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Why Every Nurse Needs to Develop Leadership Skills

A cropped photo showing the midsection of a nurse with her hands clasped in front of her.

Many people are unaware of just how profoundly nurse leadership affects health care, though research shows that good things happen when nurses step into leadership roles. For instance, a Press Ganey Nursing Special Report found that nurse leaders have a substantial impact on the quality of their work environments, as well as on patient safety, staff member engagement, and even patient satisfaction. Systematic reviews of studies that examine the association between nursing leadership and patient outcomes find that nursing leadership correlates with better quality care and better outcomes. Nurse leadership is especially vital in facilities and health care networks implementing collaborative, value-based, and patient-centered care models.

One reason the positive impact of nurse leadership goes unrecognized may be that there’s confusion surrounding what nurse leadership is. According to the American Nurses Association, a nurse leader is “a leader within a health care organization who represents the interests of the nursing profession.” These nurses tend to be both experienced and highly educated, and it’s this combination of frontline patient care experience and knowledge that makes nurse leadership so powerful. Nurse leaders are uniquely suited to drive initiatives focused on clinical transformation and quality improvement. They know what resources their peers need to do their jobs most effectively, and they have specific skills that allow them to guide nurses and other health care professionals to take on more responsibility, learn more, and accomplish more — boosting department, facility, and network effectiveness in the process..

Clinical care expertise isn’t all it takes to become a great nurse leader, however, because leadership skills in nursing are very different from the technical skills nurses use while caring for patients. Luckily, there are master’s degree programs like University of Michigan School of Nursing’s Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) in Leadership, Analytics, and Innovation that help nurses learn the principles of nursing leadership and transition into positions in which they can take on more responsibility and wield more authority.

What are the Most Important Leadership Skills for Nurses?

To be effective leaders and full partners in health care delivery, nurses must nurture certain hard and soft skills within themselves, including the essential managerial skills that form the foundation of effective people and process management. For example, nursing leaders need strong critical thinking and decision-making skills, research skills, and strategic planning skills. They also need skills related to human resources and operations management. But the most important leadership skills for nurses are those related to quality improvement. These include:

Analytical skills, which help nurse leaders evaluate leading-edge treatments and new research, giving them the tools to implement evidence-based practice. In administrative roles, nurses with highly developed analytical skills can make data-driven decisions about safety protocols, cost control, staffing, technology implementation, and coordination of care to ensure nurses can meet departmental goals while still providing the best possible patient care.

Communication skills, which are “essential in achieving… increased recovery rates, a sense of safety and protection, improved levels of patient satisfaction, and greater adherence to treatment options.” According to the Journal of Professional Nursing, nurses often function as the communicative hub of strong health care teams. Nurse leaders assign responsibilities, direct team members, delegate tasks, mediate interpersonal conflicts, and ensure that every nurse feels both valued and valuable. They engage comfortably with support staff, doctors and specialists, nurses and trainees, patients and their families, and senior executives — thereby ensuring that everyone directly and indirectly involved in patient care can voice concerns.

Collaboration skills, which enhance the effectiveness of care so much that the National Academy of Medicine has recommended that health care systems expand “opportunities for nurses to lead and diffuse collaborative improvement efforts.” Nurse leaders facilitate the kind of functional teamwork that contributes to clinician well-being and resilience.

People management skills, which let nurse leaders boost team member performance. Gallup surveys show that managers “get the best performance from their team members when they identify what their people do best, praise them for it, and guide them into tasks and partnerships that maximize their natural talents.” Additionally, nurse leaders make work meaningful by giving their staff opportunities to challenge themselves and grow in clinical nursing roles or other roles, which can lead to increased engagement, job satisfaction, and provider effectiveness.

The principles of nursing leadership transcend nursing management competencies, however, because health care is such a unique field. Nurses who want to drive change must possess certain leadership qualities to operate in an environment that is both governed by strict regulations and highly unpredictable. They have to be organized enough to oversee regulatory compliance and yet creative and flexible when situations demand a trial-and-error approach. They must be service-oriented and ethical while also acknowledging that medicine is a business in the United States — one that employs 14% of the nation’s workforce. Nurse leaders need to be multitaskers adept at juggling priorities because they are responsible for the wellbeing and safety of patients, their fellow health care workers, and their organizations’ bottom line.

It’s easy to find nursing leadership examples in health care facilities — even in settings without formal leadership roles for nurses. The scope of both formal and informal nurse leadership is broad and includes much more than operational, budget, and staffing oversight. Leaders in nursing foster safety- and service-oriented cultures, develop and direct patient care policies, manage cross-functional care teams, incorporate research into evidence-based care, and mentor new nurses and other less experienced health care professionals. They also design and refine processes that reduce short-staffing and overwork in facilities to reduce nurse burnout.

Be aware that both the principles of nursing leadership and the scope of nursing leadership will likely change over time because support for expanded nurse leadership is strong. 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 future, more facilities may create opportunities for nurses with advanced credentials to become department heads, medical managers, and health care executives. Nurses who want to move into these types of influential positions must be comfortable with developing change, promoting innovation, and leading with action, and education is the key to developing the dynamic qualities nurse leaders need.

Three Reasons Nurses Need Leadership Skills

In the past, nurses were largely seen as “functional doers,” and their contributions to the practice of medicine and medical research went unacknowledged. Today, nurses are the most trusted professionals in the United States, and the National Academy of Medicine contends that nurse leaders can “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.” Clearly, the benefits of strong nursing leadership in the medical field as a whole are manifold. The benefits of nurse leadership skills at the facility and individual levels are just as compelling.

Nurse Leadership Skills Improve Quality of Care

“Leaders do more than delegate, dictate, and direct,” writes Robin Schaeffer, MSN, RN, CAE, Executive Director of the American Nurses Association Idaho. “Leaders help others achieve their highest potential.” In other words, effective nurse leaders make health care better by empowering other health care professionals to do their best work through research, communication, team unification, and staff development.

Nursing Leadership Skills Benefit Nurses’ Careers

Nurses hoping to advance into senior administrative roles or to have more influence in clinical roles need to nurture specific leadership competencies in themselves — specifically skills that drive quantifiable value.

Tech savviness is one such skill. Consider that nurses spend between 26% and 41% of their time on documentation versus 34% of their time with patients. Nurse leaders who are comfortable with EHR and informatics technologies can choose computer systems and processes that make documentation and data collection measurably faster and more efficient for their departments. Listening skills, critical thinking skills, and political adroitness can help nurse leaders implement policies that have a measurably positive effect on staff engagement and patient safety.

Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Barbara Medvec summed up the value of nurse leadership skills to the individual succinctly when she said that leaders have the confidence to take on new challenges and new activities, and to use the tools that they’ve acquired for decision-making, planning, and presenting in ways most nurses don’t realize they’re capable of. Trained nurse leaders can not only accomplish ambitious goals but also articulate the value they bring to their organizations.

The Principles of Nursing Leadership are Broadly Applicable

Transferable skills are competencies that are applicable across professions, and leadership skills are highly transferable. That’s important, given that nurse turnover rates are high, which suggests it’s not unusual for nurses to seek out new opportunities — including, in some cases, new careers in non-clinical health care environments and medical administration. Surveys find most nurses are highly satisfied with their jobs even as 43% of nurses in hospitals and 37% of nurses in nursing homes report symptoms of burnout. Frontline emergency, ICU, and critical care nurses may experience burnout and disengagement at even higher rates. Nurses who want to move away from clinical nursing care or into other areas of medicine have an easier time making those transitions when they have leadership skills.

How You Can Develop Stronger Leadership Skills and Become a Nurse Leader

Many nurses launch careers in the field with no intentions of joining the ranks of leadership because they’re unaware of leadership roles for nurses beyond charge nurse, head nurse, nurse manager, or nurse administrator. The list of leadership roles open to nurses is growing, however, and nurse leaders can increasingly “serve as full partners with other health professionals and be accountable for their own contributions to delivering high-quality care while working collaboratively with leaders from other health professions.” The Future of Nursing report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that allowing nurses to practice to the full extent of their education and training can increase patient satisfaction and practitioner quality of life.

Strong leadership is a crucial component of expanding the scope and standing of nursing even further, but you don’t have to be in a formal leadership position to leverage the principles of nursing leadership to realize this vision. There are formal nurse leaders and informal registered nurse leaders, and it’s easy to find effective nursing leadership examples that involve informal leaders driving cultural change in health care. “Many informal leaders in nursing [are] troubleshooters, super users, and champions who volunteer for extra jobs, serve on unit- or hospital-wide committees and shared governance councils,” according to an article in American Nurse. “The informal leader is often tapped to provide feedback for new projects and may assume supportive roles such as preceptor, educator, or charge nurse.”

That means you can advocate for better nursing and patient care processes and policies or educate and mentor your fellow nurses regardless of where you are in your nursing career. If you want to wield more influence, however, or drive change in nursing as an authority in the field, you should seriously consider enhancing your leadership skills in a flexible master’s in nursing leadership program. Earning an MSN from U-M School of Nursing can help you transition from informal nursing leadership into formal nurse leader roles such as nursing director, nurse executive, coordinator, educator, health care team lead, clinical lead, service lead, and Chief Nursing Officer while still meeting professional and personal commitments. In just two to three years, you will have the advanced leadership skills to make a sustainable impact on health care at the team, system, and national policy levels.

If you have questions about the 34-credit online Master of Science in Nursing in Leadership, Analytics and Innovation admissions criteria, financial aid options, or how this degree can benefit your career, reach out or register for an upcoming online event. When you are ready to take the next step on your journey into nursing leadership, it’s easy to apply online.