The health secretary has once again spoken out about what he intends to do to ensure nursing in this country remains respected and worthy of that respect. One of the things on his hit list is nurse leadership.
If he had eavesdropped on the conversations at last week’s Nursing Times Summit, which was taking place while he made his announcements, he’d have found food for thought.
The event, which brings together directors of nursing and chief nurses from around the UK and Ireland, is Chatham House rules, so I can’t divulge what was said. However, I can tell you that Graham Pink, the former charge nurse who blew the whistle on Stepping Hill over 20 years ago, was a speaker. As was the author Joan Woodcock, who has penned two books about her experiences of nursing from the 1960s to the 1980s - Matron Knows Best and Matron on Call.
Both these nurses’ books reveal their evident passion for their profession and for patients. But that isn’t all these nurse authors have in common. Their books also paint pictures of dictatorial managers - some of whom were bereft of compassion for the workforce and oppressive in imposing their will. Ms Woodcock and her peers accepted the strict regime with a forbearance and sense of humour while Mr Pink kicked back against it.
Nurses who have survived ritual punishment and fear at the hands of their seniors often turn those episodes into humorous anecdotes for their books. But in these days of positive reinforcement, praise and reward, can we really see an era in which many nurses faced abject misery or humiliation as halcyon days?
Other professions seem more able to consign such outmoded role models to the history books, but nurses and the public still seem to celebrate the old-fashioned strictness of matron, and cling to the belief that these figures made patients safer and nurses better.
Many of today’s managers are democratic, fair and sensitive. But as long as nurses hark back to a time when managers and matrons were dictatorial bullies, and recall it with fondness, are we allowing the media, the public and those still in the profession to believe these were better management role models? Are we suggesting that being tolerant, open to discussion and fair is somehow less?
In doing so, we imply that nurses are too weak to make their own decisions, or unable to make the right decisions, and need to be governed by an autocrat who disempowers them. Is that really what’s best for the patient and the profession? I think it’s time to take off the rose-tinted glasses when we look at the past.