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Leadership: To Do the Thing that is Right…

Guest post by Grant Kinghorn, Nurse Manager – Practice Development Unit | Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network

Many thanks Grant for an inspiring story of great leadership.

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Some years back, my wife and I were travelling in Austria. On the second last night of our holiday as we were walking back to our hotel, we started to walk over a step long bridge between the town and our hotel. We could hear what appeared to be a drunken voice yelling loudly in a very thick German accent. Due to our extremely limited German vocabulary we could not comprehend what he was saying at all. We continued to walk until we got to the crest of the bridge at which point we saw it was a young man who was making all the noise. He was standing on the wrong side of bridge railing, staring into the dark waters below with his hands behind his back hanging on the railing and only an inch of concrete ledge where his feet balanced stopping him from falling.

By the time we got close to the young man, there was already a small group of people standing a couple metres between themselves and him mumbling to themselves in German all seeming unsure of what to do. Just as we’re about to ask the group in our extremely broken German, if we needed to call the police, an older man on a bike who was riding over the bridge stopped near us. He firstly attempted to engage us in German, which he quickly found out was not useful. He then talked to the group of people, who just shrugged their shoulders.

Then, although he appeared extremely anxious, he started to slowly approach the young man talking in a very calm voice. Initially the drunken young man became increasingly agitated and louder. However, the older man continued to approach slowly until his hands were on the railing next to him. To my disbelief, he then put one leg over the railing and leaned over so he could talk to the young man while making eye contact with him. We were shocked that this person was now putting his own life in danger to speak and make eye contact. After a couple of minutes of conversation between the pair, the young man appeared to be calmer and was engaging with the older man. It was soon after this that the older man waved us over and signalled to help pull him back over the railing.

Once the young man was safe on the right side of the railing, he looked to the group of us, smiled and started walking towards the town. The older man picked up his bike and turned to us and said “don’t worry, I’ll look after him” and proceeded to walk next to him. While my wife and I stayed behind in disbelief of what we saw, everyone else who was standing with us on the bridge began to follow the two men back towards the town….

The interesting thing is, years on when people ask about our favourite part of that holiday, we refer to the beautiful scenery or amazing food rather than the time we saw a man almost fall off a bridge. Yet that is the experience that I definitely look back as the most profound. The reason for this is because it strongly reminds me of a mentor who used to describe leadership as ‘not doing the right thing, but the thing that is right’.

This statement of leadership is exactly what I witnessed on that night with the older man on the bike. He could have like us, stood back and ensured his own safety was kept, he could have called emergency services and he could have spoken to the young man from a distance. These would all have been the right thing. Yet he did more than that, and even with the high level of anxiety I could see in him, he went on to get close to the person even to the point where he was risking his own safety. He essentially did the thing that the rest of us we were all afraid or unsure of, or felt incapacitated to do. Even once the young man was safe, he could have believed that his job was done but he didn’t. His words of “I will look after him”, continued to demonstrate the leadership of someone who put others before himself. This obviously resonated with everyone else who followed him afterwards back towards the town. It was as if these people saw that the man on the bike as having the ability to do more than the right thing, he was able to do the thing that was right.

Interestingly, in health care, I often find that because the profession is seen as “difficult”, it results in many people believing that doing a good job means meeting KPIs, fulfilling a job description or related duties. And after all, that is what is expected. That is doing the right thing.

However, when we talk about leadership in health care, we don’t witness people meeting their KPIs or following policy and say “well that’s a great leader because they’re doing the job they get paid for”. Rather, we see greatness in leaders who see situations for what they are and tell themselves and others, “I don’t want this to be like this anymore, because this isn’t right”, “what I can do to make this better for the people around me?”,  “what is my true capacity to influence or change this?”

Essentially, it’s asking; what can I do to make sure that I’m doing the thing that is right.

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