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Show Up and Be Kind

7 May 2019

The Dean of the University of Virginia Nursing School, Dorrie Fontaine, will retire this month, and Allison found herself pausing to think about lessons in leadership from a trailblazer in healthcare and higher education.

Tags: allison read, allison watched, healthcare, leadership, thoughtful candor

Dorrie Fontaine, RN, PhD, came to Charlottesville in 2008. I can’t remember exactly how we met, but shortly after her arrival, I started noticing the warmth, humor, and focused presence she brought to each setting we were in together. Eventually, our shared interests in healthcare and especially a culture of patient (and provider) safety and well-being led us to find corners in crowded rooms so we could catch up. Over the last decade, we’ve been in a lot of UVA meetings together including serving on a search committee Dorrie chaired. As she prepares to retire this month and our community is gathering to pay tribute to her, I find myself reflecting on the things she’s taught me about how to lead.

Dorrie is well known for being a trailblazer when it comes to compassionate care and mindfulness. In No Time to Be Nice in the Intensive Care Unit, she and her colleague, Ramon Lavandero, lay out an argument for why a ‘soft’ approach in the work environment is exactly the right way to go about achieving the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) national healthy work environment (HWE) standards. Dorrie believes that if clinicians and administrators move toward these standards that the “health care workplace will have professionals who are engaged, happier, and not looking for other jobs—all while taking better care of patients, their families, and each other.” I think these are goals we can all get behind

In addition to articulating and modeling a workplace environment where people achieve outstanding outcomes while being supportive of one another, Dorrie also consistently demonstrates that 'showing up' is one of the most important things a leader can do. In this video tribute which also includes a transcript, you’ll hear one of Dorrie’s colleagues mention that rather than just attending a free clinic event for 5,000 patients when the Governor would be there, she and her delightful husband, Barry, helped set up the day before, arrived at 4:00 a.m. and worked for the whole day.

Dorrie didn’t just encourage people to try 6:00 a.m. meditation. She was next to them practicing her own stillness. Repeatedly when people talk about Dorrie, they mention that she was just ‘there,’ always present and 'in' the conversation. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Dorrie consistently live out what our friend from the Darden School of Business Lili Powell recommends in her article, 3 Important Lessons on Mindful Communication.

Photo by Jane Haley

You might read about all this warmth, kindness, compassion, and mindfulness and wonder what happens when Dorrie faces conflict. It’s been my great privilege to watch her facilitate difficult conversations where tough feedback and hard decisions were needed. What I also appreciate about Dorrie is that I’ve never seen her calm and kind approach leave a group suffering from weak or indecisive leadership. She has always demonstrated that kindness and thoughtful candor are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, each time I’m with Dorrie we somehow find time to catch up on our personal lives, talk about the joys and struggles of our work, and laugh along the way. She sets a tone that makes all that possible while we accomplish the work in front of us.

Thank you very much, Dorrie. I’ll always be grateful that I’ve had the chance to collaborate with and learn from you. Celebrating you during #NationalNursesWeek feels especially appropriate. I wish you and Barry all the best in your next adventure!


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