Friday, August 12, 2016

So You Want To Be A Nurse Leader?

If you've been a nurse for a while, you may feel that you now have what it takes to be a nursing leader. Perhaps you've assumed various roles that have honed your leadership skills; maybe you're a natural leader. No matter what it means to you, if it's something that's calling your name, nursing leadership may be in your future.

Stepping Into Leadership

As a nurse, leadership may come quite naturally to you, and you may excel as a preceptor or mentor. Working with nursing assistants or other non-licensed personnel, you may find yourself enjoying being in the position of delegating to your direct reports and offering them guidance and support.

Leadership skills can be sharpened informally; if your clinical team needs someone to step forward to direct a particular initiative (let's say some research or data collection), you just may be the person to take the reins and run with the project, helping to coordinate the effort.

Meanwhile, others may see you as the kind of nurse to whom they can look for guidance and direction. Certain people simply have some kind of leadership gene, or perhaps it's the way they carry themselves; leaders can be created, but sometimes they're born (or is there some kind of leader pheromone?)

If you'd like to move in the direction of a career as a nurse leader, a good place to start is finding ways to exercise and step into leadership right where you are. Some people just naturally do this, and others need to push themselves to do so.

Creating A Career Path

If you've demonstrated reliability, critical thinking, and consistent professionalism on the job, you may find yourself tapped to step into a leadership position at your workplace; this may come as a surprise, or it may be something you've been working towards and expecting all along.

In certain healthcare milieus, applying for a leadership role may not necessitate getting a master's degree or writing a dissertation; it may simply a situation wherein a position opens up at a time when you're the right fit for the job. Middle management positions---nurse supervisor, nurse manager---may not require further schooling, and assuming those types of positions can give you a taste of leadership and show you where your strengths and weaknesses lie; this can give you fodder for the future and a notion of how to leverage experiences in the interest of forward movement as a leader. 

For nurses who wish to pursue a path towards serving as a Director of Nursing or Chief Nursing Officer, additional education is likely necessary. There is indeed much science (and art) behind leadership, and degree programs in management, healthcare leadership, or healthcare administration are likely steps towards that end.

Observing nurse leaders in action can give you a sense of what it takes to do the job, and some nurse leaders may demonstrate exactly how you wouldn't be as a leader; sometimes bad examples show us just what we don't want to be! So, negative examples can help!

Creating a career path towards greater responsibility and leadership can be a time-consuming endeavor; expertise and a quick mind can take you many places, and some positions may simply be outside of your grasp without a required degree.

Your Due Diligence

If your nurse's mind continues to point in the direction of wanting to assume positions of greater influence and power, you may be inexorably drawn towards a path that will groom you as a nurse leader.

If there is a DON, CNO, or other person of influence for whom you have great respect and admiration, ask that person to be your mentor; you can also ask for an informational interview in order to learn more about how they came to be in their current position. Speaking with those on the front lines of nurse leadership will give you a clearer sense of what it takes to get there, and the mindset you'll need for the journey.

You may also want to research degree programs, certifications, and training that will allow you to accumulate appropriate knowledge and skill. Those leaders who you interview can give you their opinions on the career paths that they traveled. 

We can sometimes have an unrealistic vision of what a particular type of nursing position may be like; take off your rose-colored glasses, and take a clear-eyed look at the realities of what you want to accomplish.

Nursing leadership can involve a great deal of organizational politics; make sure you have the stomach for what a nurse leader may face in the world of 21st-century healthcare.

Be The Leader You Are

In terms of leadership, sometimes we just need a taste of what it's like by stepping out of our comfort zone and taking action. Don't like the way something is done on your unit? Put yourself on the line and offer a new way to approach an old problem. Do you see bullying and mistreatment of certain staff members on your floor? Put together an ad hoc working group to examine the issue and create a plan to address it. Do you want to get involved more deeply in organizational development within your workplace? Join a committee and get your hands dirty.

Leadership comes in many guises, be they formal or informal. We always need nurses willing to gird their loins and jump into the fire of leadership; it's not for everyone, but someone has to take the reins. Look inside yourself for the kind of nurse leader you want to be, and move in an inspired direction to become that leader.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind and the well-known blog, Digital Doorway.

Keith is co-host of, a wildly popular nursing podcast; he also hosts The Nurse Keith Show, his own podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. Keith is also the resident nursing career expert at

A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of "Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century." He has also contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession, and currently writes for MultiViews News Service,, StaffGarden, and Working Nurse Magazine.

Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, online nurse personality, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known successful nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives.

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