Leadership Through Followership: Examining the Life of Edith Cavell
Leadership through Followership: Examining the Life of Edith Cavell During her final hours in the clutches of the German forces during the First World War, Edith Louisa Cavell summarized her life’s work with the famous quote, “I realize that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone. ” These words capture not only the spirit of who Edith Cavell was and what she stood for; they embody the very essence of what it means to be a nurse. Theorists and scholars alike have stated that the core component of the nursing profession is caring.
To Edith Cavell, caring knew no boundaries, and thus, neither did her nursing expertise. While it is correct to view Edith Cavell and her heroic actions during her life through the lens of leadership, one would be remiss should they choose to ignore the contributions she made to nursing and her country by being an exemplary follower. This essay will briefly explore the life of Edith Cavell and demonstrate how her actions and personal characteristics contributed to her ability to be an effective follower and thus, a visionary leader. Background
Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4th, 1865, in Swardeston parish in the county of Norfolk in Eastern England. She was raised in a household comprised of strict Anglican beliefs enforced by her father, Reverend Frederick Cavell. It has been written that no books were allowed in the house except for the bible. Her devout religious faith would prove to be the guiding force behind her charity during her life. She began to train as a nurse in 1900 at the age of twenty at the London Hospital. Seven years later, she was recruited to become the matron of Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium.
Not impressed with the current state of nursing in Belgium at the time, she sought to improve standards and regulate certain elements of practice by becoming an influential nurse educator. After the eruption of the First World War in 1914, Cavell vacated her again-home of England and returned to Belgium to resume her position as matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute, which had been converted by the Red Cross into a military hospital allowing the treatment of both German and Allied soldiers (Duffy, 2011). Despite Belgium’s declared neutrality, the country was promptly invaded and occupied by strict German forces.
Cavell, knowing the inherent dangers of war, retained her post and continued to treat the sick and wounded. Knowing that many British soldiers were now trapped in German-occupied Belgium, her efforts were soon directed at assisting surrounded these British soldier’s in their return to England. Cavell was subsequently responsible for the safe removal of over 200 Allied soldiers from Belgium between 1914 and 1915. She provided shelter in safe houses, as well as false identification papers and guides out of the country.
Unfortunately, she came under suspicion by the German military. This was not helped by her outspoken views on the perceived injustice of the German occupation (Tejvan, 2010). Cavell was apprehended by German authorities and eventually succumbed to interrogations. She was charged with treason and sentenced to death. Worldwide condemnation of the verdict (and the fact that she treated German and Allied soldiers indiscriminately) did little to detour the German military’s decision.
Wearing a nursing uniform, Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad on the morning of Oct. 2, 1915. Global outrage ensued shortly thereafter. American and British mourners were particularly sensitive towards Cavell’s unjust execution; it ignited anti-German sentiment from both Americans and the British, serving as the catalyst for worldwide press coverage sympathetic towards the United States and Britain’s forthcoming war effort (Fee & Roth, 2010, pp. 1865-1866). Followership Behaviour The concepts of leadership and followership are deeply intertwined (Grayson & Speckhart). Edith Cavell’s traits as a follower allowed her to be an effective leader.
The term follower is open to subjective interpretation, yet one particularly helpful definition is “[an individual] that follows the teachings and/or opinions of another” (Merriam-Webster, 2011). Grossman and Valiga have further expanded on the word ‘follower’ and have coined the term “effective follower” (2009, p. 41). In contrast to the above definition, the effective follower “functions independently, thinks critically about ideas that are proposed or directions that are suggested, and [is] actively involved” (Grossman & Valiga, 2009, p. 1).
They further suggest that effective followers have six common characteristics also possessed by effective leaders: assertiveness, determination, courage, an ability to act as a change agent, openness to new ideas and willingness to challenge ideas, and a willingness to serve (2009, p. 44). Edith Cavell displayed all of the above traits at one point or another during her lifetime which suggests she was an effective follower, and therefore, an effective leader. Edith Cavell was assertive, determined, and courageous.
In defiance of the Red Cross’s code of non-military involvement (2011) as well as German military code of conduct, she continued to smuggle British men out of occupied Belgium despite knowing in full that a sentence of death by court martial was the penalty. Upon capture and interrogation by the German military, she confessed in full to her alleged crimes of treason, a testament to not only her courageous nature but her rigid abidance to her values. She continued to serve her country despite knowing it could possibly end in her demise.
On a less dramatic note, she was a proponent of increasing the value placed on not only nurses but women in general. Doing this during a time when women’s issues were considered less important than men’s required ample courage. This is also consistent with the following point. Edith Cavell demonstrated effective followership behaviour (thus effective leadership behaviour) by being open to new ideas, possessing a willingness to challenge ideas, and acting as a change agent (Grossman & Valiga, p. 44).
Her willingness to challenge ideas was demonstrated by her public protest of the German occupation of Belgium and distain of German treatment of Allied soldiers. She acted as a change agent by inventing ways to smuggle Allied soldiers out of the country. Cavell also demonstrated these three behaviours during her stint as matron for the Berkendael Medical Institute. As described previously, she was unimpressed with what were current nursing standards in Brussels. For example, she instituted the practice of follow-up home visits for patients following discharge (Ryder, 1975).
Cavell hypothesized that this would prevent readmissions, which indeed it did. It can also be said that Cavell was a foreword thinker on her views on gender. She was once quoted as saying, “The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still they think lose [status] by earning their own living”, suggesting that even in the early portion of the 20th century, Edith Cavell believed the notion of women being excluded from the workforce was antiquated. Lastly, Cavell possessed a “willingness to serve” (Grossman & Valiga, 2009, p. 4).
Grossman and Valiga suggest that loyalty is one trait commonly held by effective followers (2009, p. 44-45). Cavell was loyal and ‘served’ in two ways. First, she was extremely religious. As mentioned prior, she was raised in a strict Anglican household under the supervision of her pastor father, and thus was loyal to the teachings of Christianity. There exist two key elements inherently rooted in any religion: followership and caring. If one abides by the definition of followership stated prior then individuals practicing a religion, as was Edith Cavell, are followers.
One of the core messages common to all biblical scripture, regardless of the chosen religion, is one of caring for other people and creating nurturing environments. Cavell’s selflessness was ultimately spurred on by her unwavering commitment and loyalty to the teachings of her religion. To demonstrate her faith, it has been said that during the two weeks she spent in solitary confinement prior to her execution the only books she requested were the Holy Bible and The Imitation of Christ, a medieval volume of meditations that emphasizes self-abnegation and suffering (Shaddox, 1999, p. ).
Second, she had a willingness to serve her country. In addition to being a devout Christian, Cavell was a dedicated patriot. She possessed a love and devotion for Great Britain rivalled by few. This was demonstrated by her loyalty to her fatherland even in the face of formidable danger. It is interesting to note that this sense of patriotism was seemingly abandoned during her final hours of imprisonment by the German military, in which she uttered the famous quote mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Implications for Nursing
The life of Edith Cavell impacted the nursing profession in a number of ways. On a superficial level, multiple hospitals and schools have been named in her honour (see Appendix). She was also in influential in the early creation of professional nursing journals. During her stint as matron in Brussels, she was credited with the launch of L’infirmiere, which documented proper nursing standards and practices (Tejvan, 2010). It can be said, however, that her greatest contribution may not have come in life, but in death.
While execution by firing squad lays in the extreme, she continues to serve as a symbol to nurses and non-nurse’s alike as to the level of personal sacrifice and emotional dedication many nurses put into the profession every day. This was presumably never her original intention, but through martyrdom Edith Cavell will forever live as an inspiration to all nurses in the annals of nursing history. Conclusion Edith Cavell is an important figure in nursing history.
Her ability to lead was preceded by her ability to demonstrate effective followership skills. Her patriotism and devout faith, both of which are rooted in the concept of followership, provided the foundation for many of her life’s endeavours. Ultimately, though, it was her loyalty to her fellow person which proved to be the true motivation behind her actions. Nurses everywhere can proudly use Edith Cavell as a role model for their nursing endeavours, and will hopefully use her story for inspiration to care without borders.