How academic nursing is being enriched by ‘The Thriller Elite’


  • Philip Darbyshire PhD RN,

    Professor of Nursing, Director
    1. School of Nursing & Midwifery, Flinders University, South Australia, Australia
    2. School of Nursing & Midwifery, Monash University, Victoria, Australia
    3. Philip Darbyshire Consulting Ltd, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
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  • David R. Thompson PhD RN

    Professor of Nursing
    1. Faculty of Health Sciences, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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In our lengthy writing careers, few papers have been as satisfying for both of us as ‘The Killer Elite’ editorial (Thompson & Darbyshire 2013a,b) and the responses we received and continue to receive.

To say that we have opened the proverbial ‘can of worms’ may be a slight understatement. On a lighter level, it seems that ‘spot the archetype’ became something of a hit coffee-room game in some schools as faculty and students were convinced that they knew exactly who we were describing in our very carefully anonymized descriptions. As one colleague commented in a lengthy email, ‘I thought that your editorial was a direct reference to the Professor of Nursing with whom I most recently worked’.

Equally helpful were the writers who elaborated on the specific modus operandi of the Killer Elite as they fabricated ever more elaborate illusory clothing for their imperial wardrobes. Thanks to our correspondents and ‘Can I have a word?’ colleagues at conferences and meetings, we could almost present a working typology of the Killer Elite. We tread gingerly here lest some impressionable readers take this to be a Professorial position description's KPIs rather than a dire warning. But we have faith in JAN's readership, so here is an initial roll of dishonour. We are sure that colleagues will be able to add to it and elaborate:

  • Steal others' research and publication ideas and pass them off as your own, particularly those in your School who are less powerful.
  • Hire and promote only your friends, fellow sycophants, ideological mirror-images and others who will be useful to you personally.
  • Make a virtue of your rudeness and obnoxiousness by telling people how ‘blunt’, ‘direct’ and ‘honest’ you are. After all, you ‘don't suffer fools gladly’.
  • Take the slightest collegial disagreement or differing viewpoint to be a personal affront and display of disloyalty and respond vengefully.
  • When your bullied colleagues or students begin to show physical or mental health symptoms, have them referred and pathologized as ‘not coping’ or ‘unsuitable’.
  • Have an unwritten policy of never hiring or working with anyone smarter than yourself.
  • Don't choke as you ‘eat your young’, after all, it's only fair that they should suffer as you believe you did on your way to the top.
  • Send clear signals to the School that the only acceptable ‘politics’ are yours and that any other viewpoint or orientation will be demonized, ideally with faux-wounded accusations of an ‘-ism’ or a ‘-phobia’ and a period of prolonged wallowing in victimhood.
  • Think nothing of shouting at, demeaning, humiliating or publicly berating colleagues, for you are merely being a ‘strong leader’.
  • Use every opportunity (and the more ‘anonymous’ the better), as a reviewer, assessor or examiner to sabotage your critics and enemies.
  • Treat everyone in your School without a PhD as something unpleasant that you have just stood on by accident.
  • Remember that when you have your own PhD, you have now ‘arrived’ and a professorship of some kind is now your birthright.
  • Make a special public example of anyone, staff or student who criticizes or questions the work of your research students, for they are of course, ‘attacking you’.
  • Use your Human Resources office wisely in creating your fiefdom. They are not ‘impartial’. Nurtured and carefully fed, they will become your pack dogs.
  • Obstruct and undermine your brightest and most successful new faculty on the basis that their success is clearly showing up yourself and others and making them feel ‘uncomfortable’.
  • Be clear that the curricula of your School have nothing to do with what patients and clients want or need, they are merely paddocks where you can exercise your own hobby horses.
  • Never forget that teamwork is lots of people doing exactly what you say.
  • If your work is critiqued in print, consider having your lawyers send a ‘cease and desist’ letter to the editor. It has worked in the past.
  • Countries have Civil Wars, ensure that in your School it is called a “Curriculum Redesign”.
  • Work only with students who want to ‘use’ your own work and parade them out at every available conference like Lorenz's ducks.

Some suggested to us that they did not recognize the picture we described as they had never encountered a member of the Killer Elite. To them we say: ‘wonderful’. Take a special cake into work tomorrow and say thanks to your colleagues for being exemplars of what we fondly imagine academia to be all about.

Being eternal optimists, we believe that the Killer Elite are a minority, albeit often a disproportionately powerful one. There is, of course, the bright, shining other side of the coin, what we would call ‘The Thriller Elite’, the exemplary leaders and colleagues in academia and services that it is both an honour and a privilege to have known or to have worked with. These are the visionaries, leaders and mentors whose stellar scholarship was or is matched only by their shining decency and whose influence on aspiring nurses and academics like ourselves was so profound.

We suspect that every JAN reader will have encountered the Thriller Elite during their careers and we should have no hesitation in celebrating them. The Thriller Elite are the visionaries, leaders and colleagues in our lives who inspire, support, challenge, give generously and generally make our world of work worthwhile. We doff our hats to all of them.

One of us (PD) salutes the following:

  • Dave Deady, my first Clinical Teacher, who fanned the sparks
  • Alison Tierney, the PhD Supervisor without equal
  • Debra Jackson, the PhD Student without equal
  • Patricia Benner whose peerless scholarship is matched by her generosity of spirit
  • Nancy & John Diekelmann who modelled how to create a true community of scholarship and learning
  • Margaret Alexander, my first Dean and simply the Dean from Heaven whose standards, integrity and openness caused a crick in my neck from always looking upwards

The other (DRT) acknowledges the following:

  • Jean McFarlane, Virginia Henderson and Ada Sue Hinshaw who inculcated in me the importance of originality, impact and humour
  • David de Bono and John Swales whose intellect, modesty and courtesy were unsurpassed
  • Rose Webster, Gerry Bowman, Ernie Hunt, Bob Anderson, George Pohl and Jenny Wilson-Barnett who provided unfailing encouragement and support
  • David Weatherall and Iain Chalmers whose standards are simply the highest and who encouraged me to question, question, question

These are only some of the extraordinary people we have been fortunate to encounter over the past three or four decades: true scholars and leaders who have typically been unfailingly courteous and modest whilst striving to attain the highest ideals. They are remarkable people and we need more like them in nursing academia if we are to flourish.

We suggest that readers take this opportunity to acknowledge and say ‘thanks’ to their own ‘Thriller Elite’. Do not put this off until ‘tomorrow’. Send that handwritten note or card today. Write that email. Post that tweet using hashtag #thrillerelite. Update your Facebook page or LinkedIn account with your acknowledgement. However you choose to do it, just do it. It is the least we can do to promote the very best of academic nursing.