Sarah-Jane McDonnell with rower Sanita Puspure, following her fourth-place finish in the Olympic semi-finals. Photo: Inpho Photography

Leadership is Love

By Emma Stokes, WCPT President


Leadership is love. Leadership is a choice. Acts of leadership are happening all the time.
– Mark Rittenberg

This photograph moves me every time I see it. It shows physical therapist Sarah-Jane McDonnell, Head of Rehabilitation at Sport Ireland Institute, holding rower Sanita Puspure after her 4th place finish in the Olympic semi-finals in Rio de Janeiro.

To me, the photograph embodies the concept that ‘leadership is love’. In that moment, it shows the power of human connection in our practice. Mark Rittenberg, quoted above, speaks about the five powers of leadership: presence, communication, conviction, intention and knowledge.

What strikes me in the photo is Sarah-Jane’s absolute presence. The unspoken message of support, comfort and compassion is so clear.

At a dinner one evening, Sarah-Jane spoke about working with high-performing athletes, and the uniqueness and privilege of her role. I was reminded of the work of Dr. Helle Heddegard Hein, who Sarah-Jane subsequently invited to a conference in Ireland.

Dr. Heddegard writes from years of research at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, and describes the unique challenges of working with ‘highly specialised, creative employees’, who are densely represented in a variety of occupations including physical therapy and high-performance athletics.

She describes four archetypes of employees, including one termed ‘Prima Donna’, for whom work is to serve a higher purpose and to contribute to making a difference. It sounds like the many physical therapists I have met the world over. It is not a negative term; more an expression of the factors that motivate such individuals. Work is a calling, and the primary drive is to make a difference.

Dr. Heddegard makes a number of suggestions about leadership, including one which I think is very powerful for all of us. “An important leadership virtue is generosity, which in this case not only means the ability and willingness to give, but also the ability and willingness to receive what is being given.”

Imagine, she goes onto write, what it must feel like to give – and have no one receive what you give.

Leadership is a choice. How we choose to enact it is up to each of us. We are taught to connect and communicate with our patients and clients over the course of our professional education and development. But how often are we taught how to connect with one another? How often do we stop and take a moment to consider the day-to-day interactions with the people we work with? How mindful are we to tend those relationships?

Each time I look at the photograph of Sarah-Jane, I am inspired by what it is and what it symbolises. I am reminded of the quote ‘you cannot give what you do not have’. But now, also, of the importance of being mindful of what I am given by the people with whom I work, and how to best acknowledge that.

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