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Nursing Leadership: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

What is nursing leadership?

Nursing leadership is one of the single most important factors in motivating and inspiring nurses (who make up the clear majority of the healthcare workforce) to practice at the top of their licensure. The American Nurses Association Leadership Institute describes a nurse leader as “a nurse who is interested in excelling in a career path, a leader within a healthcare organization who represents the interests of the nursing profession, a seasoned nurse or healthcare administrator interested in refining skills to differentiate them from the competition or to advance to the next level of leadership.”

Nursing leadership and management is most successful when the entire team is also successful. While the definition of leadership in nursing often includes qualities such as encouraging, inspirational, and supportive — truly successful nursing leadership must be equipped to evolve as the nursing industry itself experiences ongoing change and shifts. This style of nursing leadership has been linked to improved patient outcomes, reduced medical errors, and improved staff retention, benefiting the healthcare workplace as whole.

The nurse leader role

As nurse leaders become increasingly aware of the correlation between a stronger team and stronger achievements in patient quality and safety, understanding how to incorporate steps for strategic, long-term success into day-to-day practice is key. In any given day, a nurse leader will problem solve for issues related to bedside care, patient safety, budget constraints, and staffing shortages. Being able to perform well under pressure and balance the myriad of daily challenges is no small endeavor for even the most experienced nurse leader.

Aside from analyzing reports and dashboards (quality metrics, data, and finances), a nurse leader must also focus on their people. Without a team that feels supported, motivated, and inspired, the nurse leader and the organization will experience negative consequences. A good nurse leader will incorporate a healthy balance of managing people and processes into their daily routines by ensuring staff is recognized for quality improvements, that feedback is encouraged to promote continued success in improving patient care, and a physical presence is maintained (onsite visits, rounding or huddles) to show support and appreciation.

Most important skill for a nurse leader

While many leadership qualities in nursing can naturally benefit a nurse leader throughout their career, the willingness and ability to learn new skills will help them succeed in their nurse leadership role. For example, nurses are not always prepared for managing budgets, utilization goals, quality metrics, yet these are critical components of a nurse leader’s role. Effective leadership and management in nursing requires the will and capacity to quickly adapt in whatever way they can to succeed (mentorship, additional education and training, etc.). If we ask, “what is the most important skill of the nurse leader?” one all-encompassing answer might be agility.

Agility as nursing leadership skill: Of all the leadership skills in nursing, agility allows a nurse leader to implement rapid changes that will benefit the organization without sacrificing momentum or losing sight of the overall vision/goal. Aside from the constant flux in healthcare processes (changing regulatory requirements, new evidence-based standards, updates to reimbursement policies), nurses have more and more options for in their careers rather than traditional bedside nursing. Nursing leaders must be agile in adapting to not only new processes in the nursing industry, but also flexible and forward thinking enough to effectively lead nurses that will be in the field for many years to come. This will bring a new set of unpredictable challenges and opportunities.

Additionally, a truly agile nurse leader will be prepared to take on the growing number of paths in their own career. With opportunities to impact patient care on a global level through policymaking, research studies, or new impactful initiatives across the care continuum—agile nurse leaders that are comfortable with thriving during times of unpredictably see the potential for greatness whereas others may see instability as a hindrance.

What additional practice behaviors do you believe describe an effective nurse leader?

Relias Vitals+Vision Podcast

Listen as we chat with Felicia Sadler, a nurse for over 30 years and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt in Healthcare, and explore the qualities of nurse leaders who successfully engage and retain their nurses. Felicia also explains why high emotional intelligence is a must for healthcare leaders and why autonomy and work-life balance are key to fighting turnover.

The importance of leadership in nursing

With the ever-evolving healthcare industry, one truth will always remain constant—leadership in nursing practice directly impacts an organization’s drive, performance, and people (caregivers and patients alike). As hospitals and health systems strive to improve patient care, an emphasis is placed on adopting characteristics of a highly reliable organization (an organization that works to create an environment in which potential problems are anticipated, detected early, and nearly always addressed early enough to prevent catastrophic consequences). In truly highly reliable organizations, leadership skills are encouraged throughout the organization. While it’s often common to focus leadership efforts at the highest levels of a hospital or health system, middle-management leaders (such as nurse leaders) are key to an organization’s success and directly impact many front-line caregivers and healthcare workers.

Because nurses make up the largest segment of the healthcare workforce and spend more one-on-one time with patients than any other role in the industry, it’s clear to see the undeniable impact that nurses have on patient care (positively or negatively). Only with strong nurse leadership will nurses continue to grow and help shape smarter healthcare delivery of the future. While physicians and healthcare executives certainly serve as key decision makers on an organization’s high reliability journey, the importance of leadership in nursing should not be underestimated, as nurses have an awesome responsibility to improve patient care that cannot be ignored. Only with strong, steady, and swift (agile) nurse leadership having a voice at the table will healthcare change for the better.

Improving quality of care and patient safety

Effective leadership in nursing practice has been linked to major contributions to the healthcare industry as whole. As discussed in the Institute of Medicine’s The Future of Nursing 2020-2030: Charting a Path To Achieve Health Equity report, nurses should be included as full partners (with physicians and other healthcare professionals) in redesigning healthcare in the U.S. Due to the significant impact nursing leaders have on their direct units and teams, their leadership effectiveness is crucial to determining how patients will ultimately be affected. Studies continue to support a strong correlation between effective leadership and a high-quality work environment. This, in turn leads to a culture of safety that includes positive patient outcomes—further attesting to the importance of leadership in nursing.

Implementing change as a nurse leader

Hospitals and health systems that understand the importance of nursing leadership in implementing change will be better equipped to make an impact on patient safety and quality initiatives. With the ever-changing healthcare landscape, nurses are constantly met with new challenges, practices, and opportunities. Having a strong nurse leader in place to help navigate these changes can often make or break a nurse’s decision to stay or leave an organization. While nurses (both new and experienced) are generally understanding of the healthcare industry’s nature of change, they will be better prepared for success in their roles if leadership is able to implement change in a way that allows the unit/team to see the overall benefit of the change, in the least disruptive way possible.


Transformational Leadership: Developing Leaders, Inspiring Employees, and Driving Change

Today’s healthcare leaders continuously face the challenge of meeting high expectations and adapting to change. Transformational leadership, the preferred management style of Magnet®-recognized hospitals, has been shown to transform entire teams to a higher level of practice.

Download the research brief →

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