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Professional Development
Leona Werezak MN, BSN, RN

Leadership in Nursing: How To Be a Nursing Leader

Leadership in nursing takes more than just experience and knowledge. It takes hard work, dedication, and a willingness to learn. In this blog post, we'll discuss some of the key things you need to know to be an effective nursing leader. We'll also cover some important leadership skills in nursing and the personal qualities that great nursing leaders have.

What is nursing leadership?

Nursing leadership is “The ability to inspire, influence and motivate nursing staff and other health care workers to work together to achieve their highest potential and collective organizational goals.”

Leadership in nursing is a dynamic process that involves influencing and motivating others to achieve common goals. Because of this, nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, and registered nurses can all be nursing leaders, regardless of their assigned leadership roles or titles.

Nursing leaders play an essential role in patient care, shaping the delivery of care and influencing patient outcomes. Leadership roles in nursing can take many forms, from providing direct patient care to leading large-scale initiatives. Various leadership styles in nursing have been identified, from autocratic to laissez-faire to transformational, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Regardless of their particular role or leadership style, nurses who lead must be able to communicate and collaborate with others effectively. They must also be able to make difficult decisions, often in high-pressure situations. These skills are essential to ensure patient safety and the best possible care.

The importance of leadership in nursing

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how critical strong nursing leadership is for the profession. Nurse leaders have developed new workflows and care models and are now using telemedicine and videoconferencing to interact with patients and other healthcare professionals more than ever before. They also helped prevent shortages caused by the overuse of scarce resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) when COVID-19 began.

The pandemic prompted changes in patient care, innovation, and nursing practices when leaders from all levels of nursing responded to the difficulties posed by COVID-19. The emergence of new nursing leaders during this crisis has shown that the profession can meet any challenge and has a vital role in protecting the public and responding to future global health threats.

What is the role of a nurse leader?

One of the primary responsibilities of a nurse leader is to be a role model for other nurses by modeling the character, ethics, and values described in the American Nurses Association (ANA) Code of Ethics for Nurses. In addition, they demonstrate leadership in nursing to help promote best practices, foster innovation, and improve patient outcomes. Nurse leaders are also often involved in advocating for healthcare reform and policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels. They play an essential role in ensuring that nurses have a voice in the decision-making process.

In a nutshell, leadership skills in nursing are vital for creating a positive work environment and providing quality patient care. In addition, nurse leaders play an essential role in shaping their organization's culture and setting the standards for nursing.

What are the qualities of a good nursing leader?

Nursing leaders have several qualities that make them successful in their leadership roles. This includes characteristics that enable them to lead both themselves and others effectively.

Ability to lead oneself

1. Self-confidence - One of the essential leadership qualities for nurses is the ability to lead themselves. This includes being confident in one's skills and making decisions in the best interests of patients, the healthcare organization, and the healthcare team.

2. Self-awareness - Being a nursing leader requires more than just making decisions in a vacuum. Leaders also need to be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and how others perceive them. 

3. Adaptability - A critical leadership quality for nurses is the ability to adapt. This includes being able to change their approach when necessary and being flexible and open to new ideas. Nurse leaders must also be able to adapt to the continually changing healthcare environment.

4. Integrity - For nurses who aspire to be leaders, integrity is an important quality to have. Integrity includes being honest and ethical in one's decisions and actions and being able to inspire trust in others. Leaders with integrity are also more likely to be respected by their team members and demonstrate accountability for their decisions.

5. Knowledgeable - Leaders who are knowledgeable can provide direction and guidance for their team resulting in improved patient outcomes and decisions that benefit the organization.

6. Self-motivated - A self-motivated leader is passionate about their work and dedicated to making a difference in patients' lives. They're always looking for ways to improve the quality of care they provide and constantly strive to be the best they can be. Motivated leaders can also inspire others to do their best work and are continually working to promote a positive work environment.

7. Self-control - Having self-control and managing oneself are also essential leadership skills in nursing. This means staying calm and focused under pressure and making good decisions even in difficult situations. Nurses who are good leaders can keep their emotions in check, remain organized, and maintain a positive attitude even when things are tough.

Ability to lead others

1. Commitment to others - Nurses are often in a unique position to lead others because of their commitment to the well-being of others. This commitment manifests itself in many ways, from providing emotional support to patients and their families to advocating for changes in the healthcare system. 

2. Empathy - Nursing leaders understand the challenges their team members face and can offer support and encouragement. 

3. Compassion - Leaders with compassion can connect with others on a deep level and understand their needs. They must also know how to inspire and motivate people.

4. Willingness to embrace diversity - Nurses must embrace diversity and lead by example to be an effective nurse leader. By respecting each individual's unique experiences and perspectives, we create a more inclusive environment where everyone feels respected and valued. 

5. Focus on improving patient care - A nurse leader can inspire others to improve patient care. This ability comes from their focus on the needs of their patients. Nurse leaders are always looking for ways to enhance their patients' quality of care. 

What leadership skills in nursing are most important?

Although there are different leadership styles in nursing, some critical leadership skills are common to all nurse leaders.

  • Interpersonal communication skills - One of the most important nursing leadership skills is effective interpersonal communication. Nurse leaders need to communicate effectively with their team members, patients, and other healthcare professionals. They need to be able to listen actively and understand others and express themselves clearly. 

  • Critical thinking - Nurses need to be able to think critically to make good decisions for their patients. This includes analyzing information, identifying problems, and coming up with solutions. Healthcare organizations rely on nurses, from chief nursing officers to nurse managers to direct-care nurses, to use critical thinking to ensure patient safety and improve patient outcomes.

  • Delegation skills - Nurse managers and other nursing leaders must be able to delegate tasks and responsibilities to other members of the healthcare team to ensure nursing care is delivered efficiently and effectively. 

  • Conflict resolution skills - Nursing leaders also need to manage conflict to help maintain a positive work environment. Nursing leaders must handle these situations professionally when disputes or disagreements arise. By resolving disputes quickly and effectively, healthcare organizations can avoid disruptions in patient care. 

  • Decision-making skills - Making decisions is an essential skill for leaders at all levels of nursing. Nurses need to be able to think quickly and make choices that are in the best interests of patients, staff, and the healthcare organization they work for. They also need to be able to communicate their decisions to others clearly.

  • Role-modeling - Nursing leadership requires nurses and nursing assistants to be excellent role models for other staff and patients. Role-modeling allows staff to see what it looks like when a professional nurse or nursing assistant demonstrates the desired behaviors and actions. Role-modeling also allows staff to feel comfortable seeking guidance and asking questions because they know their leader is approachable.

  • Commitment to professional development - As a nurse leader, it's essential to continually develop your skills to become a better clinician and advocate for your patients and those you lead. One way to do this is by pursuing advanced degrees or certifications, making you more qualified for leadership positions. Additionally, attending conferences and networking with other nurse leaders can help you stay up-to-date on the latest trends in healthcare. By committing to your professional development, you'll be able to provide the best possible care for your patients and be an effective leader on your team.

How do you become a nurse leader?

Nurses become leaders in a variety of ways. They have many opportunities to get involved in leadership roles, both inside and outside of their traditional work setting, such as through continuing education, professional organizations, volunteering, or community service. 

No matter what path you take to become a nurse leader, the most important thing is that you’re passionate about making a difference in the nursing profession and committed to improving the lives of those you lead and care for.

Some common themes among nurse leaders include:

  • Having a passion for nursing practice and patients

  • Being able to inspire and motivate others 

  • Being competent and knowledgeable in the field of nursing

  • Possessing strong communication and interpersonal skills. 

Nursing leaders often have a clear vision for where they want to see their unit or organization go, and they work tirelessly to ensure that their team has the resources and support needed to achieve success. 

If you're interested in becoming a nurse leader, start by getting involved in your unit's or organization's leadership activities, and look for opportunities to take on more responsibility. If you work for an agency, look for ways to demonstrate your leadership interests and skills in that setting. You can also seek out mentors who can help guide you to become a nursing leader.

Why is nurse leadership development important?

The field of nursing is broad, complex, and demanding. However, effective leadership is possible for various leadership styles in nursing that include a commitment to ongoing leadership development and mentorship.

Today's leaders play a vital role in developing and implementing nursing practice standards, improving patient safety, and promoting positive patient outcomes. They also serve as advocates for the nursing profession, ensuring that nurses have the resources and support they need to provide high-quality care. 

Additionally, with financing from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation and the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation, a new two-year project titled A Competency-Based Approach to Leadership Development and Resilience for Student Nurses was just launched. This collaborative initiative with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) is aimed at helping new nurses develop critical skills in self-care, resilience, and well-being while preparing them for their role as the nursing leaders of tomorrow.

For nursing leaders to be influential, they must be able to identify and address the unique challenges faced by their organizations. As such, nurse leadership development programs are designed to provide nurses with the knowledge, skills, and resources to assume these roles. In addition, nurses can learn how to effectively manage staff, implement quality improvement initiatives, and navigate the continually changing healthcare environment through these programs.

Leadership in nursing requires both dedication and hard work. However, it's certainly achievable with the right attitude and approach. If you're passionate about making a difference in the lives of others and want to take on a more prominent role within your nursing career, then consider pursuing a leadership position. With the right skill set and mindset, you can be an exceptional nurse leader who makes a lasting impact within your organization.

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About the author
Leona Werezak MN, BSN, RN

Leona Werezak MN, BSN, RN is a freelance nurse writer. She has worked as a nurse in a variety of positions at the bedside for 13 years and as a nurse manager. From there, she began teaching nursing in BSN programs for the next 20 years. As a freelance nurse writer, she now writes online content for healthcare and medical businesses, nursing schools and colleges, as well as various nursing sites.