Considered one of the most trustworthy professions, it is no surprise nurses possess the traits of successful leaders.
"Nurses are all leaders by virtue of the work that they do," said Sharon A. Gale, MSN, RN, chief executive officer of the Organization of Nurse Leaders, MA-RI, Woburn, MA. "Compassionate, collaborative, creative, critical thinkers . these are just a few of the characteristics that are inherent in nurses' DNA and prepare them for leadership roles.
"These qualities, coupled with passion, drive and the right education, set nurses up for success," she added. "The nurse knows what is needed to ensure exceptional patient care, and a motivated nurse has the power to create change throughout the healthcare system."
A holistic approach to patient care allows nurses to consider the big picture and implement changes that benefit every aspect of care. Whether it is at the bedside or in the board room, nurses are poised to lead the charge.
No single path to management is the same, but the common thread is a "ready-for-anything" attitude and a desire to make a difference across the continuum of care.
Never Say No
Nursing leaders at various stages of their career agree: Anyone pursuing a management position must get involved from day one.
"Nurses need to begin by becoming involved early and often. Don't wait for opportunities to find you - go seek them out or, even better, go ahead and create the opportunity," emphasized Gale, whose first experience as a nurse leader came as a charge nurse on a med/surg unit just 2 weeks after she started.
LEADERSHIP ADVICE: Sharon A. Gale, MSN, RN, says nurses can create their own opportunities for leadership. photo by Kyle Kielinski
Aspiring nurse leaders should volunteer to be on and/or lead a committee, Gale suggested. "Jump at the chance to be involved in as many innovative collaborations as possible, anything that improves quality of practice," she said.
Professional enrichment can begin during nursing school and should continue as nurses move up in their careers. "Every opportunity that came along, I took it," said Mary Walsh, MSN, RN, NEA-BC, CEN, senior vice president for nursing quality, standards and practice/CNO at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York, NY. "I learned early on you never say no to a project, program or discussion. As leaders, we are always looking for the next challenge."
Upward momentum often requires stepping outside your comfort zone.
When Mary Anne Gallagher, MA, RN-BC, director of patient care services at Beth Israel, had the chance to take a new position at a new facility, she was hesitant at first. She had established herself at her current facility and felt very comfortable, but words from a friend encouraged Gallagher to take a leap of faith.
"He told me, 'change is good,' and now whenever I encounter something new I go back to that," she said. "I have had the most exceptional experiences in my career by heeding those words."
This "never say no" policy should be applied to not only professional participation, but also education. Nurse leaders, both aspiring and seasoned, must constantly seek out new knowledge, whether it is through formal or informal education.
"Each new position reinforced my value for education," Gale said. "Leadership development is essential for preparing for any role."
Leaders at all levels can hone their skills through certification and higher education as well as professional organizations and mentorship.
Walsh spent several years as a nurse educator and learned firsthand how quickly healthcare changes and the importance of staying current.
"A professor once said, 'If you don't read or learn something new every day, you aren't a nurse,' and experience has taught me that couldn't be more true," she said. "Healthcare is in a constant state of change; successful nurse leaders never stop seeking knowledge."
Mentor & Mentee
Navigating the challenges that arise as a nurse leader, no matter how many years you have been in the profession, requires a network of support.
"I was very fortunate to work with someone who could be not only my leader and my direct report, but also a mentor to this day," Gallagher said. "I urge nurses to go out and find their own mentor, someone they admire and respect."
Gallagher's confidant pushed her to go beyond her comfort zone and apply for a position that would help propel her career. "Be open, share where you want to go and stay connected to them," she added. "A successful leader has a mentor who takes the journey with them."
Stanley Gerald, MSN-CNL, RN, learned the value of patience from his longtime mentor. A clinical nurse manager at Revere/Everett Family Health Centers, Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge, MA, Gerald's career began as a combat medic. Inspired by the nurses with whom he served, Gerald set out to join the profession.
Gerald did not want to spend time in the med/surg unit or ICU; he was intent on becoming an ED nurse. "Ambition is important, but patience is often more so," he said. "My mentor saw my potential, but forced me to slow down and gain the experience I needed to be the best nurse I could be."
With no clear path to nursing leadership, a mentor is vital, Gerald noted. Just as new nurses should seek out an advisor, seasoned nurses must step up and fill this role.
"Ask any leader and they will be able to tell you instantly who their mentors were and still are," Walsh said. "I had mentors, and I have an obligation in turn to be a mentor to staff nurses, to managers and directors, and even to other department heads.
"I take that very seriously," she added. "Fostering the next generation is one of the most important aspects of leadership."
Finding a Balance
Successful leadership requires devotion to the profession as well as devotion to life outside it. Walsh emphasized the need for caregivers to care for themselves. "You have to be careful with your life too," she said. "There has to be a balance and sometimes we forget that.
"This is especially important for nurses and nursing leaders," she added. "There are so many people who seek you out on a daily basis, which is a wonderful aspect of the profession, but it can become overwhelming if you don't take time for yourself."
Successful leaders understand the importance of developing a fulfilling, well-rounded life. A healthy life promotes a healthy career.
Poised to Lead
Equipped with the needed skills, nurses have the potential to be great leaders in the face of a changing healthcare system.
"This is the best time for nurses to step up to the front and be full partners, especially in this changing era of healthcare reform," Gale said. "While the responsibilities, at times, may be daunting, the opportunities are endless and nurses have the capacity to make an unbelievable difference."
Driven by a passion to foster quality patient care, seasoned nurse leaders as well as those just beginning their path to leadership have a chance to impact change at every turn.
"The nursing profession's voice is growing," Gerald said. "Nurses are the backbone of healthcare and to have them in leadership roles is beneficial to all.
"Nursing is primed to make a lot of wonderful changes," he concluded. "And I am really excited to see what the future holds and to be on the frontlines with such incredible individuals."
Catlin Nalley is assistant editor at ADVANCE.