And This Leader

Her name is Lillian. It’s a name of innocence, gracefulness, and serenity. These qualities weren’t foreign to her, but they conceal a toughness, power, and grit that marked her as well. This is a leader you need to know about.

She is Lillian Wald, the founder of public health nursing in the United States. An entire field of calling, career, and occupation resulted from the efforts of Lillian Wald. Rivaled only by Clara Barton, it is Wald who made a distinctive imprint on nursing in the United States. Wald is one of the most significant women in the American experience.

But there is a specific point I want you to know about Wald. She had four important turns in her life as a leader. Think of your “turns in the river” as you read about hers below.

The first turn was with the death of her brother Alfred. Up to age eighteen, she had assumed that the most interesting future open to her was working with her brother, whom she cherished. There weren’t many obvious choices for a woman who wanted to leave the home in post-Civil War America. The death of Alfred Wald sealed that door shut.

Thus, passing from her late teens into her early twenties, Lillian Wald went in search of a future. She found it with her sister and brother-in-law. She had been chosen by her parents—and Lillian was fine with the choice—to be the family’s agent in charge of caring for her sister when pregnant with her first child. So, Lillian went to live with her sister and brother-in-law as a sort of in-home caregiver. When it was decided that a formal nurse was needed, Lillian was asked to meet the woman and escort her back to the sister/brother-in-law’s house. During the carriage ride, Lillian and the nurse started to chat. The conversation electrified Wald with excitement. She questioned the nurse at length in the carrriage. By the time they had arrived at the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Lillian Wald was convinced that her life’s calling had been nursing. It was a crystallizing moment. This was at age  twenty-two.

But the future shifted again. Arriving at a third moment at age twenty-five, Wald has pursued her calling through various nursing schools. The crystallizing conversation and decision of three years ago hadn’t resulted in a similarly clear path forward. Revelation and execution didn’t match up. Thirty-six months passed before her next moment of clarity and acceleration. She began working in an urban facility that helped poor immigrants in surrounding neighborhoods. In that place, she met a young immigrant child who led her home to the family’s cramped, squalid quarters. There Wald saw the mother struggling with the aftermath of another birth, unclean, unhealthy, untreated.

A proverbial light flashed on inside Wald’s mind. She had lit the match between her calling and her future. She would be a nurse who lived in the poorest neighborhoods, offering healthcare and any other service that would improve the lives of neglected immigrants.

One more point, the fourth, must be shared. For all the clarity, confidence, and inspiration that Walkd discovered at age twenty-five, a next and final moment arrived four weeks later. This was the chance meeting of a wealthy supporter, Jacob Schiff. Schiff embraced Wald’s work in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. Like Wald, Schiff was Jewish and believed strongly in the responsibility of caring for the less fortunate. Schiff was convinced that Wald should be funded, financed, and promoted as an important approach to the problems of inner-city America, circa 1900. Wald learned how to forge a partnership with Schiff. It was a partnership that changed the experience of healthcare, immigration, and urbanization in America.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2016 America, we tend to refer to Wald’s quest as the “pursuit of her passion.” Many of us want to find our passion and then build our work lives around it. We dream of the day that it happens. After that day, we believe, things will be right for us.

Maybe. But maybe not. Wald shows us that the discovery of a calling—her era’s term for our word “passion”—isn’t the end of doubt or of struggle or the lack of an energizing clarity and focus. If you had could have talked with Wald the hour or day after her carriage ride with the newly hired family nurse, she would have spoken with excitement about her new future. You likely would have concluded that this eighteen-year-old “has it all figured out.”

You and she would have been wrong.

It required the overcoming of many other challenges, the sorting out and grasping for many other answers, before she would have asserted with total confidence that, “yes, I’m doing what I was meant to do.”

Not least of which was the discovery of a resource. In Wald’s case, it was the meeting and partnership with Schiff. The partnership became a resource that fueled Wald’s work, her achievement. I’m not just referring to money, I’m writing about “resource’ in a much broader sense. Schiff helped her gain maturity, exposure, confidence, and the room to try and fail and to try again.

Lillian Wald is a leader you should know more about. Perhaps now you can see why I’ve developed leadership modules around her story.