Planting the Seeds of [email protected]

Have you ever had a continuing education experience that dramatically changed the way you worked immediately after you participated?


In the fall of 2018, I did, and I returned to my home institution, the University of North Carolina (UNC), sharing my experience with anyone who would listen. Telling them, “The Relational Leadership Institute (RLI) might be the greatest thing to happen in interprofessional education and practice that you (probably) haven’t heard about yet. Want to give it a try?”

RLI’s three-month intensive program, first introduced at Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU) in the fall of 2017, introduces participants to Relational Leadership™ as a framework for transforming how they work independently and interdependently toward a common goal. Understanding one’s own leadership story and presence, creating the conditions of highly-effective teams, including psychological safety, and managing and transforming inevitable conflict are hallmarks of RLI. These elements are foundational to PCP’s Relational Leadership™ framework for healthcare professionals. Over the past two-plus years of RLI at OHSU, it’s been the commitment to these ideals that’s kept the program successful and strong.

Professionally, I have grown up with PCP. We have developed and evolved together, our paths crossing at regular intervals to share the power of Narrative Leadership and the benefits of storytelling as a leadership tool both at UNC and nationally. I have always felt the potential of Relational Leadership™, which includes storytelling, but I have struggled to consistently put it into action. I had not seen Relational Leadership™ skills woven together in the context of RLI until the fall of 2018, when I traveled from North Carolina to Portland to serve as a trainer in the Teaming workshops of RLI. It was a transformational experience.

One of the most amazing things about RLI, is that the content is both relatable and complex. Because it is centered around people and relationships, it is exceptionally dynamic, which means that even as a trainer, you are constantly learning and honing your own Relational Leadership competencies. That weekend in Portland, surrounded by the OHSU team, PCP’s leadership, and dozens of eager, interprofessional and intergenerational learners, something clicked for me. Emboldened with tools of storytelling, teaming, and a new perspective on the work styles of others, I returned to UNC with a clearer and more collaborative mind.

I began to view the “Negative Nancies” in my workplace as essential to the success of our work, and I sought out their stories to understand more deeply their motivations. When I considered what our teams could accomplish if we shared a common, relational culture, the potential felt limitless.

Persistence Paid Off

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Learn more about RLI.

Shortly after I returned from Portland, I traveled to a leadership training program with five other directors from the UNC Office of Interprofessional Education and Practice (IPEP). Representing Dentistry, Education, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy and the Health Sciences Library, we were charged with designing an interprofessional faculty development program. Luckily for the future of RLI at UNC, we traveled four hours each way by van. We shared stories about growing up, our families, and our hobbies. I began to realize how much we value each other and our relationships, and the seeds for [email protected] as an interprofessional faculty development program were sown. As the training program progressed, I kept returning to the strengths of RLI above those of typical training programs. Perhaps my colleagues finally acquiesced to adopting RLI as our interprofessional faculty development program simply to pacify me. Persistence paid off.

Working closely with PCP, including Andrew Morris-Singer, Brian Souza, Jane Cooper-Driver, Sean Rhoads, Kyle Turner (University of Utah), Kate Stitham, Matt Lewis, and the OHSU team, we collaborated with our IPEP directors to plan a pilot [email protected] in spring 2019. Mobilizing quickly, the UNC IPEP directors committed to attend and each nominated potential attendees. From faculty, providers, students, and trainees, nearly 40 participants at UNC committed to explore how we could build our own RLI culture that spanned our campus. Supported by the Smith Leadership Initiative, participants represented the UNC Schools of Allied Health, Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, Social Work Pharmacy, Business, Education, and the Health Sciences Library.

Over four days, two in March and two in April, faculty, trainees, and student leaders were committed to being curious, candid, and vulnerable with one another.

Through small and large group seminars, participants in the pilot walked away with a framework for strengthening their interprofessional work together. The interprofessional, intergenerational nature of the program created an exceptionally rich learning environment. Some attendees found it transformational and began applying Relational Leadership concepts immediately in their work. We have just completed focus groups as part of the program evaluation, and we were frequently asked, “When can we all get back together again?” There’s so much to celebrate from the [email protected]na pilot, and much more work to be done.

The [email protected] pilot brought together seemingly disconnected schools and departments across the institution and represents a new chapter for many leaders across UNC.  You could call it a flagship moment for IPEP and the university: a collective commitment, across ten different schools at the university, to reimagine how we can effectively prepare the next generation of health professionals with the skills to lead from where they stand.

Looking ahead to our Fall 2019 Cohort, I’ll look back at what took root during these four days in the Spring of 2019. Bonds were formed or re-forged over a common belief that the more we can do to dissolve traditional hierarchies present in healthcare, the closer we get to realizing the promise of RLI: nurturing a person-centered approach to leadership that unleashes the power of a better-connected, more-fulfilled team.

Sarah Smithson

Sarah is an internal medicine physician and clinician educator at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine. At the UNC School of Medicine, Sarah leads curricular innovation in health systems, communication, and team-based care delivery in partnership with Kenan-Flagler Business School, including the launch of the Relational Leadership Institute at UNC.

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