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How To Become a Nurse Leader

Sarah Falcone BSN, RN
July 12, 2022
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Nursing leadership is a professional journey that rewards those who choose the path. It is a fulfilling career of life-long learning. Nurse leader is more than a title. It is an invaluable role for nurses with strong clinical expertise and commitment to serving and leading others.

Nursing leadership takes more than a genuine heart for nursing. Leaders must understand their teams, analyze data, and negotiate with the administration during critical times. 

For those unsure of the role of and path to nurse leadership, this post will explain.
  1. The role of the nurse leader
  2. Skills for nursing leadership
  3. Navigating the nurse leadership journey
  4. The future of nursing leadership

The Role of the Nurse Leader

Nurse leadership is a newer specialty. Over the past 35 years, nurse leaders have become an integral part of effective healthcare organizations. Research demonstrates that nurse leaders positively impact care quality, safety, and collaboration.

other nurse leader responsibilities

Nurse leaders laterally integrate nursing with administration and other disciplines, through facilitation, coordination, and oversight of care delivery. They possess functional knowledge, clinical skills, and unwavering commitment to leading teams and driving healthcare. 

Their roles are different from bedside or clinic nurses because they participate in larger initiatives. Nurse leaders look at the big picture to optimize models of care delivery. Other responsibilities of today’s nurse leaders include:

  • Organizing staff training and professional development
  • Mentoring and supporting nursing staff
  • Maintaining quality standards and patient safety
  • Staying up-to-date on healthcare policy and research
  • Participating in community health initiatives
  • Collaborating with other disciplines, research teams, and administration 
  • Stewarding and leveraging human, environmental, and material resources

Nurse leaders also provide hands-on care to patients and participate in treatment plans. But most often, nurse leaders oversee teams that provide direct care and help make decisions that guide patient care on a large scale. 

Nurse leaders work with all patient populations in all specialties. These professionals practice at the point of care and focus on safety, risk reduction, quality, evidence-based practice, and cost containment. 

Skills for Nursing Leadership 

Clinical nurse leaders typically have master’s degrees with advanced education in management. They also have experience educating patients, families, and administrators to promote optimal patient outcomes.

skills needs to move into leadership

Typically, nurse leaders start their careers as direct care nurses. A successful transition from bedside nursing to nurse leader requires perseverance and purpose. There are many skills nurses must develop to move into leadership roles. Some of these skills include:

  • Teaching and mentoring
  • Clinical skills and judgment
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Effective communication
  • Ability to develop and maintain relationships with all organizational levels 

In addition to these, the most important skill for nurses moving to a nurse leader role is leadership. Nurse leaders must be able to lead teams and motivate change.  

Clinical nurse leaders typically have master’s degrees with advanced education in management.

Nurse leaders can also support novice nurses as they begin their careers. New nurses joining the profession need mentors. Strong leadership is critical to the future of nursing.

Navigating the Nurse Leadership Journey

the typical path from bedside to leadership

The transition from bedside nurse to nursing leadership can be challenging but rewarding. Nurses who are successful in making this transition typically follow this path.

  1. Become a Registered Nurse (RN). Nurse leadership roles require an active RN license.
  2. Earn a master’s degree in Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) from an accredited college. RNs with Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees (BSN) can directly enroll in CNL programs. However, those with an Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN) must complete an RN-to-BSN bridge program before applying to a master’s program.
  3. Complete the CNL program and take the CNL certification exam. CNL program graduates can apply for the CNL certification examination from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

There is another path that some nurses take to leadership. While a master’s degree and certification are preferred, they may not be required. Currently, some organizations will hire highly-experienced BSN nurses for leadership roles because of nursing shortages in many cities. 

In addition to the right education, nurses moving into nursing leadership roles must also have experience. Nurse leaders should have extensive previous job experience supervising colleagues, teaching patients and families, and collaborating with interdisciplinary teams. 

The Future of Nurse Leadership

Nurse leaders are uniquely positioned to help shape healthcare organizations and the field of nursing. They bridge communication gaps among diverse stakeholders in healthcare delivery. Future nurse leaders will also develop curricula to educate a new generation of healthcare providers. 

Professionally, nurse leaders have various opportunities for personal growth and job satisfaction in and outside hospital settings. The role of a nurse leader is a tremendous responsibility, but one that can reward nurses for their hard work and dedication to improving health and well-being.

One thing that is clear, is that the nurse leader will continue to be a vital force shaping the future of nursing.

Nurse leaders are at the forefront of developing strategies to meet the healthcare needs of today’s patient populations. They use their knowledge and experience to improve healthcare. And the best way to prepare for a career in nursing leadership is to focus on building skills and gaining the education and experience for a successful move. 

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