Dr Elizabeth Casson was a British doctor and occupational therapy pioneer. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree from the University of Bristol. Her passion for the healing power of occupation drove her lifelong work in establishing occupational therapy practice and education. ‘One of the most powerful motives we have is curiosity’, a quote from Elizabeth Casson which certainly strikes a chord. I grew up in a council estate in the north of Edinburgh. I was a wee girl who was always very quietly curious, stubbornly independent, always asking for explanations, and with a real need to understand, to learn. I left my hometown of Edinburgh aged 17 years old, wide eyed, just as curious, and eager to embark on my career in occupational therapy at what was then St John’s College in York.
Twenty-eight years later, I had the great honour and privilege to be nominated as the invited speaker to give the prestigious Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lecture. I chose the subject of leadership and the lecture title was ‘Transformational leadership in occupational therapy — delivering change through conversations’. The preparation for this lecture gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences, my career and what did I want to say to my peers and others through this unique opportunity.
By reflecting on my career journey, my different jobs and practice, I thought about my own leadership journey, which has been influenced by many great inspirational occupational therapy leaders. The first British occupational therapy department was introduced in 1919 at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Scotland. In 1932, a group of 15 women met in Glasgow to form the Scottish Association of Occupational Therapists, the first such professional body to be established in the United Kingdom and the third in the world. Those earlier pioneering occupational therapists understood the benefits of working together. In 1974, when the Scottish Association amalgamated with the Association of Occupational Therapists to become the British Association of Occupational Therapists and is now the Royal College of Occupational Therapists. I was recently awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Occupational Therapist. This is without question one of my career highlights, but like my professional predecessors, I know and understand the benefits and joy of collaboration and team work.
My very first role model as a young occupational therapist was my first boss, the distinguished and highly respected occupational therapist and pioneer in the field of mental health, Hester Monteath. She had wide international recognition, being a key figure in the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. You always knew that Hester’s first concern was the rehabilitation and welfare of her patients and, no matter what changes Hester brought into the workplace, we all knew we were in ‘safe hands’. Hester had qualities as a leader I aspire to hold and share in what is now 36 years as an occupational therapist, and that is to always put the needs of the people we work with at the forefront of any of our work while also supporting the workforce to be the best version of themselves. For the 2013 Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lecture, I wrote about 3 important leadership messages which I still believe in today:
- We can all be leaders
- By engaging others in our work, we can accomplish amazing changes
- We should share what we do and in so doing, as leaders and as a profession, become more visible
I believe that to be a transformational leader you need to be self-aware, authentic and, also, to ‘just be yourself’. In addition, you need to be bold, resilient, curious and courageous — although being courageous does not mean there is an absence of fear. I believe the most effective leaders always invest in others, surround themselves with the right people, and then maximise their team’s strengths.
We all face many challenges in our day-day to day work, however these challenges can also present opportunities. We can all be leaders, and we should embrace this. This International Women’s Day, I challenge you to consider these questions: how have your role models shaped your career or your ambition, and what would you do tomorrow if you knew success was guaranteed?