Remembering Luther Christman: A pioneer leader-as-teacher

Earlier today I had the good fortune to attend a tribute symposium held on behalf of distinguished nurse leader Luther Christman.

Through his remarkable career, Luther became known for the great many ways in which he furthered the role, autonomy, and professional status of the nursing profession.  He is also widely recognized for leading by example in breaking down gender and race barriers within nursing.  Less widely known is the impact of his innovations on how all health professionals are taught.

In 1967, Christman became dean of nursing at Vanderbilt.  During his tenure there, he proposed the development of a “unification model.”  In addition to its implications for nursing, the model proposed integrating the training of graduate nursing students and medical students.  He would later propose expanding the model into the clinical setting, which created the foundation for advanced practice nursing.

In 1972, Christman was recruited to the newly established Rush University, part of the Rush-Presbyterian-St.-Luke’s Medical Center.  In addition to his accomplishments on behalf of the nursing profession while there, he championed a university-wide model in which senior leaders of the medical center also took substantial roles in educating future leaders and clinicians.  Christman himself took on a dual leadership role: as vice-president for Nursing Affairs in the hospital, and as professor and dean of the College of Nursing.  This practitioner-teacher model, as it came to be called, held that teachers needed to also be competent in the profession in which they were teaching.

Although the model was foremost about ensuring the quality of the student learning experience, the benefits to the teachers themselves soon also became apparent.  Leading in the classroom not only improved their communication skills, it also pushed leaders to a level of content mastery beyond what their day-to-day work required.  The opportunity to reflect on experience had benefits as well.  Finally, to the extent that graduates would be working with the leaders who taught them, the possibilities for setting a depth of expectations by example were unparalleled.

A few years later, a soon-to-be-well-known emerging leader at General Electric named Jack Welch would recognize the power of a corporate university in changing the way work gets done.  Starting in 1981, Jack made regular trips out to Crotonville, site of GE’s corporate university, to personally get to know his company’s leaders and participate directly in their education about the GE way.  The GE model of leadership development has since been transported to other organizations, and the critical roles of leaders-as-teachers has been well documented.

Today, the value of the leaders-as-teachers role in private industry is much more widely recognized.  New accreditation guideline from CAHME will also help ensure that healthcare leaders are helping to shape the direction our graduate healthcare management programs take.

Christman was reportedly once told by an early detractor that “No one, but no one in the world, can be vice-president of nursing in a major medical center and dean of a college of nursing at the same time.”  His reply was that it was the easiest job he’d ever had.

About Andrew Garman

Chief Executive Officer, NCHL; Professor, Health Systems Management Department, Rush University

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