The true story of a nurse leader
EONS Lifetime Achievement Award holder Sam Smith describes the fascinating personal journey to becoming a leader, paying tribute to those who helped her get there, and describing the pleasure that helping others’ development now gives her.
Leadership is many things and every pathway to becoming a leader is individual and unique. It may be purposefully planned but is more often accidental. My career pathway was entirely fortuitous, although my leadership journey was shaped by a catalogue of personal and professional events, influenced by key people throughout. From my days as a paediatric student nurse my career was always destined to be within teenage and young adult oncology and was enabled by a nursing sister who was a major influence and a catalyst. I have been afforded incredible opportunities during my nursing career which have shaped my journey but the most rewarding aspect has been the ability to enable the development of others. Teenage and young adult cancer nursing is now well established and is being recognised as a sub-specialty. With new and emerging teenage/young adult cancer nursing leaders arising in the UK and across the world, I feel privileged to know them and help shape them in their professional journeys.
Finding my path
I left school at the age of 16 years and spent the best part of nine years working in the travel industry, travelling the globe and working as a ski guide in France during the winter months. In my mid-twenties and with an ultimatum from my parents, I chose to forgo a career with the Mounted Police and chose nursing instead. I qualified as a paediatric nurse and was privileged to spend one of my student placements on the paediatric oncology unit at The Christie Hospital in Manchester, a large European Cancer Centre. It was there I met Sister Linda Scott who would prove to be instrumental in my future career. After spending a few years gaining general acute paediatric experience as a newly qualified nurse (on the advice of Sister Scott) I gained a post as a staff nurse on the paediatric oncology ward which soon reopened as the second Teenage Cancer Trust Unit in the UK in 1996. I later became ward manager for the unit, lead nurse and eventually a nurse consultant for teenagers and young adults with cancer. My progression during my early career was influenced by the support and encouragement of Sister Scott; an enabler and a wonderful role model of what a true leader looks like.
Adolescent and young adult cancer nursing – establishing a sub-speciality
The development of AYA (adolescent and young adult) cancer nursing as a sub-speciality took many years to establish, with many political challenges to overcome. The specialty emerged over time in response to nurses recognising that young people required a very different approach to both children and adults. In the early days, we were largely learning through trial and error, working out the right approaches for this unique patient group. Over a period of 20 years, the development and now recognition of AYA nursing has been achieved and is firmly embedded in practice in the UK and beyond. UK nurses have been the driving force; with the support of other leaders and ambassadors and, of course, with the support of Teenage Cancer Trust.
I have been extremely privileged to have been a part of this movement from the outset and like others have played a leading role in shaping and embedding an age-appropriate approach to care through AYA cancer nursing practice. I am currently the Head of Nursing and Clinical Services at Teenage Cancer Trust and this post has afforded me a unique opportunity to develop a UK-wide strategic approach in AYA cancer nursing. Throughout my career, I have intuitively focussed on team work, developing others and enabling others to lead. In more recent years, I have focussed on leadership, development and education of the UK AYA nursing workforce to ensure we grow the next generation of nurse leaders; many of whom are already now leaders.
You don’t need a grand title to be a leader
It is only recently that I have really reflected upon and identified my core values that have been consistent throughout my career. I have a strong sense of integrity and moral code. I am passionate and persistent and have had to develop resilience. I am not afraid of failure or of getting things wrong, and leaders must be comfortable with that. Throughout my career I have had to take risks and turn challenge into opportunity. I believe that all nurses can be leaders and that you don’t need a grand title to be a leader. However, to be an effective leader you need to be bold and brave, to be that risk taker and to take chances and opportunities as they present. I also strongly believe that good leaders are those that hold that ladder steady for everyone else to climb. Growing and enabling others is fundamental to good leadership and I hope I have gone some way in achieving that during my career so far.
Balancing the personal and the professional
Lastly, it is important to reflect on personal influences that have shaped my pathway. It was only when I was awarded the EONS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 that I took time to stop and reflect on how far we have come in AYA cancer nursing, and this award was truly “one for the team”. It was also a moment that made me reflect and accept how our personal experiences are so intertwined with our professional persona. Experiencing cancer as a young adult at the age of 20 was the catalyst and driving force behind my career development, although it was always kept private as it was something that was in my past and I did not want my nursing journey to be associated with my own cancer experience. However, being diagnosed with cancer again in 2014 was very public; but a positive life changing event. In some ways, my career and work absorbed my life but cancer a second time around grounded me back to my family and I am finally finding balance which is so important. As an effective leader, you must find balance and I am only just getting there with that.
Sam Smith is Head of Nursing and Clinical Services Teenage Cancer Trust, London, and EONS Lifetime Achievement recipient 2015.