blog post 6.4.13

Applying Appreciative Inquiry—The Case of Home-Laundered Scrubs

In order to become a courageous leader, you must be willing to take chances and put your work on the line, and leadership within the organization must support you.   Here’s a story that illustrates that challenge for me to be a courageous leader; needless to say, I did not start out as such a leader:

Leading the operating room takes an abundance of leadership courage.  Years ago, when I was a young leader, I was asked to go from hospital-laundered scrubs to home-laundered scrubs by my administrative leader.  I was not keen on the idea, nor was my staff; we were a Level II trauma center and took care of patients who had been in car accidents, were victims of attempted murders, and had been involved in other serious traumatic situations.  Our work did not include what anyone would call “clean cases.”  We were often soiled during the course of a shift, and the potential for spread of disease was high. I was told that this change would save significant dollars for the organization and that, short of an extremely good reason, the plan would be implemented.  As I returned to my office following being given this information, I gave serious thought to the initiative but knew I really didn’t want to lead it.  At our next meeting, my supervisor asked me about my progress, and I said very little.  I felt as if I couldn’t support it without prejudice.  Summoning his own courage, he then told me that I was “riding the fence” and that was not a good characteristic of a leader.  I took his words to heart as I settled down and made a plan.

Using the methodology of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, 2001), I launched a Surgical Services Council made up of representatives from each of my areas.  Their first charge was to research evidence regarding home-laundered scrubs.  I told them that if they had compelling, evidenced-based research against home laundering, I would present it to administration on behalf of our unit.  Yet, incredibly, what they found from various sources, including the CDC (Center for Disease Control), was that with proper checks and balances in place and a sound procedure for laundering, we could move to home-laundered scrubs with no danger of heightened rates of infection.  I discussed with the Council my support for this change and told them I was counting on them to make it palatable to the rest of the team.  The Council took responsibility for writing the policy and then empowered the team to vote on color choices.  By involving the entire team and not dictating the change, we were able to implement the process without repercussions. We even had a fashion show of new scrubs! 

Based on this normative event, my favorite saying became, “You don’t have to love it, but you do have to lead it.”  I was able to safely remove myself from that leadership fence and have the courage to lead a controversial issue successfully.  I learned many things from this experience. I learned to involve others in how we make change; I learned to make a plan to focus staff’s attention and passion; I learned that courage comes from examining your own beliefs and figuring out how to make change with integrity; and I learned that we don’t always have a choice regarding whether change will occur.  How we handle making that change defines us as true leaders.


Cooperrider, D. E., Lessons from the field: Applying appreciative inquiry, Thin Book Publishing, 2012, pg. 12.

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