Leadership doesn't have to mean being the president of your company. Read on for ways to practice leadership, and to develop leadership in others, every day.
I know this is probably your free time, so I shouldn't ask you to think about your job. But this will be easy. I want to know: Where do you see room for improvement where you work? What frustrates you about your job, health care, your profession—and how would you change things? How can you and your colleagues better serve your clients? What do you think occupational therapy students need to know to succeed? What research do you think needs to be done to put your profession on the vanguard of health care? What steps do you think your profession needs to take to flourish? What do you want your job to look like in the future? What do you want for your profession? Take a little time, and picture the answers.
Now that you've got some ideas flowing, here's the hard part: What are you going to do about it? Because you can do something, no matter how small or insignificant you think it is. You can take those ideas dancing around in your brain and act on them each day. And by doing so, you can inspire others to act, too. You can be a leader.
Small Things Count in Large Amounts
Some people get nervous when they envision leadership roles. After all, popular images in the media often depict leaders as individuals in the spotlight—presidents, CEOs, activists—a thought that makes many people uncomfortable. But being a leader doesn't necessarily mean being the lone figure at the top of the pyramid. Sometimes it means being one of the blocks that supports the whole, that enables others to build on the existing structure.
A leader, says Pat (Cannon) Donovan, MS, OTR/L, "is someone who has a vision and is able to articulate it in a way that inspires people to relate to them and move forward toward a goal." An instructor in the Occupational Therapy Department at Worcester State College in Massachusetts, Donovan is pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership and has written her dissertation on exemplary leaders throughout occupational therapy history. She also has examined leadership approaches that the profession could use as it develops its vision for the future. One that she sees as particularly effective for the profession is servant leadership, a philosophy that mirrors the holistic approach of occupational therapy. (Numerous leadership theories and models exist; see the sidebar on page 11 for more information.)
According to Donovan, servant leaders address the needs of followers by empowering them to meet their potential. This can be as simple as an instructor taking time to listen to a student and helping that student develop the skills or obtain the resources necessary to meet his or her goals. Or, it could involve an employee taking on a volunteer role in the workplace to act as a liaison between management and clinicians, ensuring that practitioners on the front lines have the tools and support they need to perform their jobs. In short, servant leadership involves building a sense of community and fostering mutual respect to achieve a vision. As Donovan points out, servant leaders exhibit the following key traits:
- They listen
- They show empathy for others
- They are healers
- They exhibit awareness
- They are persuasive rather than coercive
- They have the ability to conceptualize goals and problems
- They possess foresight
- They demonstrate stewardship
- They are committed to the growth of people
- They are committed to building community
"We do all that with our clients, our staff, and our students. Occupational therapy is about helping people grow," Donovan says.
Of course, different people have different approaches to leading and developing leadership skills in others. Theresa Chop, MS, OTR/L, an instructor in the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program at Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, believes that convincing her students to focus on developing leadership skills will help build a strong occupational therapy community and help the profession grow. She tries to set an example for her students by being involved with her state and national occupational therapy associations. "My teachers influenced me a great deal, and I tried to follow in their footsteps," she says. She belongs to both the Missouri and Kansas Occupational Therapy Associations, and she serves on the Kansas Occupational Therapy Association (KOTA) board of directors and legislative committee. She also has served as a delegate to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Representative Assembly (RA). Chop also incorporates activities into her classes that are designed to foster students' professional participation.
"I try to build into my assignments opportunities for students to attend state association board meetings or to participate in the Greater Kansas City KOTA meetings where they might get an education on a certain topic from practicing therapists," says Chop. For one of her classes, students engage in a professional service-learning activity with two parts. One involves giving service to occupational therapy, such as assisting state associations with different efforts or providing extra help to a local occupational therapy department. "If students choose to give service by assisting KOTA for the fall or spring conference, they help prepare packets and other information and get into the conference for free. They can continue with service there but also attend some of the sessions," she says. "I think it's impressive for them. They get their first taste of how many OTs are in our state, and many are excited by the connections between the educational content of conference and what we are learning in class. Plus, they get exposure to things that intrigue them, like emerging practice areas." The second part of the activity involves marketing the profession. "We've had lots of different marketing projects: from basic informational booths about OT or backpack safety to feature articles to presentations for specific populations—for instance, gardening with arthritis for elderly people—at different community sites like grocery stores. The marketing [component] gives students practice in articulating to the public what occupational therapy is," she explains.
Chop also made sure students were involved in Kansas's recent bid for licensure. "I arranged for students to go with us on appointments to see senators and representatives. They participated in many ways—providing manpower, helping with essential functions, speaking with elected officials about why licensure should be supported in Kansas. We also did office consultations and had group competitions for sharing OT stories with senators and representatives. I wanted to teach them that every person counts, and together we can make a difference," she says. One of the reasons she pushes her students to get involved is because she believes that there is strength in numbers. "When you have more participation, you have a lot more people with experience out there, and they come with wonderful ideas. The more of these great ideas and experience you have, the more diverse and strong our occupational therapy organization will be," she explains. "I see my students as future leaders, so I do everything in my power to let them know that I expect to see them upon graduation, doing what I'm doing and standing side by side with me. I just hope that I'm effective, and they'll want to join me."
As a former instructor at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois, Terry Giese, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA, who now works as a school-based occupational therapist and also operates a part-time private practice, used another tactic to help her occupational therapy students develop leadership skills. Drawing on her own experience as the Illinois delegate to the RA, she set up a simulated RA at Midwestern as part of an Introduction to Research course in the master's level entry program. (AOTA's RA follows Robert's Rules of Order when discussing motions and resolutions that will affect the profession to ensure that all voices are heard.) The main goal of the class was to locate, analyze, and effectively discuss evidence-based research results. "When I started teaching it, both our state and national organizations were talking about how to develop leaders, and one of the main functions of leadership is to objectively discuss issues and come up with the best results based on the evidence," she says. "That's the same thing you're doing with evidence-based practice. So I thought this was a neat way to use the debate format to take a research question—or a practice question—and have the students find evidence on both sides of the question, then prepare to debate either side."
Giese also hoped that participating in the mock RA would increase students' awareness of leadership opportunities in the profession and help them build the confidence to seek out those opportunities. Indeed, the exercise provided an opportunity for students to talk about what the RA does, and to become more familiar with AOTA's role within the profession. What's more, because the RA format gives delegates only two brief opportunities to speak to a topic, students had to learn to articulate their arguments logically and succinctly. They also learned to become more comfortable with public speaking, analyze research, and present ideas and evidence clearly in an effort to persuade others to their points of view. "By practicing this before they graduate, the students are already more comfortable thinking about becoming a state representative than many of their colleagues may be," Giese says.
Although she did not have the experience of a mock RA while completing her occupational therapy assistant curriculum, Lenna Aird, COTA/L, found another reason for taking on a leadership role as a student. "I felt that students—especially OTA students—needed to know that they had a voice in their national association, that AOTA was paying attention to them and that what OTAs were striving to be was worthwhile," she says. Aird, who now works for a school system in eastern Tennessee, was elected to the AOTA Assembly of Student Delegates (ASD). "Some of my fellow students at the time felt like the focus was on the new master's level OT degree and the [occupational therapy doctorate]. I'm fairly outspoken and pretty strongly opinionated, and I thought that if I could get elected, I could make the OTA voice a little louder and bring the issues of the OTA students to the table," she recalls. That experience led to other leadership positions, including serving as the OTA student liaison to AOTA's Commission on Practice and, after graduation, chairing committees for her state association.
Taking the Plunge
Aird understands why some people might be reluctant to take on leadership roles. "There were fears. I was worried about how much time it was going to take because at the time I was a single parent. I worried that I wouldn't be heard even if I did get elected. I was so afraid that if I did get elected that I wouldn't be able to fulfill my obligations. But it all works out. You just have to do, and everything falls into place," she says. Despite her fears, Aird's ASD experience helped her grow professionally and personally. "I learned not only how to interact with my fellow students to work together toward a goal, but also the network that you form when you're in that kind of position was helpful. I now have a wonderful network of people that I can call upon if I have questions or dilemmas in my everyday practice. I was able to take those connections back to my classmates, and that gave me more of a sense of leadership at the local level," she explains. "[ASD] also gave me the experience of being on a committee that had definite goals, and it has helped me be more of a mentor to other students. It really was a wonderful experience because you're not only in a position of responsibility, but you're also able to meet people who are in much higher positions of responsibility and learn from each other."
For Giese, the idea of playing a leadership role in her profession did not occur to her until a colleague in her state occupational therapy association enlisted her help. Although she describes herself as having been involved in leadership roles since childhood (she was appointed to her city youth council at age 13), she says, "I probably was like so many people who think that the state and the national associations are Ã”those people out there.' As far as OT went, I waited until someone invited me. One of my colleagues was the Pediatrics Special Interest chair at the state level, and when she wanted to leave that position, she asked me if I'd be interested in it. Until then, I never would have thought that I could call and volunteer for my profession. I wouldn't have dreamed of it. That's why I like doing the [RA] exercise with students—to show them that [leadership] is just people doing it, and they are as qualified as anyone else to lead. You just have to let people know you want to do it and that you're available."
Cultivating Leaders in the Workplace
Michael Berthelette, MSM, OTR/L, and Jean Blosser, EdD, CCC–SLP, want to see the practitioners they employ get involved in leadership roles. Berthelette is senior vice president of Progressus Therapy, and Blosser is vice president of therapy programs and quality for the company, which provides speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapy assistants, and physical therapist assistants to public school districts around the country, in addition to providing early intervention services in home and school settings. They view leadership by their employees—in the workplace as well as in the community and at the state and national levels—as essential to the success of the company. "Leadership is really a partnership, and for us to achieve quality student outcomes as well as the organizational performance, we must infuse professional practice and leadership skills among all of our clinicians," says Berthelette. "They are the face of Progressus. Without them, there is no Progressus. They have a huge responsibility for customer satisfaction as well as external perception because they're the ones who are out there doing what we educate them to do in school districts and serving children with special needs."
The company has established multiple pathways to encourage leadership. One has been the use of clinical field managers, which are company representatives within a local area. For instance in California, Progressus has an occupational therapy field manager and a speech language pathology manager in Los Angeles. The managers guide interactions between the company's clients and the therapists. "They're acting as clinical mentors, encouraging evidence-based practice, attending IEP [individualized education program] meetings, and helping them with documentation and evaluations. We believe in creating an atmosphere of leadership so that we can help our therapists advance to the next professional level," says Berthelette. As Blosser points out, "We really believe in a collaborative approach to service delivery, in educational relevance, and in making sure that our therapists understand how to link their therapy goals to the school curriculum and standards. So when we communicate to our therapists it's more than about business. It's about service delivery—how can they work within their school setting to really make a difference?"
Progressus directs its professional development and leadership training to two groups: the regional clinical managers and the therapists and assistants. "We focus on bringing [managers] an understanding of their role as mentors and leaders within their professional community, so we've encouraged them to participate in meetings and conferences as well as organizations within their professional communities with the concept that they will bring state-of-the-art information to the therapists they're supervising," Blosser explains. "We've set up several different kinds of communication and training venues to make sure we're getting the word out about state-of-the-art service delivery to our therapists, and that's hard to do when you've got people spread across the country, in different time zones, and with different backgrounds and training."
To reach its employees in more than 150 school districts nationwide, Progressus uses an interactive Web site. This Intranet site contains a professional resource library with articles that are often forwarded by practitioners in the field. In addition, a Therapy Tools and Tips section offers information to help staff with daily service delivery, including the company's philosophy statement, classroom observation forms, and ideas for therapy activities. Every 2 weeks, staff receive an e-mail newsletter, Timely Topics, which also is posted on the Intranet, that covers current trends and issues in the company or in the schools. A Meet the Experts section offers opportunities for online training and for practitioners to ask experts questions, and Progressus is working on a Therapy Chat section to promote online discussions among employees. The site also has a section, Progressus Stars, that recognizes staff achievements. "Part of leadership is to recognize what people are doing that looks like leadership, so that you're setting a standard, giving them role models. Six of our therapists presented sessions at a recent conference, so we've placed their abstracts on our site to let others see that their colleagues are out there, talking about best practices."
Blosser and Berthelette are most proud of the Progressus Therapy Career Launch Program for beginning therapists. This program enables the company to provide therapists new to the school with the mentoring and resources needed to meet the challenges they face in the school setting. Progressus supports its employees' professional development by allotting an annual fund for each therapist to use for continuing education and notifying them of conferences or seminars being offered in their areas. After a year of employment, the company also pays for its practitioners' dues to their particular state and national professional associations, including AOTA. "One of the things Jean and I realized early on— and why we've been successful at creating these leadership skills among our field managers—is that during our 20 years-plus of practice, we both have been active at our state and national professional associations," says Berthelette. "That's where we developed our own leadership skills and best practices. So we pay for our managers and clinicians to be members of these professional organizations because that's where they really learn best practices. They can come back from meetings and provide information to our internal organization. Then we can infuse what we're learning into the school districts where we have partnerships."
Many opportunities exist for occupational therapy practitioners to develop and test their leadership skills, and as the profession moves toward its 100-year anniversary in 2017, those skills will become increasingly important. AOTA is working with occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants from around the world on developing a Centennial Vision for the profession that will position occupational therapy at the forefront of health care. To achieve that vision, occupational therapy clinicians, researchers, scientists, educators, and students must come together as a community and show policymakers, the public, and payers how and why this profession can meet society's needs better than any other group. That will require leadership—not just in the form of volunteers and officeholders in state and national associations, but also behind the scenes, in the places where occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants work and live: in occupational therapy education programs as mentors and role models; in hospitals, schools, skilled nursing facilities, and so on as volunteers on workplace committees or liaisons to management; and in communities as representatives on local boards or councils. As Chop says, "Leadership means taking the leap of faith to go above and beyond the written job description. It means not being afraid to give ideas, to do an extra duty, to review that article, to take that student."
is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.
What Leadership Skills Do You Have?
Readers interested in developing or improving their leadership skills may want to do periodic self-assessments. Contact the human resources department of your organization for recommendations on which self-assessments to use for your setting. A wide array of assessments also are available online (search under "leadership self-assessments") or from your local library.
Leadership Theories Abound
Path-goal, transactional, behavioral, situational—these are just a few of the many leadership theories that exist. Ideas about leadership have evolved through the ages, and there is no shortage of literature on the subject. For a brief primer on the evolution of leadership thought and descriptions of some of the theories, see www.mercer.edu/csil/Resource%20Files/Overview%20of%20Leadership%20Theories.PDF.
The following books provide an overview of classical and modern leadership theories:
Grint, K. (Ed.). (1997). Leadership. Classical, contemporary and critical approaches. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
For More Information
AOTA Leadership Development Institute
In this AOTA leadership development opportunity, participants will explore leadership concepts, analyze their own leadership skills and capacity, review AOTA's and other organizations' leadership opportunities, and find ways to maximize leadership potential as they plot a leadership plan consistent with their other life activities.
This full-day Institute will be held on Wednesday, April 26, just before the start of AOTA's Annual Conference & Expo in Charlotte, North Carolina.
It Takes Occupational Therapy (5-minute video)
By the American Occupational Therapy Association, 2003. Bethesda, MD: Author. ($19 for members, $29 for nonmembers. To order, call 877-404-AOTA or shop online at www.aota.org. Order #8024-MI)
Leading Quietly By J. L. Badaracco, 2002. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Leader to Leader Institute
Developed by the Drucker Foundation, this organization provides information and resources on contemporary nonprofit leadership issues.
Many opportunities for leadership are available through AOTA's Web site at www.aota.org. Click on Volunteer Opportunities or Member Calls to Action. Also check out the Legislative Action Center, Issues & Advocacy, and Listservs.
Occupational Therapy: Making It Possible (10-minute video)
By the American Occupational Therapy Association, 2002. Bethesda, MD: Author. ($24 for members, $32 for nonmembers. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA or shop online at www.aota.org. Order #8019-MI)
The Occupational Therapy Manager (4th ed.)
By the American Occupational Therapy Association, 2003. Bethesda, MD: Author. ($55 for members, $79 for nonmembers. To order, call toll free 877-404-AOTA or shop online at www.aota.org. Order #1390B-MI)
State-Level Opportunities Contact your local state association for ways to get involved in your community.
Brachtesende, A. (2005). Everyday leadership. [Electronic Version]. OT Practice, 11(2), 9–13.
©Copyright 2006. The American Occupational Therapy Association. All rights reserved.