Leadership—it’s the Holy Grail that’s stressed in business and health care administration. But how can you get there? And how do you know if nursing leadership is even right for you?

“Not everyone has the skills, desire, or disposition to be an administrative leader,” says Laura S. Scott, PCC, CPC, ELI-MP, CPDFA, president and founder of 180 Coaching, an executive coaching and leadership training provider based in Tampa, Florida. “I recommend that my clients go to a trusted supervisor and ask, ‘Where do you see me going as a professional and leader?’ and then just listen. You might be surprised at what you hear. If you have a role in mind, ask that trusted supervisor if they think you would be a good fit for that role and ask, ‘Why or why not?’”

Use caution when thinking about getting into leadership. “Don’t rush into what isn’t easily seen as an opportunity,” says Alisha Cornell, DNP, MSN, RN, a clinical consultant with Relias, a health care talent and performance solutions company. To decide whether a leadership role is right for them and what they want get out of it, Cornell says that self-exploration is necessary. “How did the nurses identify that they even wanted to be nurses? My recommendations are to stick to the original design. Whatever got you to nursing school and whatever helped to push you out of there, that’s your personalized equation.”

If you’re not sure if you want to be a leader, Romeatrius Nicole Moss, DNP, RN, APHN-BC, founder and CEO of Black Nurses Rock, says, “First, it is determined by the specialty you enjoy, followed by what you can contribute. Leadership starts now, as a staff nurse.” She suggests you ask yourself these questions:

  • Do people often come to you for help, advice?
  • Do you offer suggestions at meetings?
  • Are you the go-to person for issues on the unit before elevation to leadership?
  • Are you available, outgoing, approachable?

“If you are the unit leader, charge nurse, etc., these positions are set up to move you to the [higher] levels when opportunities arise,” explains Moss. “So be ready.”

If you know that you aspire to a leadership position, then move ahead. If you don’t or you try a leadership role and don’t like it, that’s okay. “If you don’t like nursing leadership, you can always go back to patient care,” says Thomas Uzuegbunem, BSN, RN, an RN administrative supervisor as well as the editor of the nursing leadership blog, NurseMoneyTalk.com. “Some nurses can get enough leadership fulfillment by being on a board. Others find that it’s not enough, and they want to move into nursing leadership as a career.”

Make sure that after self-reflection, you are the one making the decision to move into a leadership position. “Nurses who are seen as good caregivers are often promoted. While patient care is extremely important, being able to care for a patient does not mean that a nurse can care for a team of peers,” explains Bill Prasad, LPC, LCDC, CTC, a licensed professional counselor who has also worked as a hospital director and a leadership coach. “A nurse must understand that moving to a leadership role means you are moving from a focus on health care to a focus on organizational health.”

If that doesn’t fit in your life goals, there’s no shame in not pursuing leadership or moving into management. Yanick D. Joseph, RN, MPA, MSN, EdD, an assistant professor of nursing at Montclair State University in New Jersey sums it up: “Not everyone is destined to lead or to be an administrator,” she says.

Skills and Characteristics Needed for Nursing Leadership

“Leaders are born, but there are no born leaders,” says Prasad. “Becoming an effective leader takes training and education. Without this, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Communication, flexibility, and organizational skills are the most important skills that Moss believes nurses wanting to move to leadership need to have. “Leaders should have the skills that allow them to be calm in stressful situations such as in crisis, emergencies, schedule management, and more,” she says. Nurses also need the “ability to work with different personalities and change leadership styles based on the staff member. Nurses should understand this even while working with their teams: you cannot use the same leadership style on everyone. Some people do better with taskers and checklists, while others need a little supervision to flourish.”

Moss says that leaders must be relatable and personable. “Allow your staff to see you get your hands dirty. Be the expert on the unit/department and show the team your skills and that you can handle the unit if need be. Start IVs, jump in on a code, participate while letting your team lead.”

One other characteristic Moss believes is imperative for nurses who want to lead is to be calm when challenged or with disagreements. “It is important to understand differences of opinion and to negotiate the best options. It’s even more important when dealing with difficult staff, family, etc. to not get emotional and to always be open-minded.” She admits that this was tough for her when she began to lead. “I had to understand the different personalities, politics, and overall strategic plan, and how they all come into play with decision making. Once you get this, your life will become less stressful,” she explains.

Scott agrees that good communication skills are crucial. “Effective communication and opening the channels for two-way feedback is very important. Also important is knowing what keeps these staff and providers on board and engaged so that you can give them what they need to stay motivated and fulfilled,” says Scott.

When communicating with others, Cornell says to keep this in mind: “Nurses are well-versed in the scientific methods of providing care from an academic perspective, but relating to ourselves, learning to listen for the conversation instead of solving a problem, and not reacting spontaneously are all critical skills of a strong leader.”

Nurses also need to be patient and have courage. “These characteristics are important because the normal job responsibilities of the nurse require quick thinking and paying attention to details. However, being a great leader requires the brain to slow down and digest the information in order to resolve a problem or at least know where to look to resolve it,” says Cornell.

Nurse leaders, Uzuegbunem says, must have an ability to accept diversity and understand technology. “Nurse leaders must be able to embrace diversity and adapt to those cultural differences of the nurses they lead as well as the patients the nurses take care of,” says Uzuegbunem. “Technology is having more of an influence in health care. From electronic medical records to the equipment nurses use. [Leaders] need to be able to adapt to these technological changes.”

Educational Necessities

While our sources have different opinions on how much education leaders need, one thing is certain: if you want to hold a leadership position, you must keep learning all the time.

“Nurses need to obtain additional education, certifications, and always continue to have a thirst for knowledge,” says Cornell. “A nurse leader should have, at minimum, a master’s degree in a focused area of nursing.” While she says other advanced degrees are helpful, one focused specifically on nursing “drives the objectives of nurse leadership and the shared experiences of nurse leaders. At the advanced leadership level—which includes directors and CNOs, they should have a doctorate. The terminal degree is a collaborative journey of nursing experience and leadership needed to facilitate a structured systems approach to patient care and organization of nursing teams.”

“A nurse aspiring a position in leadership should attain the highest level above what the unit or department requires,” suggests Moss. “Managing nurses who have higher credentials could lead to resentment or turnover as the staff nurse doesn’t see progression at the top. A unit should be led by the expert, in my opinion, the go-to person. This person should obtain the needed certification, education, and training to support this.”

Scott reminds nurses to check to see if the facility you work for provides funding for earning advanced education. “Many hospital groups will offer tuition reimbursement to qualified candidates, so you don’t have to go into deep debt to get this education,” she says.

Uzuegbunem believes that there’s no set educational path to leadership. “Depending on who you talk to, you’ll get different answers. Some will say that nurses should have at least a BSN before being able to get into leadership. I don’t. I also don’t think a certification is needed. All that’s required is a desire to lead others and a willingness to serve those you lead,” he argues.

Money, Money, Money

Besides the other skills, characteristics, and education that prospective leaders need, there’s another that many don’t consider—financial knowledge. Jane C. Kaye, MBA, president of HealthCare Finance Advisors, states that nurses in supervisory positions in all types of health care facilities need to have some financial skills. “The financial health of health care organizations depends on how well nurse leaders manage staff and supply costs. For example, salaries are the single largest expense line in any health care facility, and nurses represent the largest share of salaries. Similarly, nurses lead large departments such as surgical services, where supply costs are very high. If salary and supply costs are not managed, the sheer size of these spending areas can jeopardize the financial health of the health care entity,” explains Kaye.

According to Kaye, the types of financial skills nurse leaders need include: management of full-time equivalent staff, management of supplies, expense variance analysis techniques, knowledge of budgets, an understanding of operating statistics, and an understanding charge capture techniques so that all services performed are included on the patients’ bills.

For nurses who don’t have good math and finance skills, Kaye suggests that they find a trusted colleague in finance to help them understand financial concepts. “They should never be afraid to ask questions,” she says.

Attending webinars, seminars, and workshops on finance may also help.

Prep Work

A good way to prepare for a nursing leadership role, says Scott, is by taking on leadership roles outside of work. For those who want to become more confident speakers and grow in leadership presence, she recommends looking into Toastmasters, a national organization with chapters across the U.S. that help members learn to give great speeches.

Cornell says that networking is a must but can begin way before nurses are even considering leadership roles. “Knowing colleagues in the industry is always a plus, and it helps to learn what other nurses are doing. Volunteering for committees and sitting on boards are all great experiences, and nurse leaders should participate in these activities,” says Cornell. She cautions that doing this should be fine. If it’s not what the nurse is aligned with liking or doing then s/he will lose interest fast.

“Becoming part of committees and boards allows you to gain the experience and confidence you need to speak out on your opinions, work with different personalities, and see your strengths and weaknesses,” says Moss. “It can really show you what type of leader you naturally are.”

To prepare for taking a leadership role, Joseph suggests the following: reading professional journals, attending seminars, networking, joining LinkedIn, researching the role you want, reaching out to professional organizations for best practices, speaking to a mentor or someone who has made the transition, being proactive and enthusiastic about learning the intricacies of the new role, and being visible.

No matter what, being true to yourself is most important. “Being a leader is challenging, arduous, demanding, trying, and hard,” says Joseph. “But the joy of doing what you are born to do and have a passion to accomplish is indescribable.”

Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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