Role Modelling and ‘Eldership’


Nurses love story telling; I have spent many very happy hours with other nurses telling stories about my experiences and comparing our histories.  We enjoy the humour and fun that we often experience in the day to day delivery of care, its also part of how we share experiences across the generations.

In leadership conversations we often talk about role models and inevitably the conversation turn to stories about our personal role models.  The stories vary – I have my own; a sister who was one of the scariest sisters in the whole hospital but, gosh, did she know her stuff!  It was my final ward, I had sat my finals but was waiting for my results – a brand new shiny ‘almost staff nurse’.  Hodge accepted nothing less than the best and one of my proudest moments was when I was finishing my placement and she offered me a job – I actually got tearful.  I couldn’t take up her offer as I was moving towns but I can still remember her striding around the ward and her knowledge – when I got to be a ward sister in my own right I remembered some of her traits and I tried to be like that.  When I was a student on her ward I always felt safe, which gave me great confidence to practice and I wanted students on my ward to feel the same way.

Recently I started to think more about the conversations we seem to have about role models and how one sided they might be.  We share the stories of our role models and seek to be like them but perhaps don’t think carefully and reflect about our personal position as a role model and leader.  I even did a bit of searching in the literature and while there are some papers there is not as much as I would have expected.  Are we too busy looking at our own role models to reflect on our own position as a role model in an active way?

The term role model was first coined by Merton who was an American Sociologist and has gone on to be a common term in nursing.  Perry (2008) looked at 8 practising nurses who were cited as being exemplary.  They took on responsibility for passing on ‘craft knowledge’ but they also attended to little things, made connections, actively role modelled and affirmed others.

I wonder if we need to think more about our own position as a role model.  We are all role models, whatever we do, and I wonder if we need to reflect more on how we can actively do this?  I do try to ‘set a good example’ but is that enough?  Am I a role model? Certainly I hadn’t actively considered how I might improve this aspect of me, perhaps because I had never even considered that anyone would want to be ‘like’ me!  Perry found that some interventions could only be learnt through effective role modelling and uses the example of silence as advanced nursing intervention and how observing a skilled practitioner use silence is a good example of role modelling a skill that is difficult to learn.

If we are to be positive role models we need to understand who we are; personal insight can play a critical role. I was given a recommended book called ‘Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy’ by Hawkins and Smith (2006).  (Thanks to @DTbarron for the tip off).  In here there is a section called ‘letter to Hans’ where Hawkins describes how individuals need to understand where they are on a progression from experimentation, experience accumulation, full leadership and eldership (p 44-45).

It was the concept of ‘eldership’ that intrigued me.  The idea is that leaders move away from a focus on individual to collective achievement and become practising elders; the move from ‘what can I achieve?’ to ‘what can I help others achieve’ (Hawkins and Smith 2006 p. 48).

I think there may be some lessons here.  I wonder if leaders in the system, particularly those who have been around for a while (I am one of those), need to think carefully about whether we are practicing ‘eldership’, focusing on how we enable emerging leaders to make a real difference through encouragement and a focus on collective achievement, and that this might be through role modelling eldership style?

All comments are welcomed – these are early thoughts.  I certainly am going to reflect on whether I act as an ‘elder’ supporting the development of others to achieve the best that collectively we can.

PS If you Google Eldership you get loads of results relating to eldership in Christianity – that’s not what I’m referring to! – you need to read Hawkins and Smiths’s book:

‘Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy – supervision and development’ Hawkins, P., Smith, N., (2006) Open University Press   

Perry, B., (2008) Role modelling excellence in clinical nursing practice, Nurse Education in Practice 9, 36-44

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9 thoughts on “Role Modelling and ‘Eldership’

  1. Thanks for sharing this encouragement for us all to ‘take on’ eldership, it is only when we truly manage this that our legacy (Covey) will be distributed leadership i.e. succession planning and leadership at all levels. Great blog, really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Thank you for this. Really enjoyed reading this. ‘Eldership’, what a wonderful concept to bring into the NHS.

  3. Like this take. Our work also shows value of ‘patient leaders’ (those influencing strategic level decision making) need to harness their own experiences and agendas for betterment of others. If they cannot make that leap, they will forever be stuck in a form of unprocessed grief or what professionals mislabel as ‘axes to grind’

  4. Good work, Annie. The idea of leadership is very appealing and might even begin to reduce the stigma attached to ageing in our society. Perhapsna return to respecting the wisdom of the elders, as in some other societies.

  5. Hey Anne…great piece. It got me thinking about my role models. What made them ‘role models’ to me. In my clinical practice it was a superintendent radiographer who probably broke every ‘management theory’ rule but just showed me what was important in the job I was doing. She passed on what in Derbyshire we call ‘nous’ which fits into the concept of eldership in an almost prehistoric fashion.

    Current theory of human evolution considers the role of elders in the development of the species. The ability to ‘know’ what we younger members of society haven’t yet learned. There is growing evidence that even amongst pre-homo sapiens there was a common effort to retain such elder knowledge. They have found an early hominid skull of an older individual who had clearly lived a long time without teeth! Possibly demonstrating that the individual was worth keeping alive because she ‘knew’ what her younger family members hadn’t yet learnt.

    Our recognition of role models can surely be considered a modern manifestation of that evolutionary drive.

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  7. Annie,

    Thank you so much, this has really got me thinking about it’s application to caring for the elderly and the principles of learning from and respecting our elders. I have downloaded the briefing from Hawkins and Smith

    Thank you for your insight.

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