Everything I needed to know about leadership, I learned as an operating room nurse

By Helena Hutton

 As a young operating room nurse, a mentor of mine once asked me a very simple question: why do operating room nurses wear surgical masks?

I was always quite keen to contribute, so I launched into an explanation of how these masks serve a dual purpose. First, they help protect patients and the surgical environment from contaminants carried by health care providers. Second, the masks protect health care providers from being exposed to bodily fluids or other infectious materials. I then capped off my answer with a detailed description of regulatory requirements and industry best practices.

Knowing I had nailed the answer, I waited eagerly for a nugget of praise.  My mentor just smiled and I knew that although technically correct, I was about to be taught a powerful leadership lesson.

She explained that the real reason that operating room nurses, especially those in a leadership role, cover their mouths with surgical masks is to remind them to always listen first and talk later.

This turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Not only did it help guide my 17-year career in operating room nursing, it also helped prepare me for my senior leadership roles in health care.

Right now, I have the privilege of serving as Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer of Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket. As an administrator, my day-to-day responsibilities starkly contrast from my days scrubbing in as an operating room nurse. However, I am proud to say that many of the things I needed to know about leadership, I learned during my time as an operating room nurse.

So often it’s the simplest lessons that are the most poignant, like listen first. Often, formal leaders do most of the talking, advising and directing. But I’ve found that one of the most effective ways to lead is by listening. We must really listen to our patients and families, our staff and our volunteers. Only then can we truly understand their needs and concerns, and serve them best.

Early in my career, I also learned that the very best operating rooms can only deliver excellence in patient care if everyone is working as a team. No one can work in a silo. Everyone from the surgeon, surgical assistant, anaesthesiologist, as well as the nurses must work together.  The most high-performing health care organizations are those who work toward a shared objective and truly value contributions at all levels.

Similarly, leadership should be about enabling teams at the front line to provide the best possible patient care.  Leadership can – and should – be demonstrated from every level of an organization. As leaders, we should be empowering our staff to speak up if they have an idea that could improve the way we do things.  Effective leadership is also knowing when to follow others.

In fact, this is something we believe in so strongly at Southlake Regional Health Centre  that we recently made Speak Up one of our core values. In doing so, we are making a commitment to recognize, uphold and improve service excellence across the organization.

Over the years, I have always admired operating room nurse’s ability to innovate, problem solve and embrace change. And, all this has to be done in a high-stress, time-sensitive environment. An operating room is not the place to crumble under pressure.  Challenges must be faced head-on, and approached with creativity and flexibility. These are traits that any good leader must use on a daily basis.

To this day, I still remember scrubbing in to my first procedure as a nursing student working in the operating room at the University Hospital in London. It was a major abdominal surgery, and I still recall the faces of everyone huddled around the table. I loved the teamwork, intensity and relentless commitment to excellence. I knew right away that this was the job for me. What I didn’t know, was that the lessons I learned in that operating room would prepare me for the leadership role I’m grateful to have now.

Helena is the Executive Vice-President & Chief Operating Officer of Southlake Regional Health Centre. She started her career in 1985 as a nurse at Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, and has worked in different capacities at the Hospital for Sick Children and Trillium Health Centre. She joined Southlake in 2007.

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