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20 Required Qualities for Leadership Roles in Nursing

A nurse speaks to a mother and her children.

Nurses make up the largest segment of the U.S. health care workforce — representing 30% of hospital employees and a substantial segment of the workforce in other areas of health care — but are underrepresented in leadership roles. In the past, many people saw nurses as “functional doers” who carried out the instructions of others instead of leaders capable of making strategic decisions in health care settings. That’s changing as a growing body of evidence illustrates just how important a role nurses play in improving clinical outcomes, enhancing patient satisfaction, and increasing employee retention — even as informal leaders.

As a consequence, more health systems — especially those implementing collaborative care and value-based care (VBC) models — are creating formal leadership opportunities for nurses. Nurse leaders work at the bedside with patients, in the boardroom in administrative roles like Chief Nursing Officer, and in every specialty setting there is. They bring fresh ideas, evidence-based best practices and policies, and a patient-centered point-of-view to their organizations. They also earn more than other nurses, according to the most recent Salary and Compensation Study for Nurse Leaders report released by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership.

Becoming one of these changemakers is a matter of honing specific qualities and competencies in a program like the Online MSN in Leadership, Analytics and Innovation offered by University of Michigan School of Nursing. Being a good clinician isn’t enough. To step into emerging leadership roles in health care delivery systems and participate fully in complex collaborative environments, you need both advanced education and a thorough understanding of the qualities of a good nurse leader.

Nursing Leadership: Why Is It Important?

The simple answer is that effective nurse leadership has a profoundly positive impact on facilities and health systems. The work of clinical and non-clinical nurse leaders correlates with improved staff retention, reduced medical errors, and facility efficiency — which can positively influence patient satisfaction and potentially reduce costs. A Press Ganey Nursing Special Report found that nurse leaders have a substantial effect on the quality of their work environments, as well as on patient safety, staff engagement, and even customer satisfaction. Systematic reviews of studies that examine the association between nursing leadership and patient outcomes even find that relational nursing leadership is associated with better quality care and better outcomes. When nurses step into leadership roles, patient satisfaction is higher and patient mortality is lower.

Nurse leadership is especially vital in facilities and health care networks implementing collaborative, value-based, and patient-centered care models. Nurse managers’ and nurse executives’ frontline patient care experience gives them a perspective that makes them uniquely suited to lead initiatives focused on clinical transformation and quality improvement. Most importantly, nursing leadership is crucial because nurses know what resources their peers need to do their jobs most effectively. “When you realize that three-quarters of all employees in the health system are nurses or on the nursing team and that their voice affects so many people,” writes Maggie Hansen, the first Chief Nursing Executive (CNE) at Memorial Healthcare System, “it’s important to have the [nurse leader] voice at the executive table.”

What Does Leadership in Nursing Look Like?

A Gallup poll of more than 1,500 national opinion leaders found that most think nurses should have greater influence than they currently do in the critical areas of quality of patient care and safety. The National Academy of Medicine has advocated for a new level of nursing leadership and recommends that health systems “expand opportunities for nurses to lead and diffuse collaborative improvement efforts.”

Today, the list of leadership roles open to nurses is growing and includes titles such as executive director, coordinator, educator, health care team leader, clinical leader, and service leader. An ambitious nurse leader can even join the ranks of health care and hospital executives as CNE or Chief Nursing Officer (CNO).

The Future of Nursing report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that allowing advanced practice registered nurses such as nurse practitioners to practice to the full extent of their education and training could reduce the burden on providers in other areas of medicine. Studies additionally show that team-based care can save time and increase patient satisfaction and practitioner quality of life.

Effective nurse leadership takes many forms. Perhaps you want to lead cross-functional care teams. Maybe your goals involve improving nursing and patient care processes and policies by addressing the most pressing health care system challenges. Or it could be you want to educate and mentor their fellow nurses, helping shape the future of nursing in the process. Whatever your motivations for exploring leadership roles in nursing, earning a master of science in nursing leadership can be the first step toward accomplishing your goals. In a program like U-M School of Nursing’s Online MSN in Leadership, Analytics and Innovation, you’ll develop the competencies, knowledge, and qualities you need to move into important leadership positions.

The 20 Qualities of a Good Nurse Leader

To be effective leaders and full partners in health care delivery, nurses must nurture certain critical qualities and soft skills within themselves. You’ll thrive as a nurse leader if you are:

Accountable — To be full partners with doctors and other health professionals, nurse leaders must take responsibility for their successes and failures, and view errors as opportunities for improvement.

Agile — Agility lets nurse leaders implement rapid changes in an environment where evolving regulatory requirements, new evidence-based standards and processes, and regular updates to reimbursement policies are the norm. They are forward-thinking and able to pivot quickly when necessary.

Authentic and empathetic — Nurse leadership is patient-focused. Authenticity matters in nursing because it often falls to nurses to weigh revenue targets and budget constraints against the needs of patients and patients’ family members. Authenticity and empathy allow nursing leaders to meet moral dilemmas head-on.

Comfortable with change — Today’s health care system is defined by rapid and ongoing change. Nurse leaders have to respond to organizational restructuring, quality improvement, and unexpected staffing issues with confidence.

Committed to safety — Studies show effective leadership has a positive impact on nurse safety performance in the areas of compliance and participation, the development of a safety climate, and a nonpunitive environment of medication error reporting.

Critical thinkers — Nurse leaders familiar with the latest evidence-based studies and public health issues can confidently make data-driven decisions about practices and policies and help staff do the same.

Decisive — Leaders in nursing who are confident decision-makers can align the decision-making process across an organization to empower other nurses to act with greater autonomy.

Emotionally intelligent — Nurses at all levels work closely with people (e.g., patients and their families, trainees, and administrators) and emotionally intelligent nurse leaders can help nurses cope with the stressors of working with others in an often tense environment.

Ethical — Nurse leaders have integrity and inspire it in staff. This reduces the likelihood that nurses on a team or in a department will experience moral distress and can boost workplace satisfaction.

Innovative — Successful nurse leaders think proactively instead of reactively, anticipating challenges and addressing them before they become issues. They’re comfortable entertaining ideas generated by evidence-based divergent thinking and open to taking calculated risks.

Motivational — Nursing can be stressful (understaffing, clinical disagreements, and unreasonable expectations all contribute to high turnover rates in the profession), so nurse leaders need to cultivate and celebrate success in their staff members. Nurses who feel good about what they do and are empowered to grow help the health care system operate smoothly.

Politically astute — Every organization has formal and informal power structures. Nurse leaders who are aware of the granular details of those structures can communicate more effectively, bridge gaps between departments to support coordination of care and value-based care, and act appropriately in sensitive situations.

Professional — Nurse leaders have to be as comfortable interfacing with executives and stakeholders as they are caring for patients. Even nurse managers and other administrators who still take on clinical care responsibilities will sometimes need to represent the department in the boardroom. Competence and confidence are key.

Respectful — Leadership occasionally involves pushing back against new ideas or old paradigms, and nurse leaders must do this with respect. When they model respect in their words, actions, and interactions, they encourage others to do the same.

Service-oriented — The amount of work nurse leaders coordinate can be overwhelming and prioritization is a must, but patient satisfaction should always be the top priority. Effective nurse leaders develop a department-wide service-oriented culture through training and processes that put people first, even in stressful, overwhelming, or frustrating situations.

A strong communicator — Effective nurse leaders can engage comfortably with support staff, doctors and specialists, nurses and trainees, patients and their families, and senior executives. They have excellent communication skills, as well as highly developed listening skills.

A team player — Leadership has always involved creating good working relationships, managing conflicts, and sharing a common purpose with colleagues. Increasingly, it involves intentional collaboration with people from a variety of departments as part of an emerging drive to provide multidisciplinary care as seamlessly as possible. Nurse leaders who encourage functional teamwork contribute to clinician well-being and resilience.

Tech-savvy — Studies show EHR systems can increase clinicians’ cognitive workloads instead of taking work off their plates. Nurse leaders who are knowledgeable about technology can choose systems and processes that make documentation and data collection easier for nurses, not more difficult.

Trusting — Health professionals in leadership-focused nursing careers must trust their staff and respect their decisions, as well as provide the training and support that allows staff to work autonomously whenever possible.

Unbiased — Having a global perspective lets nurse leaders embrace cultural diversity and help staff do the same. This allows health care organizations and systems to meet the diverse social and linguistic needs of patients and leverage effective health care practices from around the world for diverse populations.

How Master of Science in Nursing Leadership Programs Promote Stronger Leadership in Nursing

New leadership roles for nurses are emerging regularly because health care is changing rapidly. Registered nurses with BSNs who want to step into these roles must seek out opportunities to enhance their problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making abilities, as well as soft nursing skills related to people management and technology management like those listed above.

Pursuing an Online MSN in Leadership, Analytics and Innovation from the University of Michigan is one way to develop the essential skills and important qualities of good nurse leadership you need to step into impactful senior-level positions in nursing while still meeting professional and personal commitments. You can complete the majority of the coursework entirely online, and much of that coursework is asynchronous. Annual four-day on-campus immersions round out the 34-credit nursing program, which you can opt to complete over two or three years. During your time on the Ann Arbor campus, you’ll explore different roles in nurse leadership, take part in simulations and consultative experiences, and form relationships with peers in the program.

Choosing flexibility doesn’t mean sacrificing quality, however. University of Michigan is a leader in quality nursing education. U-M School of Nursing faculty researchers, who specialize in areas of nurse leadership like informatics, evidence-based practice, and health analytics and include former Chief Nursing Officers, teach the courses in the graduate nursing programs. And U-M’s close connections with leading health care organizations help students build their professional networks and take advantage of a broader range of clinical and leadership opportunities.

Ultimately, a master of science in nursing leadership isn’t all it takes to thrive in nurse leadership roles but is nonetheless a must-have credential. The National Academy of Medicine asserts that it is “Nurses with graduate degrees [who] will be able to replenish the nurse faculty pool; advance nursing science and contribute to the knowledge base on how nurses can provide up-to-date, safe patient care; participate in health care decisions; and provide the leadership needed to establish nurses as full partners in health care redesign.” In other words, it’s nurses who’ve studied leadership, evidence-based practice, and innovation in a program like the University of Michigan’s MSN who will lead the charge in improving patient care and collaboration in care — and determine what role the next generation of nurses will play in both.

If you have questions about how an online Master of Science in Nursing in Leadership, Analytics and Innovation from U-M School of Nursing can support your career goals, the program admissions criteria, financial aid, or the student experience, reach out or register for an upcoming online event. When you are ready to take the next step on your journey into nursing leadership, apply online.