1. Section Editor(s): Johnson, Joyce A. PhD, RN-BC

Article Content

In Fall 2011, I read an interview with Linda Burns Bolton, DrPH, RN, FAAN, in which she talked about adopting the "sensei" role as her group worked on the Institute of Medicine report on the future of nursing. That got me to thinking about the sensei role-how appropriate it is in nursing and how it might be a partial cure for the "nurses eating their young" phenomenon. The word sensei literally means "one who has gone before." A sensei is a person who has walked the path you are walking now. A sensei can lead from authentic experience and wisdom and is a living source of knowledge. The sensei role is different from the role of the western idea of a coach, who can teach you something without necessarily being able to perform the skill himself/herself. A sensei can actually do what he/she teaches. The coach teaches, but the sensei helps the learner develop mastery of the techniques and, just as important, mastery of themselves. The sensei guides the learner to new ways of thinking. The sensei has been "born before" you in your area of expertise and is therefore senior to you in that area.


Often, the manager is seen as the coach; the teacher, preceptor, or professional developer acts as a learning facilitator, and the sensei is viewed as a more long-term investment, a planner for the future, an inspiration. The sensei role is similar to, but not as strong as, the role of a mentor. The eastern sensei/protege is literally senior/junior, and is a concept used more widely than the western mentor role. Sensei guide, serve as a sounding board, teach, coach, advise, and correct, but never do the work for you. They don't explain every detail, because being a sensei is a "thing of the heart, not of the mind" (Cook, 2014, p. 1). They know that effective mentoring and teaching is not a process of control but rather a process of sharing. A sensei measures success not by the excellence, superiority, or mastery of his own talents and abilities but by the excellence, superiority, or mastery of the student's talents and abilities over his own. When a student becomes self-sustaining, the sensei has done his/her job.


It is the knowledge, guidance, and experience of the sensei that help the student progress and master the subject while keeping the student from making serious errors in the process. The role of the sensei is to create situations so that the student learns by experience, and through that experience comes to their own understanding. What really matters is practice, not talking.


The sensei employs Socratic questioning technique in helping the learner think through a situation and, with guidance, solve his/her own problems. The sensei has no power; he/she never tells, he/she only suggests. He/she helps develop a way of thinking through practical hands on experiences. He/she directs the student toward problem finding, problem facing, problem framing, problem solving, and ultimately learning (Balle & Jones, 2014). He/she asks questions such as: What challenges did you face in this situation? How did you overcome the challenges? What other options did you consider? What would you change if you were faced with the same or similar situation in the future? He/she encourages reflective learning.


Think of how this concept applies in our profession. A more senior nurse acting in the sensei role with a new nurse will help that new nurse realize his/her potential. The sensei would view that nurse as his/her protege in the long term (unlike a preceptor that may precept more than one person), and that protege would have no other sensei (unlike the probability of having more than one preceptor over time). It would ease the transition into the profession. It would guide the new nurse as he/she navigates through the culture of the unit. And, in addition, it would help to protect the nurse from lateral violence or bullying by other nurses.


Also called a culture of incivility, it is clear that horizontal or lateral violence exists in all areas of nursing today. Other terms used to describe this culture of incivility include bullying, verbal abuse, interpersonal conflict, condescending communication, nonphysical aggression, harassment, lateral or horizontal violence as mentioned, disruptive behaviors, and "nurses eating their young." It includes such behaviors as criticizing, faultfinding, belittling and devaluing comments, intimidating body language and gestures, verbal insults, sarcasm and gossiping, scapegoating, undermining, sabotage and withholding information, hazing, infighting, acts of unkindness, discouragement and disinterest, acts of discourtesy, divineness, controlling behaviors, blaming, backstabbing, failure to respect privacy, bickering, and broken confidences. These are certainly interesting behaviors for a caring profession. Approximately 60% of new nurses leave their first place of employment within the first 6 months because of lateral violence that is perpetrated in the workplace (Beecroft, Kunzman, & Krozek, 2001; McKenna, Smith, Poole, & Coverdale, 2003; Winter-Collins & McDaniel, 2000). We are losing good people to incivility, and with the need for more nurses in the future, we cannot afford to support work environments that turn nurses away. According to MacKusick and Minick (2010), "In the United States, nursing workforce projections indicate the registered nurse (RN) shortage may exceed 500,000 RNs by 2025." (MacKusick & Minick, 2010, p. 335).


What if we train staff to serve as sensei to new staff and supported that relationship? How do we select appropriate staff for this role? What are the criteria for being a sensei? First, they must be older than the student in the role not necessarily in age; someone who has gone before. It must be someone who is enthusiastic about sharing his/her knowledge and skills. If you can learn something from him/her then he/she is your sensei. The sensei's obligation is to teach correct information. He/she is a person who has respect and maturity in the area and has achieved a certain level of mastery. How is this different than a preceptor? The sensei would act as the sensei as long as both people work together on the unit, not just during the orientation process, and would be the only sensei for that person. Even when the newer staff member also becomes a sensei and has a protege of his/her own, the original sensei/protege relationship remains. It is a long-term role.


It would be the responsibility of the sensei to help the new graduate master the skills needed to combat lateral violence in addition to mastering the skills of the profession. The new graduate would have an advocate in his/her sensei-a person they could use as a sounding board. This is a person who would help them make sense out of their new experiences and think through how they handled a situation and what they could do differently in the future to be more effective. Having multiple people on the unit in the role of sensei for their assigned staff would help improve the environment in which the nurses work; the unit culture would then center on respect, support, trust, and care. (I would be remiss if I did not also mention the role of the manager in establishing unit culture. A strong manager with an eye to improving unit culture can also go a long way toward decreasing incivility among nurses).


Having a sensei for a new graduate or a senior nurse new to the unit would result in a more expert practitioner who will, in turn, be able to act as a sensei for a nurse following in his/her footsteps. And as previously mentioned, this practice would help establish a healthier work environment. I would encourage you to take on the sensei role with one of your new staff members.




Balle M., Jones D. (2014). The role of the sensei in lean. Retrieved from[Context Link]


Beecroft P. C., Kunzman L., Krozek C. (2001). Outcomes of a one-year pilot program. Journal of Nursing Administration, 31, 575-576. [Context Link]


Cook H. (2014). The sensei. Retrieved from[Context Link]


MacKusick C., Minick P. (2010). Why are nurses leaving? Findings from an initial qualitative study on nursing attrition. Medsurg Nursing: Official Journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, 10(6), 335-340. [Context Link]


McKenna B. G., Smith N. A., Poole S. J., Coverdale J. H. (2003). Horizontal violence: Experiences of registered nurses in their first year of practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42(1), 90-96. [Context Link]


Ward-Smith P. (2011). Let's leave bullying on the playground! Urologic Nursing, 31(5), 257-263.


Winter-Collins A., McDaniel AM. (2000). Sense of belonging and new graduate job satisfaction. Journal of Nurses in Staff Development, 16(3), 103-111. [Context Link]