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Interview: Sarah Mullally, Team rector, former Chief Nursing Officer

21 January 2009


I’m the Team Rector of Sutton, in Surrey — in charge of three churches: St Nicholas, St Barnabas, and Christ Church. I work with Mark Pullinger, the Team Vicar, who is licensed to all three churches. I think there’s only one other team in Rugby who have this model, but Mark and I have always worked in teams, and we like to complement each other’s strengths in each of the churches.


I was the Senior Nurse in England, and made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours List last year. So Buckingham Palace will call me the Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally — and there was quite a flurry of emails in the Church at the time — but people call me Sarah. Still, I can make the title work for me sometimes.


I trained at St Thomas’s Hospital, and did a degree at the South Bank Poly, which only eight per cent of nurses did at that time. But then I had a typical career: staff nurse, senior staff nurse, specialist cancer care, ward sister. Perhaps it was slightly faster because it was in London.


I did a number of jobs in West London in practice development, and then became Nursing Director, Deputy CE, and Acting CE at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. I was probably the youngest nurse in the country appointed then.


In 1999, I was appointed Chief Nursing Officer for England at the Department of Health. That’s really the Government’s Senior Nurse, advising the Prime Minister (then Tony Blair) and Frank Dobson, Alan Milburn, and John Reid, and senior civil servants in the Department of Health on the formation of agreed national policies — and then going to the NHS to ensure their imple­menta­tion.


My appointment caused a bit of a stir, but nurses on the front line thought it was brilliant. Typically, Chief Nursing Officers are about to retire: they’re career civil servants. To have appointed someone dir­ectly out of the field was symbolic of the change under the Labour Gov­ern­ment.


I’m proudest of the culture change I introduced in the NHS in trying to understand patients’ experience. I introduced the first patient survey in Europe, and changed the idea that the NHS knows best. But I also intro­duced “modern matrons” and nurses’ being able to see patients, make a diagnosis, and prescribe medicines on their own.


It’s very hard to bring about change in the NHS with its 1.6 million employees. We need to empower people to change things at the local level. I’m very keen to invest in leader­ship-skills training. I ran a course for ward sisters, for example, asking, what can you change? What you can’t change, you have to leave. But the only limit on change is the limit of your imagination. I still feel that passionately, in the work I do now, and I’ve got involved in Croy­don in training clergy in leader­ship development.


I did a degree in nursing because you have a theoretical framework for what you’re doing. But if you don’t have a fundamental belief in humanity, all of that goes by the by. If someone is struggling to drink a cup of tea, you help them to drink it. At the end of the day, we’re there to care.


Nurses who come into the profes­sion reflect our society. As a society, we don’t have so many models of caring as we would have if we grew up in an extended family, for ex­ample. The values of society have changed, and we don’t have the language for that any more — although your older set of nurses will still talk about vocation. We need to explore this in our training.


I’m incredibly proud of the NHS, and have seen incredible improve­ments, particularly in mortality rates for cancer, heart-disease, and suicide. But the challenge is how to make sure good practice is everywhere. That’s why it’s in constant change — and staff do feel the pressure of change.


I’ve had a Christian faith from the age of 16. It’s always been the motivation for what I’ve done with my time, and the move into nursing. It continues to be my framework for operating. I do believe in a sense of calling. I ask: “Where is my faith influencing what I’m doing?” Now I can care for the whole of people more explicitly — using the same set of skills from the Department of Health in the Church.


We often confuse leadership with status, power, and money — not enabling and facilitating. The de­cision to give up my job at the Department of Health to be ordained was the biggest I’ve ever made, and was made more difficult by the type of comments made to me.


I’m a child loved by God. My name is carved on the palms of his hands. That gives you confidence in who you are. The fact is our identity is often so bound up in power, social status, and money. And when these things go, who are we? What is left?


We need leaders in the community who very often have very little power, money, or status, but who do make change happen.


I never think of my next move — I don’t have a set plan. My passion is for the job I’m doing now.


I recently re-read Charles Handy’s book on leadership, The Elephant and the Flea. Big organisations are slow, thick-skinned, strong, power­ful, and slow. Fleas are frisky, agile, vul­nerable, and irritating. I see my­self more as a flea now.


I read a lot of theology: it provides the foundation for what I do. And I like Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s books. I always find him inspiring. And last summer I read The Shack by William P. Young. It challenges our preconceived ideas about what God and the Church are.


I have two children: Grace, who’s 17, and Liam, who’s nearly 13. They give me stability, and, with my husband, have always been very supportive. I’m very proud of them and the way they’ve adapted to all the expectations put upon them. I couldn’t do what I do without them. Many mums of my age in the parish ask how I manage it all. I’m conscious that all women juggle many balls. I had a private of­fice with five secretaries, and a brilli­ant full-time nanny for seven years.


My mother was a hairdresser, and I supposed I wanted to be that, too, or an artist. But when I was 16 or 17 and making my A-level choices I had to think seriously what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a doctor because I wanted to give holistic care.


I find doing different things relax­ing: they use a different type of energy. So I am still a non-executive director at the Royal Marsden, and an independent governor of the South Bank University. Family holidays are usually activities: white-water rafting, abseiling, or wandering around cities. I did take up pottery, mostly to en­cour­­age my daughter, but I find that the most unrelaxing thing I do.


There has been a handful of people in different roles who have inspired me: a ward sister — a nursing auxiliary at the Marsden, the way she worked with individuals; and a couple of parishioners have inspired me in their death. Their faith was hum­bling. Then Mary Seacole: there was this woman, up against the odds: not properly trained, not white — Florence Nightingale disap­proved of her — but she did what she wanted to do.


I have dyslexia; so I hate the gene­alogies. If I have to read them out, the words run off the paper like paint. But the message of Amos is very challenging — as much today and for the Church as it was then.


I use quite a lot of fairtrade products — coffee, etc. — but I’ve suddenly discovered you can get fairtrade flowers. At this time of year, I’m very conscious of where our flowers are coming from.


I don’t get angry. I get frustrated where I feel powerless — Zimbabwe, for example. And when the Church spends time on introspection, instead of giving its energies to caring for the sick and the mourning. I’m happiest when things are going well — when things are moving.


Prayer has always been central to my life: how to handle situations, when I’m making a visit, meeting the Prime Minister or a group of nurses. I pray for a sense of stillness, to handle situations with love and care, being right with God and people.


I wouldn’t mind who I’m locked in a church with. I love listening to people and their stories. But if I could pick anyone: Desmond Tutu. I would love to hear his story, and how, at the height of apartheid, he held his faith and beliefs.


The Revd Dame Sarah Mullally was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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