Working as a nurse leader: What does it involve?

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Although nurses are autonomous and self-starting, there is always a need for mentorship and leadership in any healthcare setting. This is why the role of nurse leader is not only rewarding on its own merits but is also relied upon by hardworking staff who are doing their best for their patients.

Nurse leaders, of course, have risen through the ranks as nurses themselves. Many nurses choose to become leaders so that they can inspire the next generation of healthcare professionals, often because they have benefited from this type of support during their career progression.

In this article, we look at the work of nurse leaders, how they enter into these important roles, and what skills they need to thrive in the job.

What do nurse leaders do?

As you might expect, nurse leaders are the heads of their teams and units. They’re the people who nursing staff turn to when they have complex cases to discuss and when they need moral support.

However, nurse leaders also carry a lot of influence. Their experience, education and expertise all mean that hospital administrators and decision makers listen to their feedback, which is presented on behalf of the hardworking staff they manage from day to day.

Nurse leaders take control of different areas of hospitals and clinics. They ensure that hospital crews are working efficiently and have the right level of support behind them. Nurse leaders also carry influence when it comes to making budgeting and supply decisions, reporting back to those in control as and when necessary.

As you might imagine, this means that leaders need to keep focused and resolute. It’s a role that’s highly rewarding, and while it comes with challenges, you can leave at the end of a long day knowing that you’ve made an incredible difference to your teams and the people you treat.

Becoming a nurse leader involves continuous learning while working in the healthcare industry. For example, aspiring leaders can start to study for a Post-Master’s FNP Certificate at institutions such as Wilkes University if they want to specialize in family nursing practice while leading teams.Wilkes University’s certificates are ideal for prospective leaders already working in healthcare, as these online programs offer flexible timetables, support on demand, and help with placements where required.

What skills do nurse leaders need?

Getting into further education is essential for all nurses hoping to become leaders, but it’s also vital for students to start honing their skills. To become a strong leader in a nursing unit, you need to be able to think on your feet, be highly organized and show resilience. You must also be ready to offer tough love to the people around you. Let’s look at the crucial skills worth developing if you want to become a nurse leader in the near future.

Strong leadership

All leaders need to be ready to guide people during critical times. Strong leaders are not just confident in their own opinions and abilities but are also willing to listen to feedback from others and meet people midway on complex topics.

Strong leaders in healthcare are ready to guide without prejudice and do so objectively, meaning that they don’t let any kind of bias cloud how they treat people. The best nurse leaders inspire rather than simply give orders. They’re fair, they set clear goals, and nurses are willing to approach them about a range of complex issues.

Those studying to become nurse leaders should ideally take the time to lead teams and groups on their own ahead of moving into the workforce. There will be lots of opportunities to do so via relevant qualifications and courses.

However, it’s also worthwhile ensuring that you feel confident in your decisions. Conviction in your own abilities and ideas means that others are more likely to follow your lead. This can prove crucial in the fast-paced and often complex world of nursing.

Decision-making skills

Making perfect decisions all the time simply isn’t possible. However, a strong nursing leader must be ready to make complex and potentially life-altering medical decisions on the spot, in the heat of the moment.

Effective healthcare leaders make decisions critically, at short notice, but having gained as much insight as possible into the problem at stake. This also means taking prejudice and bias out of the picture. Decision-making in nursing leadership is about looking at the facts and plotting action plans purely based on those objective truths.

This is a skill that takes time to develop, both in educational settings and in the workplace. Therefore, it’s worth keeping an open mind. Your decision-making is likely to grow stronger over the years, meaning that you’ll become more confident and effective as a leader as time goes on.


While many nursing leaders work in specific teams and departments, they also need to handle various cases and situations, frequently splitting their time between different people and patients.

The willingness to be adaptable alone is a great asset for a nursing leader. However, adaptability and flexibility as skills tie in with being able to make snap decisions and taking your own biases out of the frame.

Adaptability is all about being ready to take on different challenges, and being willing to leave some projects and problems standing while others take precedence. This might seem difficult at first, but it’s likely that most nurses have some experience of moving from one task to another numerous times a day.

It’s this experience that can help to bolster student nurse leaders as they start to progress. Students will also need to be flexible with regard to their timetables when working their way through coursework, especially if they are working placements or in full-time jobs at the same time.


Nurse leaders who communicate clearly with their teams can expect people to open up to them more. Being a skilled communicator means not only keeping instructions concise, but also listening actively to people’s needs.

The best leaders in nursing are those who set clear expectations and who are always open to feedback from the nurses in their charge. Nurses will feel that they can approach leaders with important problems without fear of reproach.

Clear communication also prevents human error to a broad extent – in nursing, everyone needs to be on the same page. All nurses, novices and otherwise, benefit from confident and clear instruction – particularly when lives are potentially at stake.

Ask nurses what they look for in a leader and they will likely say that they prefer confident people who will actively listen to their concerns. Active listening is a skill that is easy to develop while studying but that students will also develop once they enter the workforce and practice their leadership for real.

Leaders must also learn to communicate with a variety of people – not just the team members they lead and support, but also other leaders, professionals in different departments and other hospitals, patients, their families and hospital administrators. Therefore, it is important to focus on becoming a flexible communicator.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is an asset in nurse leadership mainly because it helps you to become more aware of yourself and how you affect others. It is concerned with learning how to notice strong emotions, what they mean, and how to control them.

Nurse leaders with healthy EQ are those who can think critically and make decisions without letting emotions cloud important decisions or judgment calls. EQ is also important for helping leaders to build empathy toward the people they coach and support, alongside the patients they treat.

Nurse leaders also use EQ skills to learn how to support and foster strong working relationships. They understand how to speak with different people, and how to lead and influence others without letting unnecessary judgment get in the way.

A leader with strong EQ skills is someone who not only knows how to encourage people but is also supportive and inspirational. Strong EQ can manifest itself in being highly motivational for many nurses.

Team building

Naturally, a great nursing leader must be adept at leading and building teams. They understand how to look for strengths and weaknesses in people, and how to support teams working on specific tasks.

They also know how to manage different people on various tasks and projects. They think carefully about how different personalities and skillsets might work well together in various ways and communicate with them about how they can support each other.

Building teams is all about helping others develop EQ and communication skills. It’s possible that a strong leader will transfer some of their EQ onto the people they lead so that healthcare teams can become more supportive.

Of course, a good nurse leader also knows how to use particular nurses’ skills in certain areas of a hospital or clinic, and how to bring the best out of people. Team building is not always about creative exercises and skill games – it’s about learning how to help people work together and to find patterns where they gel together best. This can help nurse leaders organize workloads and timetables easier and ensure the most efficient teams and partnerships for specific jobs work in certain areas.

Leaders will also need to develop strong conflict resolution skills in the event of clashes within a team. Over time, they will get to know the different personalities they are supporting, and work to develop strategies where everyone emerges from conflict stronger and wiser.


A great nurse leader is also a great mentor and role model. Nurses graduating with their degrees will have lots of experience that they’re eager to use in real-life healthcare settings. However, many will still need guidance and support as they start to progress in their new careers.

As such, nurse leaders can help to shadow and mentor nurses for as long as required. For example, some nurses might want to explore specialisms such as gerontology or oncology and would benefit from a seasoned leader offering guidance.

Nurse leaders must also be vigilant of any training needs that might arise during a nurse’s career progression. For example, they might find that, soon after graduation, a nurse requires extra confidence in treating specific cases.

In certain cases, a nurse leader might encourage setting up alternative mentorship programs. For example, if a nurse wants to get into midwifery, they might be able to shadow a nurse in the maternity department – and a leader can facilitate this. 

A nurse leader will also be ready to help their team members through any initial healthcare mistakes, answering any questions they have.

Strategic planning

Ultimately, a good nursing leader is proficient at strategic planning. They must be ready to plan ahead for weeks of specialist healthcare, knowing which nurses to dispatch where and to keep abreast of any equipment or supplies needed in specific areas.

By planning strategically, nurse leaders ensure that patients receive efficient treatment and that nurses in their charge clearly know how they will support their team(s). Strategic planning skills also help nurse leaders to produce convincing arguments to administrators and decision makers should their departments require more support.

Could you be a great nurse leader?

Having the passion and drive to help others is the first step toward becoming a nurse leader. If you are already working as a nurse, then you likely already possess these traits. Aspiring nurse leaders will need to develop important skills and enroll in a university program, but doing so will help many more nurses find their feet in the healthcare industry. As a leader, you’ll be positively impacting not only patients’ lives but also the people who run clinics and hospital departments. 

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