Leadership is a Lifelong Journey

Schola Matovu, RN, PhD: Assistant Professor | Director of Global Learning and Engagement (interim) at the University of Utah College of Nursing | WomenLift Health Alum (North America, 2021-2022 Cohort).

In honor of International Nurses Day, Schola Matovu, an alumna of WomenLift Health’s North America 2021 cohort, reflects on her identity as a nurse, a woman, and a leader, and how the Leadership Journey inspired her to lead with authenticity and resilience.

Most nurses I know work in extremely demanding conditions. Yet, they never waver in their dedication to provide quality patient care, all while neglecting their own development needs and well-being. I have met many nurses and women from diverse geographic, cultural, and education backgrounds, and this pattern of self-neglect stems from shared gendered challenges that we experience at both micro and macro levels. Deep-rooted structural inequalities and patriarchal values make it tougher for us to advocate for ourselves at home and at work. I believe that the solutions to those challenges reside in each of us realizing our capacity to effect the change that we desire in ourselves and the global health spaces that we live and work in. This realization has allowed me to examine my own privilege and explore ways in which I can use my superpowers for good to empower others.

My Inspiration

My leadership journey has been nurtured and inspired by strong women leaders who are my mentors and role models, and on whose shoulders I stand. My first role model was my jajja (grandma) Matilda, who raised me in rural Uganda. I observed how jajja was revered as an informal nurse in our village. She provided herbal remedies to treat minor ailments and delivered babies, making a difference in a community with no access to health care. Although she could neither read nor write, I knew early on that I wanted to emulate her and pursue a nursing career that would take a holistic approach to caring for and studying marginalized grandmother-caregivers at the intersections of their families, communities, and global context.

As a scientist, I have been mentored by the best of women leaders in our profession whose expertise and leadership have inspired me to strive to advance health. Other giants have come before me and paved the way for me to advocate for those whose voices are less audible. Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African-American nurse, fought against discrimination and racism in nursing. Her words, “Nursing is a journey of lifelong learning, and a nurse’s legacy is written in the lives they touch,” continue to propel me on my leadership journey. 

My Vision

I envision a health care system with nurses who are empowered with the leadership skills needed to navigate the structural and cultural barriers that hinder them from “being at the table” where key care decisions are made. I envision nursing workforce that can advocate for health equity, inclusion, and justice for themselves and the populations they serve. That vision inspired me to co-found (with my colleague and friend, Dr. Linda Gregory) a nonprofit, Nurse-to-Nurse Global Initiative (NTNGI), whose mission is to promote and empower nurse leadership and professional development, especially for those in low-resourced settings.

As an evolving nurse leader within my department, institution, nationally, and globally, I strive to serve as a transformational leader who will inspire the next generation of nurses to lead initiatives and develop innovative and inclusive ideas within health care systems. I seek out opportunities that enrich my leadership development because I firmly believe that lifelong learning is an essential component of becoming a successful and influential leader. One of these opportunities was my 12-month WomenLift Health Leadership Journey that enabled me to dare to lead with authenticity, embrace change, adopt a growth and global mindset, and fully realize my personal and professional mission. I continue to seek such leadership development opportunities that will accelerate my growth into the innovative and transformational nursing leader and impactful global health scientist that I aspire to become.

The Challenges Ahead

I have also developed a deep appreciation for the complexity of the challenges experienced by nurses in the global community, as well as the need for collaborative and meaningful engagement of diverse expertise for solutions. For example, nurses are the largest health care workforce, yet they are often underrepresented in leadership roles. As part of my WomenLift Health Leadership Project, I contributed to addressing this inequality by designing and leading a pilot Collaborative Online Transcultural Education (COTE) training program (in partnership with faculty, students, and staff of Utah College of Nursing, NTNGI, and Aga Khan University, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Uganda). The COTE program aimed to prepare nurses to provide quality patient care with cultural humility and to lead initiatives with confidence, equity, and inclusion through the development of leadership and global learning competencies. As I continue on my own lifelong leadership journey, I am inspired by the words of civil rights champion, Mary Church Terrell: “Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go.” I aim to lift others as I climb on my own ongoing journey of self-discovery and continuous improvement.

Lessons for Nurse Leaders

Know Thyself. Every nurse, regardless of their experience, is at a particular stage of their leadership development. So, at every stage, lead not with perfection but passion, authenticity, and your core values as the guiding star. For example, examine your privilege (class, gender, race, education, etc.) and explore ways in which you can use your superpowers for good to empower others. While navigating predominantly White spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant to the United States, I am continually challenged to prove my personal and professional worth. For example, I have been called the N-word by patients and responded to microaggressions from my colleagues such as, “Wow, you are articulate, where did you learn English from?” If I didn’t have a strong sense of who I am, I would not have survived such hurdles. Due to these experiences, I strive to create safe spaces for all—especially nurses from minoritized groups—to take up space as their true authentic selves in spite of the forces against them.

Take Care of Yourself. As health care providers and women, we often take care of everyone around us except ourselves. We must have the courage to lead with our values while safeguarding our mental and physical health, especially when the environments in which we live, or work fail to support our well-being. Give yourself grace. Walk with your head held high. Pamper yourself. Make time to fill your cup. Eat the cupcake. Paint your nails neon green. Rock a mohawk! You are worthy and phenomenal! I have to remind myself of that every day as I raise a future woman leader and model conscious and authentic leadership at home and at work.

Dream It, Strive for It, and Be It. Embark on your own journey of self-discovery with conviction and resilience. Be willing and ready to fail, fall, and get up again. As women in health and in society, all across various intersections of our identities, we are dealing with systems and people who are constantly questioning our worth and capabilities, reminding us to stay in our place, be polite and nice, and not cause any trouble. We must be willing to challenge the status quo, speak up for ourselves and our patients, and dare to get in some good and necessary trouble along the way. We must demand access to the rooms and spaces where key decisions are made that impact us and the populations that we serve; then take our rightful seat at the table. Don’t forget to bring a chair with you in case there isn’t one provided. Take that course, earn that degree, read that book, attend that conference, apply to that program (such as WomenLift Health Leadership Journey!), do whatever it takes to empower yourself, lead yourself. When you learn the art of leading yourself, then you will be more inclined to lead (with) others and lead change with empathy and consciousness.

It Takes a Village to Grow a Leader. It is unfortunate that the myth of “nurses eat their young” is a reality for many nurses in the global community. Don’t beat yourself up when you encounter bad mentors. They, too, teach you a valuable lesson of what not to be. Identify your cheerleaders and eliminate toxic energy. Surround yourself with individuals in and outside of your profession who are invested in your intellectual growth and wellbeing. Identify sponsors who will lift you up and positively speak about you when you are not in the room. My journey would be much more tedious without my village cheerleaders, including the ultimate male ally, my husband Tommy, who, as an African man, is confident enough in his masculinity to make space for my growth and hold the house down while I travel on my proverbial and actual journeys. So, find thy village, protect, and appreciate thy village, so you can thrive in it!

The Journey is Worth Taking

It takes courage to lead yourself, lead others, and lead change—but it is a journey worth taking! I share my leadership journey to illuminate the path of other aspiring and evolving women leaders, particularly nurses, who, again, represent the largest global health workforce and yet many, especially those in under resourced settings, believe they are “just a nurse.” Our journeys may be unique to our context, but we share similar struggles. I hope that sharing my own leadership journey illuminates your path a bit brighter as you pursue your own goals. Thanks to WomenLift Health for continuing to lift me and others and illuminate our journeys as we do the same for others.

Schola Matovu, RN, PhD: Assistant Professor | Director of Global Learning and Engagement (interim) at the University of Utah College of Nursing | WomenLift Health Alum (North America, 2021-2022 Cohort).