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

Nursing leadership is one of the most important ways to motivate and inspire nurses to practice at the top of their licensure. The American Nurses Association describes a nurse leader as one who inspires and influences others to achieve their maximum potential using leadership skills and critical thinking.

Nurses can lead by sharing and propelling ideas and innovation at any point throughout their careers and do not necessarily need to hold an official leadership title or role. Every nurse has the potential to lead, whether on the front line, in their unit, or as a resource for others.

Nursing leadership and management are successful when their teams are successful. While the definition of leadership in nursing often includes qualities such as being encouraging, inspirational, and supportive, effective styles may vary and evolve over time. But the goal is clear. Good nursing leadership improves patient outcomes, reduces medical errors, and improves staff retention — benefiting patients and healthcare organizations.

Nursing leadership: A nurse leader coaches another nurse.

What are the key competencies in nursing leadership?

Key competencies and attributes of nurse leaders include the following:

  • Understands the correlation between a strong team and high levels of patient quality and safety.
  • Knows how to incorporate steps for strategic, long-term success into day-to-day practice.
  • Encourages feedback and works to solve problems related to patient care, patient safety, budget, and staffing.
  • Can perform well under pressure and balance a myriad of daily challenges.
  • Can analyze reports and data dashboards but maintains focus on people — consistently supporting, motivating, and inspiring others.
  • Ensures that staff members are recognized for quality and promotes success in patient care.
  • Maintains a physical presence through onsite visits, rounding, or huddles to provide direct support and appreciation.
  • Understands the importance of empathy and the human component in leadership — emphasizing connectivity, active listening, and the ability to give meaningful feedback.

Most important skill of a nurse leader

Many qualities and characteristics of a good nurse can benefit a nurse leader, but foremost is the willingness to learn and grow. Nurses may not be prepared for every specific leadership responsibility, such as managing budgets, monitoring utilization goals, or assessing quality metrics, but if they are ready to learn, they can master critical leadership competencies.

Effective leadership in nursing requires the capacity to adapt quickly to succeed — whether through mentoring, experience, or additional education and training. In other words, the most important skill of the nurse leader is agility.

Agility enables a nurse leader to accommodate and implement rapid changes that benefit the organization without sacrificing momentum or losing sight of the overall vision or goal. They can face the constant flux in health care relating to major processes such as changing regulatory requirements, new evidence-based standards, and updates to reimbursement policies. Nursing leaders must be agile in adapting not only to new processes but also flexible and forward-thinking enough to lead others amid unpredictable emerging challenges effectively.

Additionally, an agile nurse leader will be ready to take on the growing number of options in their own career. With opportunities to impact patient care globally through policymaking, research studies, and new opportunities across the care continuum, agile leaders see potential where others may see instability.

The importance of leadership in nursing

Leadership in nursing practice directly impacts an organization’s performance and all its people — from staff to patients.

Greatest impact on nurse success

While it’s common to focus leadership efforts at the highest levels of a hospital or health system, nurse leaders are key to an organization’s success. They often have the most direct impact on frontline healthcare workers — yet these middle managers are often overlooked. Healthcare organizations should target the development of nurse leaders through training on the transformational leadership model and help establish career pathways to encourage more to consider nursing leadership.

As CEO of the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), Robyn Begley spearheaded efforts to quantify the impact of nurse leadership. Results documented in AONL’s Quantifying Nurse Manager Impact report showed a measurable return on investment for developing more nurse leaders to improve retention and quality of care and reduce overtime costs.

Key healthcare decision-makers

To improve patient care, highly reliable organizations encourage effective leadership throughout the organization. Physicians and healthcare executives may serve as the key decision-makers on an organization’s high-reliability journey, but the value and responsibility of nursing leadership should not be underestimated. This large segment of leaders can tremendously impact your organization’s overall quality and performance, especially when they lead small, agile teams throughout your organization.

Nurses make up the largest segment of the healthcare workforce, spend more one-on-one time with patients than any other role in the industry, and have an undeniable impact on patient care outcomes. Only with connected and agile leadership on the front lines can the nursing workforce grow and help shape better healthcare delivery.

Improving care quality and patient safety

Effective leadership in nursing practice has been linked to major contributions to the healthcare industry. As discussed in the Institute of Medicine’s The Future of Nursing 2020-2030: Charting a Path To Achieve Health Equity report, nurse leaders should fully partner with physicians and other healthcare professionals in redesigning U.S. healthcare and positioning it for advancement.

Due to the significant impact nursing leaders have on units and teams, their leadership effectiveness is crucial in determining patient outcomes. Studies continue to show a strong correlation between effective leadership and a high-quality work environment. Together, these lead to an effective culture of safety, attesting to the importance of strong nursing leadership for quality and safety.

Implementing change through nursing leadership

In the ever-changing healthcare landscape, nurses constantly face new challenges, practices, and opportunities. Hospitals and health systems that understand the importance of nursing leadership in implementing change are better equipped to make an impact on patient safety and quality initiatives.

Having a strong nurse leader in place to help navigate and support change can often affect a nurse’s decision to stay or leave an organization. Nurses are better prepared for success in their roles if their leaders can implement change that allows staff to understand the overall benefit of the change in the least disruptive way possible and move forward with confidence and success.


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, can transform entire teams to a higher level of practice.

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