"You Are All Leaders"- Empowering Oncology Nurses to Dream Big and Inspire Others

LAUREN M. GREEN @OncNurseEditor | May 01, 2014
Devon Harris

Devon Harris

Oncology nurses attending today’s keynote at the 2014 ONS Annual Congress received a rousing call to action from speaker Devon Harris, who told a packed arena at the Anaheim Convention Center that recognizing and deploying their own considerable leadership skills can reap manifold benefits for their patients, their peers, and their practices.

“Every single nurse, regardless of position, title, or job description, whether they are working bedside or in the boardroom—you are all leaders,” said Harris. “You guide patients from illness to wellness, helping families to move on, and bring purpose and value to people’s lives.”

A member of the Jamaican bobsled team whose achievements inspired the hit Disney movie Cool Runnings , Harris was brought up in a violent ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica, before moving on to attend the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, England, where he was awarded a Queen’s Commission. He later served as a young officer with the Jamaican Defense Force. During that time, he was selected to the first Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Games in Calgary, and he went on to captain two more Olympic bobsled teams competing in Albertville, France and Nagano, Japan.

These seminal experiences helped to propel Harris to his current work as a motivational speaker and author of two books: Yes I Can and the semiautobiographical Keep on Pushing: Hot Lessons from Cool Runnings. He drew on those experiences in entreating his audience to become “purposeful leaders” and have confidence that they can succeed.

Harris described his unlikely journey to becoming an Olympic champion, not being a “very fast runner” and hailing from a country like Jamaica where the sport was unknown. Their team received only a bit of training from the American team which had competed in the 1980 games in Lake Placid.

During the 1988 Olympics, “our team,” he admitted, “was at first perceived as an amusing sideshow.” That, however, did not deter the group, which “had a vision of succeeding.” Harris said that the way teams view themselves is crucial, and this applies in all settings, including oncology, where practitioners can cultivate their own purposeful leadership qualities and, in so doing, set an example for others.

Devon Harris

Devon Harris discusses leadership at the 39th Annual ONS Congress

First and foremost, stressed Harris, “purposeful leaders are visionaries.” He urged nurses to think about what their “ideal unit would look like, what it would feel like,” no matter how improbable the vision.

“When nurses and others elevate their thinking beyond job title and function, it can energize the whole team, and get it focused on how it approaches its work,” he said. “Purposeful leaders are also good participants” who can then “reveal and release the potential of those around them to become leaders in their own right.”

Another critical element of purposeful leadership is self-evaluation, Harris continued, reminding his audience that “complacency breeds failure.”

He acknowledged the many challenges faced by today’s oncology nurses, including ever-changing and complex treatment protocols, new reimbursement mechanisms, and hospitals assuming a more traditional business model. Although nurses may be experts on pain management, they can experience pain themselves in response to change; yet the pain associated with  change is temporary, unlike the pain of regret, which is permanent, he said.

Drawing on the lessons of his Olympic team’s successes, along with those gleaned from his work on behalf of children and education as the founder of the Keep on Pushing Foundation and Right to Play, Harris said, “There comes a time when you just have to get started,” no matter what the obstacles.

“Stretch your team out of its comfort zone,” Harris urged. “You start where you are and you build.”

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