12 Essential Qualities of a Good Nurse Leader

From experience, being a nurse leader is difficult. There’s a lot expected of you with very little praise at times.

To make matters worse, being a leader (as in having leadership skills) is not something I think everyone knows how to do.

Sure some might be natural-born leaders, but I think those nurses are the exception and not the norm.

I don’t believe it’s hard to hone your leadership skills, but it does take time, effort, and education.

Here’s my list of what I believe to be some of the most important traits or characteristics of a successful nurse leader to get you started.

*Disclosure: This article on traits of a good nurse leader may contain affiliate links. If you click and make a purchase, I may receive a commission. For more info, please see my disclaimer.

Qualities of a Good Nurse Leader

1. Keep Their Word

Have you ever had a nurse manager promise to do something only to fall short on that promise?

Most of you will have examples from your own career because unfortunately, not keeping your word is a common leadership trait.

From time to time, promises will be broken for various reasons but if you make a habit of making “big” promises to your nursing staff and not delivering later it will cause distrust amongst your staff.

Leading people becomes a lot harder when those people don’t trust you. Believe me when I say there’s no real leadership without the trust of your followers.

Failing to keep your word erodes trust and is a poor quality for a nurse leader to display.

2. Knows How and When to Delegate

Delegation is the act of entrusting a task or responsibility to someone else.

As a leader, you’ll have so many responsibilities that you have to get done there’s no one you’ll be able to do all of them unless you know when to delegate and how to delegate.

Knowing when and how to delegate is a discipline in nursing that’s often under-emphasized.

It’s a shame because not delegating properly can be the difference between a stressful leadership experience where you feel like you have to do it all to a more enjoyable one where you empower your staff to handle issues that don’t require management intervention.

Here are some of the reasons why leaders choose all too often not to delegate:

  • They’re too afraid of failing.
  • They don’t trust their team members.
  • They’re not confident in their leadership skills.

The list goes on but the point of this is to emphasize successful leaders know when and how to delegate.

3. Grows Other Leaders

Show me a nurse leader who does not train leaders from their subordinates, and I will show you a nurse leader who is probably frustrated.

Why would leaders want to raise other leaders? Wouldn’t this be counterproductive, creating someone to compete with? It sounds better to have subordinates who follow your orders without question…Right?

Wrong!

This principle is counterintuitive.

It looks good on paper but in practice failing to raise other leaders around you is not very conducive for high work performance.

You want to grow other “informal” nurse leaders who can critically think for themselves, make decisions for the good of the team, and can perform conflict resolution.

This kind of critical thinking creates excellence in the workplace and takes the pressure off you as a leader to be solely responsible for extinguishing every fire.

Raising leaders makes life easier for you and makes it easier to delegate work to other team members.

You want to grow nurse leaders who can critically think for themselves, make decisions for the good of the team, and can perform conflict resolution.

4. Leads by Example

One of the essential qualities of a good nurse leader is leading by example. I’m sorry to say it, but when you’re a leader, you’re held to a higher standard and are under more scrutiny.

Even when it doesn’t seem like it, your followers are watching you…I promise you they are.

They’re watching to see if you’re:

  • …cutting corners.
  • …not diligent about completing your tasks well.
  • …not striving for excellence in your work.

Your frontline nurses will be frustrated at you if you’re constantly trying to hold them to a high standard when you’re not even holding yourself to it.

If you want to create a culture of high work ethic, helpfulness, and workers doing things the right way it starts with the leaders setting the example themselves.

5. Knows How to Deal with Conflict

As a manager, you’ll frequently be tasked with making tough calls and conversations.

You might have to sit down with a new nurse who’s not acting the way they should. Maybe you have an older staff nurse whose nursing practice is leading to poor patient outcomes.

These are just some of the conflicts you’ll have to deal with.

Please note, I’m not suggesting as a clinical leader to seek out conflict. Sometimes conflicts are unavoidable and must be handled. What I am suggesting is that you shouldn’t run from them.

Great nurse leaders deal with conflict, and mediocre leaders run away from conflict.

6. Has Good Communication Skills

To be a great nurse leader, you must be an effective communicator. Being an effective or good communicator is making sure the other person receives the information the way you intended.

Communication includes verbal and nonverbal cues, and many would argue that nonverbal is as important if not more than verbal communication.

Communication includes facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, body posture, and voice tone. All of which can dramatically affect what you are trying to communicate.

Good leaders know to be effective, their communication needs to be received the way they had intended. This includes being mindful of both their verbal messaging AND their nonverbal messaging.

This is another video I’ve enjoyed watching on non-verbal communication. It’s not directly related to leadership, but I think it emphasizes the power of nonverbal communication and why you need to be more aware of it as a leader.

7. Is Open to Feedback

Have you ever met that clinical nurse leader who knows everything, never makes mistakes, and their plan works 100% of the time?

…Wait, you’ve never met a leader that was that good?

It’s probably because that person doesn’t exist!

Nurse leaders should be open to feedback, especially from their staff who are on the frontlines.

Once you become a nurse manager, you’re going to be removed to a certain degree (if not completely) from direct patient care. There’s nothing wrong with that. You have other duties that need to be accomplished.

The problem starts when you stop listening to your workers on the ground floor because one of the things I’ve learned is that many times something that looks really good on paper is really bad when it’s actually being implemented.

That’s why you listen to your staff because they’ll give you different perspectives you might not have seen otherwise.

Lastly (and maybe the most important), involving your subordinates in decision-making processes will increase the likelihood of buy-in from them.

Related: How to Give Constructive Feedback in the Nursing Profession

8. Knows How to Motivate Others

Being able to motivate the people who work for you is an important leadership trait. While I don’t think this is the hardest trait to master, I think it’s one leaders struggle with the most.

The reason for that is because people are not all the same and are at times motivated by very different things.

For Example

You could have a registered nurse on your team that’s motivated by money.

You could have a nurse practitioner that’s motivated by public praise and recognition.

You could have another RN who’s motivated by a feeling that they’re making a difference.

I only listed out three different motivators for three different employees. Many other things could motivate employees, and once you scale this up to 20 or 30 staff members, you can see how it starts becoming a struggle.

The other issue leaders run into is that they project their own motivations onto their staff members, and it doesn’t work like that.

Just because you’re motivated by money or public recognition doesn’t mean your team members are. Your challenge in leadership is finding out what motivates your people and doing what you can to reward them with such.

If people aren’t motivated, you can expect subpar work performance and work ethic.

9. Proactive

I’ve had awesome supervisors who anticipated when bad outcomes might happen and moved to prevent the bad outcome from ever happening.

I’ve had managers who didn’t do anything even when they’ve been told something bad might happen if nothing changes.

Guess which leader I prefer…the one who’s proactive and prevents fires from starting instead of always frantically putting out fires after they happen.

10. Has High Critical Thinking Skills

Leaders are good critical thinkers…or another way to put it is that they’re good problem solvers.

Issues will arise on an almost daily basis, and as a leader, you have to make a decision using at times countless variables to come to a solution.

Sometimes the right solution is not immediately obvious and might require that you think outside the box.

11. Is Experienced

Not everyone is going to have years of experience, and that’s okay. You can honestly still be a good leader without it, but there’s still an advantage to having experience.

For example, it’s hard to fill the chief nursing officer’s leadership position if you’ve never worked as a nurse. Similar to how it’s hard to be a nurse manager over an ICU if you’ve never worked in the ICU.

Does that mean you couldn’t fill both of the roles and potentially be successful? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean you’re going to have a really tough time doing it.

12 Has Good Self-Awareness and Self-Management

There are different leadership styles, and in my opinion, a lot of them aren’t very good. When you mix different leadership styles with different leadership personalities, you can get an interesting mixture.

Because of all those things, you must have a good grasp of your own personal feelings and motives and how that might translate to how you lead others and ultimately how others are influenced by it.

Being a Leader is Hard

Being a leader, especially in the healthcare industry, is hard. Most people are not born great leaders, but they can learn and develop their clinical leadership skills over time

Let me know…How long have you been a nurse leader? Or are you just getting started in your leadership career?

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