What it takes to become a great nurse leader




Best-selling books have been written about what makes a leader great. Ivy League graduate business schools have designed their curricula around the question, and many award-winning movies and documentaries have featured the making of great nurse leaders. The characteristics that make them great has engendered a good deal of dialogue and debate, including whether these skills are innate or learned, begging the question: “Are great leaders born or made?” Let’s take a look at some of the attributes they have in common.

Great leaders are committed, confident, creative, innovative, inspirational, passionate and compassionate. They have integrity, a strong sense of purpose and defined missions and visions. They’re resilient, and when they fall down, they get right back up. They’ve been tested, they’ve proven themselves, and they’ve risen to the top of their organizations.

Great leaders are sought out for advice because their colleagues value what they have to say. They are eager to accept responsibility and be accountable for the outcomes. Staff members feel safe when a great leader is at the helm, and they are prepared and ready to take over when necessary because their leader has given them the confidence they need.

When great leaders are successful, they don’t look for praise for themselves; instead, they credit the success to the others’ contributions. They give credit where credit is due, and as champions of their teams they cheer them on and applaud them publicly. Great leaders are self-aware and recognize the scope of the positions they have, but they never forget to acknowledge those who taught, mentored and motivated them along the way. Because of this strong sense of self, they plan and chart their own courses carefully and thoughtfully. Over time, they set and meet many goals, but they’re always eager to accomplish more. They’re proud of all they have achieved, but are prouder still of what they’ve led others to achieve. Above all, great leaders put their whole heart into all they do.

Are you perhaps an aspiring nurse leader who knew someone who motivated you to follow in his or her footsteps? Are you working on the characteristics you observed in that leader, or are you unsure and still struggling with the decision to pursue leadership? As the debate about great leaders being born or made and their traits being innate or learned continues, there are some things you can do now to help you decide if you want to follow the leadership path.

You can start by asking yourself questions to see if you’re ready to make the move, which can include everything from “Am I sure I want to leave my current position?” to “Am I ready to get the degree, certification and training I will need?” and “Will management be a good fit for my personal and family life?” You also may want to speak with a leader you admire to find out how he or she made the decision and got started in leadership. You will have a lot of information to gather and a lot of new things to learn, so hopefully that leader will become your mentor. Also, you’ll have to do some research on the different roles that are available at your workplace, talk with some of your colleagues and perhaps even consider the possibility of moving to another facility to get your first leadership position.

There’s a world of opportunity out there for you if you think nursing leadership is in your future. Only you can answer the question. Only you can start the journey.

For more information on developing your leadership skills, click here.


About the author
Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN 

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, is a former senior vice president and CNE at OnCourse Learning, where she led nursing programs and initiatives. She continues to write and act as a consultant for Nurse.com. Before joining the company in 1998, Eileen was employed by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, where she held a number of leadership positions in nursing and hospital administration, including chief nurse at two of the system’s member hospitals. She holds a BSN and an MSN in administration, and is a graduate fellow of the Johnson & Johnson University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Nurse Executives program. She also is a board member and past president of the New Jersey League for Nursing, a constituent league of the National League for Nursing.

2 responses to “What it takes to become a great nurse leader”

  1. Thank you for this post. Your words only strengthened my conviction to continue to endeavor to be the guide my mentor was to when I began my journey as a new Med-Surg nurse. Now as an Administrator, I feel even more empowered to lead by example and give praise and credit for accomplishments to my team for goals achieved.
    Would love to see more articles, workshops or webinars on this topic

    • I’m so pleased you agreed with my message. I have been a nurse leader, executive and administrator for the vast majority of my nursing career, and if I could, I would do it all over again. The goals you can accomplish and the nurses you can reach and teach are immeasurable, and I can see you feel the same way.
      You sound like a committed nurse administrator and I wish you all the best in your leadership career. Thank you for writing.
      Eileen Williamson

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