Linda Burnes Bolton, Catherine Alicia Georges, Rita Wray

“Leadership is service to others.”

Denise Morrison

The number of nurses entering boardrooms across America continues to rise, as discussed in the Nurses on Board Coalition chapter (see  Chapter 49 ). We believe strongly that nurses are obligated to use their knowledge and skill to be of use to others. Serving in the boardroom of America’s organizations is an excellent way to demonstrate the passion we as nurses have for human caring. Being willing to serve and to bring other nurses to boardrooms in our cities, counties, states, and across the nation is a true example of being a servant-leader. In this chapter, we share our volunteer and paid experiences serving on local, state, and national boards.

Getting started

There are many pathways to serving on governing bodies in a leadership position. You may begin by answering the question, “What is my true north?” What am I passionate about and want to actively support?

The first step may be to volunteer for a leadership role in your nursing organization, professional society, parent-teacher group, or family councils within hospital and health care organizations. Select something you care about and to which you are willing to donate your time and efforts. For example, our passion for eliminating health disparities and improving access to social, health, and education services for all led us to pursue leadership positions in our local communities, places of worship, and national organizations. This first step is critical. We have observed nurses join organizations because they want to advance their careers but found themselves feeling burdened by the demands on their time.

Second, discuss your plans with leaders from the organizations you are seeking to serve. Find out if you have the qualifications they seek. If you don’t, determine the steps necessary to obtain the qualifications.

Third, broaden your self-assessment and seek stretch opportunities. Go beyond nursing organizations. Consider leading youth sports groups or something entirely different from health care but that contributes to the support of people of all ages, socioeconomic status, ethnicity/race, gender, and health status.

We cite examples from our leadership journeys on boards, beginning with Dr. Catherine Alicia Georges, EdD, RN, FAAN, an educator, community leader, and Volunteer President of AARP. This is followed by the journey of Rita Wray, MBA, RN-BC, FAAN, a leader in society and health care, a medical-legal consultant, and businesswoman whose leadership journey has been in government, hospitals, and communities. We close with the journey of Linda Burnes Bolton, DrPH, RN, FAAN, one of the leading chief nurse executives in the nation, past president of national nursing organizations, and member of the board of trustees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the largest health care foundations in the world.

Alicia’s journey

Getting appointed or elected to a board is not an accident. My journey to being elected to the Board of Directors of the AARP in 2010 for a 6-year term started a number of years ago. In 2016, I became the President-Elect of the organization and in June of 2018 I became the National Volunteer President of this consumer organization with 38 million members. I remain a member of its board of directors.

Image Authors Linda Burnes Bolton, Rita Wray, and Catherine Alicia Georges.

As a graduate nursing student at New York University, I took an elective course in urban planning and development. One of the assignments was to attend a community meeting and to ascertain how decisions were made in such areas as infrastructure projects and zoning policies that would have a potential impact on community development. The first obstacle was to gain access to the community board meeting in my community in the Bronx. After many barriers and challenges to my right to be present at such meetings, I finally got an invitation to attend as a silent observer. What I observed was the vested interests of board members being politically played out during the meeting, with decisions about projects being based on political affiliations. There was no opportunity for community groups to have their voices heard. I left that meeting perplexed and disappointed in the process.

A few years later, the New York City charter was revised and gave communities an opportunity to influence the local governance process. There was a call for those interested in serving on boards to complete an application and submit it to the borough president in one’s own borough. My application clearly delineated my specific knowledge and skills, which at the time included teaching nursing at Lehman College and being an active member of the New York Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). I had to undergo a series of interviews, culminating in a brief and final interview with the Bronx borough president. I contacted my city councilperson’s office and had a phone interview with him, expressing my interest in serving on the new community boards. I forwarded my resume to his staff and was told a few weeks later that he would support my application. That support was crucial and I was selected by the borough president for the appointment. I served on that board for 18 years and was reappointed by three borough presidents.

During my tenure on that board, I served as secretary, vice chair, and eventually chairperson. As a board member and an officer, I needed to be able to interact with diverse community groups, nongovernmental organizations, governmental agencies, and elected and appointed policymakers; be aware of the issues and have data to support requests for capital and expensive projects; understand public budgets; and be able to interact with the financial experts in the city agencies. Problem solving, negotiation, and conflict resolution were paramount in being an effective community board member, but speaking out and making clear where I stood on issues was also very important.

At the same time, I became active in the local chapter of the NBNA, eventually being elected to the board and then president of the Association. During the time that I served on the boards of my community and the NBNA chapter, I attended various seminars and conferences to expand my knowledge of board governance; improve my performance as a board member; and network with board members from other organizations, which gave me the opportunity to serve on other boards such as CGFNS International (formerly the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools), a credentialing organization for internationally educated nurses and other selected health professionals, and then the Board of Directors of the AARP. I have learned that being a board member requires:

· • Being knowledgeable about the issues that the board will have to confront. That means staying abreast of the changing political and social environments.

· • Being committed to the mission and vision of the organization.

· • Thinking critically and acting strategically as a board member. This requires one to look at facts and evidence and engage in an unbiased analysis of the issue.

· • Understanding governance policies of the board.

· • Being willing to speak out on issues because they are socially just.

· • Always being prepared and having substantive information to share with board members when a contentious issue arises.

· • Giving up professional ego and working collaboratively with other board members.

My journey as a board member on these various boards has been challenging, exciting, and educational. I encourage nurses to undertake this journey to board service.

Rita’s journey

Nurses bring a unique perspective to board service, whether it is visioning, strategic thinking and planning, bringing nursing’s values to policymaking, or attention to fiduciary matters. Because of our academic preparation, work experience, and professional expertise, we also make excellent decision makers and leaders. We use a lens of human caring and patient-centeredness when making decisions, whether on behalf of an individual, population, or organization.

The leadership skills learned in the classroom and honed in the clinical and academic settings are the same skills needed to serve effectively on health care–related and non-health care–related boards and commissions; it is merely a transference and translation of core leader skills combined with a deep sense of commitment, experience, and expertise.

My professional clinical career track includes bedside nurse, nurse educator, nurse executive, nurse entrepreneur, and business owner with cumulative leadership skills that I have found highly transferrable in my role as a state government executive, as well as serving on multiple boards and commissions. Many of those skills were cultivated, recognized, and used within nursing circles as the nursing process. With demonstrated knowledge, ability, candor, and tact, I begin with acknowledging the value all bring to the table, actively listening and data gathering (assessing), solidifying the task (planning), engaging bridge builders, and getting the job done (implementing). After group engagement and buy-in is obtained, I close with my trademark charge: “Let’s do this.” For example, as president of the Greater Jackson Arts Council, I led the board through a visioning exercise where we discerned the need for developing a signature sustainable event (assess). Through our grants program we chose to create new stories with neighborhood associations, emerging artists, community leaders, and major art providers such as museums, symphony, opera, ballet, and theater companies (plan). Begun in 2006, the Storytellers Ball invites all to be a part of the story. It is not only a successful annual black tie fundraiser but a dynamic way of highlighting the collective impact and importance of arts and culture in schools and communities within the capital city (implement).

A snapshot of my board and commission experience is varied and has included:

· • Professional organizations—International Women’s Forum Mississippi Chapter, president-elect; NBNA, treasurer; and Mississippi Action Coalition, co-lead;

· • Private business entities—president of The Capital Club, a 1500-member private business club known for its social and cultural prominence in the capital city of Mississippi; treasurer of the Junior League of Jackson Sustainers Board, an organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of women, and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers;

· • Political organizations—Mississippi Federation of Republican Women, president;

· • Religious organizations—National Advisory Council for the U.S. Catholic Bishops, vice chairperson; and Parish Pastoral Council, president;

· • Community organizations—Greater Jackson Arts Council, president; and Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, strategic planning committee chairperson;

· • Charitable organizations—Susan G. Komen Foundation, president of the Steel Magnolia Chapter; and the American Red Cross, chapter strategic development co-chairperson;

· • Gubernatorial appointee—Mississippi Public Procurement Board, vice president; and Mississippi Commission on the Status of Women, commissioner.

The common thread for all of my board and commission service is an identified passion with the board’s vision and mission; placement in a marketable pool for consideration when skills in communication, decision making, management, and leadership are sought; and investment in credible mentors or sponsors, all of whom were chosen because they were accomplished leaders with a track record of succeeding. These circumstances are then matched with my time, talent, and treasure (making financial contributions or otherwise raising money for the organization) to the board’s mission-driven goals. Skills and attributes such as broad-spectrum credibility, awareness of community needs, and an ability to identify and solve problems will not only bring nurses to the board table but also allow them to ascend as leaders.

If a seat at the boardroom table is your goal, start today to position yourself to be an effective board member and leader. I encourage you to use Rita Wray’s Building Blocks of Board Service:

· • Identify your passion.

· • Network in health care and non–health care settings.

· • Educate yourself on governance issues related to your targeted board or commission, as well as board roles and responsibilities often found in an organization’s literature.

· • Hone, master, and then market your transferable and translatable core leadership skills.

· • Locate a sponsor—an influential current or previous board member, a member of the nominating committee, or an appointing authority—to facilitate your entry to board membership.

· • Once the board seat is attained, tackle intriguing situations. For example, as a university board member, I have been instrumental in securing a multiyear revenue stream for the Nurses On Boards Coalition to facilitate its mission of improving the health of communities and the nation through the service of nurses on boards and commissions.

Take the initiative and prepare yourself to become an effective leader on various boards and commissions. One initiative I found exceedingly beneficial for board development was through my community (and later state) Chamber of Commerce involvement. In 1987, as the first Black Director of Nursing of a 500+ bed hospital in the state of Mississippi, I was 1 of 40 emerging and existing leaders selected in our metro area to participate in the Leadership Jackson inaugural program. The program is designed to educate participants about major community issues and alternate approaches to solutions to community problems. Participants sharpen their leadership skills while gaining a better understanding of various aspects of the community, and the collective impact has been exponential in Jackson and beyond.

Make a habit of succeeding and realizing the collective impact of board service!

Linda’s journey

My first leadership role was as the oldest of nine children in the Burnes family. Learning to lead by listening, demonstrating true concern for another’s point of view, and being kind and generous with one’s time prepared me to embark upon a leadership journey in society. I began by volunteering for local schools to provide assistance to students struggling to advance their scholarship. Subsequently I continued to hone my leadership skills while working with the local Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) as a teen volunteer and with a variety of organizations in a college to learn how to be of service to others.

I served on the boards of national and local nursing organizations and was president of NBNA, the American Academy of Nursing, and the American Organization of Nurse Executives. Throughout my career I have mentored hundreds of students, nurses, physicians, deans, hospital executives, and other civic leaders. Using my knowledge of “Circle Calling”—the ancient art of embracing all for their contributions to improving life—I knew the value of being present in the boardroom.

Currently I serve on three national and several local boards including serving as a trustee at Case Western Reserve University where I have the opportunity to influence the lives of students. My role as vice chair of the Academic Association and Student Lives Committee has enabled me to learn about the issues facing young professionals and to work with them to improve their opportunity for giving back to society. Each board member is expected to make a yearly financial contribution as part of their corporate stewardship obligations. My role on the California Health Impact board of directors has helped to advance the attraction, support, and development of diverse individuals into the profession of nursing. I am also a trustee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and have advocated for the organization’s efforts to promote a Culture of Health where all have the opportunity to achieve and sustain health. My contributions as a nurse leader on the board include providing important information to the Foundation and my fellow board members regarding nursing’s contributions to promoting a culture of health.

I have dedicated much time and financial support to the organizations I serve. The role of giving is very important. It isn’t necessary to be a millionaire to serve but it is important that all board members contribute. In Fortunes of Change,  Callahan (2017)  describes the influence of wealth on boards and proposes that boards are better served when they have individuals from all backgrounds as members, not just the wealthy and elite.

Nurses are valuable members of society, as we continue to be identified as one of the most trusted professions by consumers. Society needs our leadership. Step forward and let others know you are willing to serve!


Callahan D. The givers 2017; Alfred A. Knopf. New York.