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Courage, kindness and thermostats: nursing trailblazer Sonia Martin shares her leadership strategy

Introduction by Croakey: At the recent National Nursing Forum, award-winning nurse Sonia Martin shared her journey from a secure full-time job with Queensland Health to starting and running a mobile outreach health service for people experiencing homelessness.

“At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the change, but I know now with certainty that at any moment, any one of us has the power to change and lead our lives for the better,” she said.

Recognised for founding Sunny Street – a social enterprise aimed at bridging the gap between general practice and the emergency department – Martin delivered a powerful and emotive keynote about courage, kindness in leadership, and thermostats.

She was the 2021 recipient of the Health Minister’s Award for Nursing Trailblazers; the 2022 award recognises Claire Lane for founding the not-for-profit Save Our Supplies (SOS) in 2012 in Brisbane,  which takes on the challenge of addressing the enormous waste in the hospital system.

Read Martin’s full presentation below, delivered at the conference on 17 August.


Sonia Martin writes:

Congratulations to the finalists for the 2022 Health Minister’s Nursing Trailblazer Awards! As you have heard from my bio, my name is Sonia Martin. I also sit in gratitude for receiving the 2021 Health Minister’s Nursing Trailblazer Award. Thank you.

It is always exciting to see nurses honoured and praised for their exceptional work in Australia. It gives nurses an opportunity to be seen, to have a voice, and to be recognised as innovators, leaders and in some cases, recognised in the Australian business landscape.

I’m grateful to speak here today and to have been invited by the Australian College of Nursing to share my reflections on the theme of this year’s National Nursing Forum – ‘Nursing Leadership Unmasked’.

Now, this is a topic close to my heart, and actually, for the last 12 months, on my whiteboard at work, just above my desk, are the handwritten words ‘Unmasking the Professional Self’.

‘Unmasking the Professional Self’ has been quite a journey for me personally – and I’ll tell you what – to slowly breakdown the masks that haven’t served me has taken courage, dipping into the good ole’ vulnerability pool more days than you can imagine, and it takes a daily hand-written reminder plastered above my work desk on my wall.

If you’ve never met me before, you may be wondering why I’m standing up here and why I am fortunate enough to tell you a little about my journey of courage and leadership, how I unmasked my professional self, why I believe that kindness is a modern-day leadership strategy, and where thermostats fit into your leadership journey. Sounds fun right?

Courage

Let’s begin with where I truly introduced myself, or formally introduced myself to courage.

In 2018 I completely changed my life through one decision and the resultant action. But, lets go back to 2017. In 2017 I worked as a full-time Nurse Unit Manager in the public health system. My role was to manage the complex discharge coordination team across five hospital groups within around 110 kilometres of each other.

During this role, I began to take a particular interest in the people who were representing to the local Emergency Departments. These were the same people my team were still trying to discharge a week, or months later due to their complexity and lack of support, transport, finances and other barriers.

I came to the conclusion that if I could figure out a way to find a solution, it would be of great benefit to the patient, the hospital, and my hard-working team.

I put a business case together – gotta love business cases!! – to the hospital and the local Primary Health Network to allow me to create and fulfil a role to focus specifically on supporting these patients representing in crisis. Fortunately, the business case was approved. I was quite proud of myself and employed a person immediately.

Unfortunately, over the next eight months the data proved that we were making minimal impact. We had linked into nurse navigators, community organisations, and local GPs. We had barely closed the gap.

One evening, alongside a friend, I attended a local palliative care fundraiser to support the wonderful work our incredible palliative care team were doing. With a swift purchase of one ticket, we were promised wine, nibblies, a movie and networking. I was in!

Little did I know that by watching this fundraising movie, I was about to change the trajectory of my career and my life forever.

The movie shown was essentially about a palliative care doctor in India who had decided to stop walking past people living in poverty on the streets. More specifically, those who were homeless, and were dying in the streets – alone – in pain – and invisible to passers-by.

This doctor decided to set up a warehouse as a healthcare space – took on volunteer nurses – and transported these people dying in the streets to this health space. His team held space, provided pain relief, administered desperately needed healthcare, and held the hands of those in need, therefore allowing people to die with dignity, in the presence of another and love. It was profound to watch.

At the end of this movie, this good doctor asked the question of the audience ‘What are you doing to care for your communities most vulnerable?” The movie ended. The curtains closed.

I sat in my chair completed flawed by this question. What was I doing to care for our community’s most vulnerable?

To be fair to myself, I was trying to do everything I could for people experiencing homelessness and complex vulnerability who presented to the emergency department. I had also created a new position to help solve the issue.

But, after eight months with the new role we weren’t hitting the mark. It was the end of 2017 and I decided to take time off over Christmas to reconsider things.

Ten days later I returned to work and faced the same issues.

However, I had now made a concrete decision to leave my permanent Queensland Health full-time role. I decided that to make a real impact and to bridge the gap between ED and GP-land for vulnerable people, I needed to bravely step into the fray myself.

For me, that decision meant jumpstarting my personal journey of courageous decision making. It meant leaning into vulnerability – knowing I was about to release my permanent role, decrease my wage and change my career.

But I needed to back myself on this one, to truly take a chance at creating an equitable, accessible healthcare alternative for vulnerable Queenslanders.

So, on 19 March 2018, with shaking hands, and not being entirely sure that I was doing the right thing – according to my friends and family – I typed up my resignation letter via email as a permanent full-time Nurse Unit Manager in Queensland Health and pressed send. I had resigned.

That one decision and one brave action has resulted in my life trajectory completely changing course. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of the change, but I know now with certainty that at any moment, any one of us has the power to change and lead our lives for the better.

We are literally one decision away from making that change. Every decision we make causes either a continuation or a deviation from our decided pathways. That’s pretty powerful stuff, right?

No doubt many of you are in between decisions right now – weighing up the pros and cons, considering the risk, and making sure you have a healthy Plan B – unlike me!

If fear is holding you back, it’s worth looking into a process called ‘fear setting’. It has helped me whenever bravery is required, and also when fear raises its head.

So – back to the story – and what happened as a result of my resignation in 2018?

New beginnings

In the last four years, alongside my business partner, I created a mobile outreach health service to bridge the gap for vulnerable Australians between emergency department and general practice-land.

Its name is Sunny Street and the state-wide based service cares for Queenslanders living in poverty, those experiencing homelessness, people in community corrections or post-prison sentencing, sex workers and those with complex vulnerabilities.

Our youngest patient was two weeks old and our oldest patient was 86-years-old.

Photo supplied by Sonia Martin

This service honestly started from the back of my car with some badly formatted forms, a community nursing kit, and a doctor’s kit.

Today Sunny Street is a state-wide award-winning service. Sunny Street has had over 35,000 conversations and consultations in the last four years and continues to change and save lives.

But courage doesn’t have to be a dramatic action, such as the one I took.

It can be the act of choosing to show up in a day, or in a meeting, to raise your inner voice for yourself and others, to submit that business case, to advocate for funding, submit your resume, or on days when life feels tough, courage is simply giving yourself permission to be kind to yourself, take it easy, and go as slow as your body and mind require you to.

Courage is an act of rebellion. Courage is an act of self-love.

With every intuitive, courageous decision you make, you choose you. Your own values, and therefore intentionally decide how to lead your day, year or life.

Today I’m wearing my Fearless Leader t-shirt. I wanted to share with you why I wore this shirt. You see, some of my team refer to me as a Fearless Leader.

Whilst it may certainly seem this way, almost everyday as the founder of Sunny Street, fear sits with me. Sidles up against me. Without consent. Either way, fear is here to stay for all of us.

I just try to make courage it’s best friend.

Kindness

I’d love to shift here into the next topic promised – kindness is a modern day leadership strategy.

Now, when I began my nursing career journey 30 years ago, leadership philosophies I experienced were basically management strategies.

In the early days, although I have experienced these following outdated leadership traits not so long ago, commanding attitudes, power imbalanced infused attitudes, competitiveness and leading with a distinct air of unapproachability, were common tools amongst some managers.

As a young nurse I’ve had the concept of hierarchy etched into my professional soul.

As I have moved through my own leadership career, I have slowly and courageously infused kindness and compassion into my leadership skill set. Kindness is a value I hold close to my heart now and encourage within my teams as an everyday philosophy.

I want to let you know that kindness in leadership is still often seen as a weakness with more typical ‘success traits’ such as power, domination and control still in major play.

No doubt you’ve seen it, felt it, and worked with it. I want to let you know right here, right now, that having a ‘kindness first’ approach is a seriously courageous move. It isn’t the norm – yet.

But through my work, my company, and with my teams, I’m working hard to change that in my space. I would encourage you to look at how you can infuse a kind and genuine approach to both yourself and your teams.

Choosing to be compassionate and kind as a leader, in a workplace which typically requires functionality and pace, means that we need to pause and remove some of the emotional masks that we wear day in and day out. Some of these emotional masks are called anger, fear, frustration, expectation, judgement, feeling like we’re not good enough…the list goes on. It takes work, but anything worthwhile does.

Throwing away the masks that keep us distanced and displaying the more typical ‘success traits’ is vital for us to move into a space of courageous decision making, action and kindness.

Leading in kindness means working on understanding who you are, what your values are, listening to your self or intuition, and bravely leading from the heart. We need to drop the masks which keep us distanced from our own humanity, and chose to connect with each other, to lead into the future.

Being a kind, authentic leader is not a weakness. It is a superpower which empowers you and your teams, increases joy in the workplace, establishes trust, encourages warm connection, and allows you to know that you are bringing the most authentic version of yourself to the forefront.

Kindness is a modern day leadership strategy that gets results.

Thermostats

We’ve talked about unmasking our leadership by working in spaces of courage and kindness. But I did promise you I’d talk about being a Thermostat. I know – bizarre concept right? Hear me out!

This last segment we can call ‘how to be the thermostat, and not the thermometer.’

For a long time in nursing, until I began to really establish my own foundation underneath myself – you know – growing my own roots into the ground wherever I stood, and trusting myself, I used to feel as though I was on shaky ground depending on the external influences or environment. I now realise I was being a thermometer.

By being a thermometer, I mean that I was quite often influenced by the moods, drama and expectations of those around me. I wante