Strategies for Nursing Leadership

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Science in Nursing

Leadership has been defined in a multitude of ways. For Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, it means people who empower others. For Industrialist Andrew Carnegie, it meant being humble. For former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, it was about compassion. In nursing, leadership is a combination of all those things, plus caring, innovation, listening, foresight and a commitment to helping other succeed. It is the driving force behind the future of nursing healthcare.

Nurses and doctors reviewing information on tablet

Nurse leaders are essential to healthcare, from providing bedside support to guiding administrative decision-making. Novice nurses, patients, and staff look to experienced nurses for assistance and guidance. With a growing number of experienced nurse leaders retiring and the healthcare landscape rapidly changing, nurse leaders are being asked to step forward. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), an independent, objective science think tank, said nurse leaders are needed to provide transformational leadership in healthcare.

The NAS and other nurse advocacy groups said education and experience are the leading factors for successful nurse leaders.

“Leadership from nurses is needed at every level and across all settings,” NAS researchers said. “Nurses must understand that their leadership is as important to providing quality care as is their technical ability to deliver care at the bedside in a safe and effective manner.”

Developing Leadership Skills

The American Nurses Association (ANA) said today’s nurse leaders must cultivate their leadership skills by utilizing the following core principles:

Focus on Excellence

Excellence in nursing isn’t just a phrase; it’s a way of life. Major nursing advocacy groups, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) and the National League for Nursing (NLN), have clear-cut definitions for excellence in nursing. In general, healthcare organizations define nursing excellence as ensuring nurses make optimal contributions to patients and their work and provide professional and competent care.

Nurse leaders demonstrate excellence by focusing on patient advocacy and making a difference in even the tiniest ways. The ANA suggests nurse leaders establish three priorities every 90 days and commit to seeing them through.

“Obtain your staff’s insights on the priorities so the team will stay focused and have a stake into the strategic plan,” the ANA said.

Target Important Tasks

Nurse leaders should focus on several important components of leadership to encourage quality patient care and staff satisfaction:

  • Service – Patient and staff satisfaction is equally important because of their cooperative relationship.
  • Quality – Concentrate on patient safety and other core quality measures to make them a way of life.
  • People – Attend to the needs of all staff and patients.
  • Growth – Look for ways to encourage growth within the department to free up beds for additional patients.
  • Finance – Review the department’s business plan and make changes accordingly.

Cultivate New Leaders

Look to the staff to find the newest leaders and encourage growth. Find ways to include them in development activities, including management meetings. Train them to take leadership roles. To engage with Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000), nurse leaders should focus on acting as mentors rather than managers. Millennials want nurse leaders who will openly communicate. Millennials need strong leaders who will guide them through new terrain.

“This is a very tech-savvy generation, but, we must teach them how to connect with other people,” Christy Dempsey, chief nursing officer for the healthcare consulting group Press Ganey Associates, said of Millennials. “Thirty years ago when I went to nursing school, we practiced IVs on each other and did bath rubs on each other. We learned what was too rough, what worked and what didn’t. Nurses today are taught on simulators and simulators don’t usually talk, get angry or cry.”

Establish Individual Accountability

All nurses should be held responsible for the part they play in the overall healthcare goals of an organization. The ANA encourages the use of the SWOT approach to set immediate goals for all staff. In its simplest form, the SWOT approach is writing goals and following through. The following are the main points of SWOT:

  • Strength – Take account of areas of strength and effectiveness.
  • Weakness – Determine areas of weakness and places where growth is needed.
  • Opportunities – Establish areas where strengths could be turned into opportunities and new areas of growth.
  • Threats – Uncover areas that hinder growth.

SWOT is best used for individual growth when accompanied by personalized and accountable goals.

“This is an easy way to keep accurate records on each employee’s performance, which can be used when completing their annual performance evaluation,” the ANA said.

Acknowledge and Reward Success

Accolades and recognition should not be saved for Nurses Week; they should be ongoing. Rewards and incentive programs encourage innovation and creativity. Set goals and objectives for staff nurses and offer rewards. Leave small notes of appreciation. Take the time to have a one-on-one conversation to say thank you.

“People want to make a difference. They want to feel that the work they do, the contributions they make to the organization, is of value,” Rochelle Crollard, director of human resources at The Everett Clinic in Everett, Wash., said to the healthcare recruitment firm AMN Healthcare.  “When people are recognized or acknowledged for the work they do, it’s a motivator for them to continue doing that same work.”

Embrace Advanced Education

The NAS encourages all nurses to embrace lifelong learning. Graduate-level training provides added assurances to the public that their nurses have “acquired the specialized professional development, training, and competencies required to provide safe, quality care for specific patient populations,” NAS leaders said.

Nursing graduate studies prepare nurse leaders by focusing on concepts and theories of nursing and applying them to everyday uses. In classroom settings, graduate students are able to collaborate with nurse educators and other students to learn about leadership. A graduate education gives nurse leaders the tools they need to act as role models for junior staff and develop leadership behaviors.

About Duquesne’s Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Program

Duquesne University’s online MSN program prepares Registered Nurses (RNs) for roles in nursing leadership. Students learn from professionals who have the practical experience and broad knowledge of healthcare. Students can choose from three areas of specialization in nursing: Family (Individual Across the Lifespan) Nurse Practitioner, Forensic Nursing, and Nursing Education and Faculty Role.

Sources:, “Management Leadership Styles”, “Transforming Leadership”
Nursing World, “Growing Nurse Leaders”
American Nurse Today, “9 Principles of Successful Nursing Leadership”
Beckers Clinical Leadership & Infection Control, “The best strategies to engage millennial nurse leaders”
AMN Healthcare, “How Employee Recognition Programs Can Have a Meaningful Impact”