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Professional Profile: Barbara Nichols

Professional Profiles in Diversity
Welcome to this, the inaugural feature in a new Wisconsin Center for Nursing series designed to showcase the achievements of nurses of color and traditionally underrepresented groups in nursing leadership positions in Wisconsin. 


Barbara Nichols: Legacy of a Nursing Leader
Barbara Nichols, DNSc (hon), MS, RN, FAAN has distinguished herself in state, national, and international arenas. Her resume reads like a tour de force: retired CEO of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) International, past President of the American Nurses Association, and  past Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, to name but a few of her stellar accomplishments.


Barbara Nichols brings her vast experience in executive leadership and international initiatives to the RWJF State Implementation Grant, “Taking the LEAD for Nursing in Wisconsin: Leadership, Educational Advancement & Diversity.” Her professional career spans four decades in leadership and policy-making positions in professional associations and health related organizations. Her seasoned and solid professional national and international nursing skills are the perfect ingredients to enhance the leadership and diversity goals of the project. Throughout her career she has been a champion for the need to value diversity in all of its forms and a leading advocate for ethnic minority inclusion in all aspects of professional nursing. 


Barbara Nichols has published more than 200 manuscripts on nursing and health care delivery,  including contributing to  a 2014 publication Accelerate Your Career in Nursing:  A Guide to Professional Advancement and Recognition.  Her chapter is titled, “The Dynamics of Leadership: A Personal Perspective.”    I recently had the opportunity to sit and talk with Barbara Nichols to learn more about that personal perspective.


WCN:  How did you embark on your leadership journey?
BN:  I was a diploma graduate of the Massachusetts Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Boston.  There were no ICU’s when I graduated; private duty nurses performed that function.  I took a float position evenings and nights and was assigned to take care of the most critically ill patient.  Those experiences made me confident in my knowledge, skills, and abilities.


I graduated in May 1959, and then joined the Navy Nurse Corps in February 1960.  They push the concept that you are a leader.  I worked in a naval hospital, which was run like a ship, with a nurse in charge.  The concepts of leadership were enforced in theory and practice. 


I left the military and sought leadership positions.  I was head nurse in an ICU; I was also director of inservice education at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison.  I refined my skills through participation in professional nursing organizations such as the WNA and ANA.  I was a founding member of the Wisconsin Society for Healthcare Education and Training.  I was also chair and founding member of the Madison continuing education consortium, in which four hospitals jointly created and co-taught a CCU course for new nurses hired in that area.  This was quite innovative at that time.  We developed the core curriculum, and the course rotated to each hospital.


Involvement in professional associations propelled me into the national scene.  I was asked to run for the WNA presidency, but I didn’t feel I had enough experience.  My husband said, “What’s your problem?  The President of the United States only needs to be 36.”  So I figured what do I have to lose? Either I win or I don’t.  I WON!  (but I don’t remember my opponent – I may have been unopposed as President-elect).  I became the only ethnic minority president of WNA in its over 100 year history.

WCN:  What were the keys to your success?
BN:  You have to have knowledge of the profession, issues, and challenges.  Good interpersonal skills and communication with multiple persons and groups are KEY. Who you know expands your resources.  You have to know yourself, your strengths and limitations; operate out of your strengths and find support for your limitations.  It’s also important to be good at organization and planning your work yourself.

WCN:  What barriers have you had to overcome?
BN:  The largest barrier has been my color, being prejudged and stereotyped as having insufficient experience or intelligence to understand issues or the inability to represent the profession.  This was imposed by others.  Perhaps this was also gender related.   It’s the “triple whammy” – being a woman, nurse, and black.  The dilemma is that in a leadership role you think you are above that but are reminded you are not.  Expect yourself to perform well, but not always with much support.  You may find yourself surrounded by doubt and hope.

WCN:  What advice would you give to others?
BN:  Believe in yourself and follow your dreams.  This has to be internal.  If you are waiting for someone to pat you on the back, etc., it’s not going to happen.

Thank you, Barbara Nichols, for your exemplary service to nursing everywhere – and for knowing the way, showing the way, and going the way as a distinguished female black nursing leader.

Submitted by:
Ann Cook, RN, PhD
Clinical Associate Professor
Director, Master of Nursing (MN) Program
UWM College of Nursing


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