Gail Stern, MSN, PMHCNS-BC
2013 APNA Award for Excellence in Leadership – APRN

Gail Stern, MSN, PMHCNS-BC is the first nurse to have ever held the position of Administrator in the Department of Psychiatry at Lehigh Valley Network, where she is currently employed.  She describes herself as a learning leader: “There have never been any two situations that were exactly alike for as long as I’ve worked in management,” she says. “It’s important to be humble and never assume that you know everything.”

Stern had leadership unceremoniously thrust upon her early in her career.  Eight months after graduating from school, the head nurse at Stern’s place of employment resigned. She interviewed with the Vice President of a hospital for the position of Acting Head Nurse. “He talked to me for about 45 minutes and then offered me the Head Nurse job,” she remembers. As for how things went initially, “they ate me alive,” she says. One of the older nurses who gave her a hard time came to her years later and said, “I know that we’ve had our moments, but I would have been proud to have brought you up.” Stern responded, “You did bring me up!”  Looking back at the experience she explains, “It’s your people who teach you how to lead. Patients and providers of care will tell you what it is they need and how to give it to them. You just have to listen. The more we model respectful care for each other, the more respectful care we are able to provide to our patients.”

Today, as Administrator at Lehigh Valley Network in Pennsylvania, Stern oversees a diverse cadre of inpatient, outpatient and residential programs.  Nominator Kathryn M. Lindsay, MSN, RN says, “She not only effectively manages the psychiatry specialty services, she also uses her creativity and extensive knowledge of administration and finance to place psychiatric nurses in primary care practices and hire advanced practice nurses to deliver psychiatric-mental health care on inpatient units and in outpatient practices.”  Stern is a dedicated advocate of integrating physical and mental health care. “We have all experienced struggles with the stigma associated with mental health care. I see integration as a mechanism to normalize mental health as a constant part of health care and reduce that stigma,” she says. “Whole health just makes sense.”  The move towards integrated care is a great opportunity for nursing, as Stern sees it. “The specific need for psychiatric mental health nurses in every setting of care can finally be recognized,” she says.  “To us, it has always been obvious that physical and mental health are woven together and should be treated together.”

On the APNA side, Stern has been an instrumental leader. She worked for three years to form the APNA Pennsylvania Chapter, organizing meetings and creating a foundation. She was the first president of the chapter and has since mentored incoming Presidents. Stern was also a Member-at-Large on the APNA Board of Directors from 2009 to 2012. More recently, with the help of Diane Wieland, she created a resource section on the APNA website dedicated to integrated care.

Gail Stern’s Tips for Leadership: New managers sometimes get paralyzed because they think they don’t have enough knowledge or wisdom, so remember -

  1. Don’t be so hard on yourself – if you’re not having fun, you’re not going to be able to do a good job.
  2. Use your mentors –– get yourself a network of folks that can help you and remember that sometimes the mentors you have are the staff who report to you.
  3. Learn from your mistakes (at least make variations) – people will forgive you for your mistakes!
  4. Most importantly, the key to leadership is a respect for the work that needs to be done and a respect for the people who collaborate to do it.