the new faculty to continue “to step up and learn and do it.”
Grounded in their leadership development in the military, the participants modeled clear and direct communication. Participants perceived colleagues to have more docile patterns of communication than they were accustomed to in the military, stating:
There's a lot of passivity in this environment. Not a lot of direct communication. I communicate directly and that doesn't always work here.
The most surprising were the reactions to their straightforward communication that was perceived as “arrogance.” Through their leadership experiences in the military, the participants were comfortable and confident speaking up, sharing opinions, and having difficult conversations with students instead of “passing people along and making it someone else's problem.” Another participant concurred:
What pulled me through was that leadership piece that we had in the military where you had to counsel people—being able to sit and talk with students and be able to share the negatives.
A third participant discussed how military nurses can easily “translate” their leadership qualities into new environments and circumstances, such as “dealing with a difficult parent or student” or giving “constructive feedback,” which is “valued” in academia. Their effective communication and willingness to address issues were often the impetus for academic administrators to appoint them to chair committees or lead community partnerships.
Evidence of a strong work ethic was evident in the transition experiences shared by participants. One participant stated:
You're coming from the military, you're used to commitment. You're used to sticking something out for three years.
They knew how to work smart, not hard, to balance the “tripartite mission” which included teaching, scholarship, and service. Giving up in the face of mounting challenges was simply not in the cards. Participants recognized that “efficiency,” a sense of “perseverance,” and “flexibility” were key leader attributes that helped them maneuver a new environment and role, while making contributions that had a positive effect on student and program outcomes.
The participants perceived their leadership development as pivotal to their transition. One participant stated:
The leadership skills the military provided were a definite benefit because those are also the things that you need here.
Coming from a military background, the new faculty understood how to “make it happen.” One said:
That's probably why we're successful in academia, because we do it. We figure out a way to get it done.
It was this execution of their previous leadership development that led a participant to say, “everyone wants me for management because of my leadership.”
Participants shared that their academic leaders missed opportunities to maximize on their leadership competencies. Difficulties translating military service experience into terms understood by civilians and an academic structure that provided limited flexibility to capitalize on alternative, yet applicable, work experience were frustrating for these new faculty. One participant stressed:
Recognizing that we're not coming in totally naïve, that we have skills and experiences that can translate really well into academia.
They expressed that academic leaders did not fully understand or appreciate the valuable asset and leadership potential brought by the military nurses. One participant poignantly stated:
You're used to how to manage people and read people and there is a difference between being a manager and being a leader.
Another concurred, stating “I think we're really suited to move into those administrative positions.”
Leadership in academia is essential to the success of nursing education programs and nurse faculty. Yet, there is limited evidence guiding leadership development. The concept of transformational leadership envisioned through Kouzes-Posner's (2017) leadership framework has been suggested as one method of overcoming this issue (Fischer, 2017). Leaders who model the way, challenge the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others to act, and encourage the heart are characterized as exemplary (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). It was evident from the narratives in this study that Veteran nurses found value in applying their previous leadership development during their transition to academia. The participants in this study were steadfast in their pursuit to do what was needed to ensure the success of their students and the nursing program. This included envisioning what was needed with confidence to execute a plan despite possible risk, a perseverance to stick with the new role despite an often-difficult transitional period, and a commitment to modeling personal and professional values such as integrity and collegiality.
Attributes of military nurses align with the characteristics and competencies of effective leaders. In nursing education, strong leaders are problem solvers willing to take risks, act as stewards for the organization and the profession through strategic planning and decision making, and nurture relationships through respectful communication and mentorship (Delgado & Mitchell, 2016; Patterson & Krouse, 2015). The same may be said of military nurses who function effectively in teams unified around a mission, communicate clearly while maintaining confidentiality, are comfortable mentoring, and demonstrate a willingness to take calculated risks to ensure successes and sustainability for an organization (Elliott et al., 2016; Ross, 2010). The participants' drive and determination was evident during their transition to academia, as was their sense of humility. The participants recognized that academia was a completely different culture and despite previous teaching experience, they did not know as much as they thought and thus, needed help. They understood and appreciated the positive effect of informal faculty leaders who were strong yet open-minded.
This study highlights the need for academic administrators to maximize available resources to meet the demand for new leaders, in both informal and formal roles. They are cautioned against assuming that all new educators lack leadership competencies. Many of the same leadership attributes that form the foundation of formal leadership programs are already well-established in military nurses (Ross, 2010). The subtheme using my leadership toolbox reflected the perceptions of these Veteran nurses during the early transition period as a novice academic educator and the competencies they attained and developed while in the military. Credit for the valuable experience gained during military service should be explored as an option to meet the ongoing demand for leadership in all roles in nursing education. Military nurses bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, which needs to be recognized and embraced.
Effective leaders are needed to meet increasing demands on nursing education. Despite significant advancements in leadership development opportunities, shortages of qualified, effective nurse leaders will persist without better succession planning and utilization of available resources. As a result of military service, Veteran nurses possess the leadership attributes of assertiveness, confidence, networking skills, effective communication, integrity, and drive that may translate into informal and formal leadership opportunities in academia. Current academic leaders should consider capitalizing on the leadership knowledge and experience of Veteran nurses as one avenue to address the multitude of challenges facing nursing education.
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