What's a nurse leader and what makes a good one?

UC faculty discuss the difference between managers and leaders and offer leadership insight

What is the difference between a nurse manager and nurse leader? Can non-nurse managers be leaders? And what makes a good nurse leader?

In this webinar, experienced nurse leaders Richard Prior, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, and Joan Sevy-Majers, DNP, CENP, CCM, FACHE, FAONL, answer these questions and discuss ways nurse leaders can overcome today’s workplace challenges to support their team members.

Watch a full recording of the webinar or read on for a summary of the key ideas discussed.

About the Presenters

Richard Prior is interim associate dean of graduate nursing programs at UC. He retired as Colonel after 25 years in the U.S. Army and served as chief nursing officer (CNO)/deputy commander for nursing for four years, overseeing a $180 million annual budget.

Joan Sevy-Majers is an assistant professor and director of systems leadership programs at UC. She has served in various nurse leader roles throughout her career, including CNO, in health systems across the U.S. She is certified in executive nursing practice and a fellow of both the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) and the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL).

What is a nurse leader?

A nurse leader and nurse manager differ in several key ways. A nurse manager coordinates resources and plans, organizes, directs and controls to accomplish goals. By contrast, nurse leaders create a vision and empower their followers to enact that vision.

"Nurse leaders are going to create the vision, but let their followers have a say in how to achieve those organizational goals, and that’s very important," Prior says.

Other ways to contrast nurse managers and nurse leaders:

  • Nurse managers administer; nurse leaders innovate.
  • Nurse managers maintain; nurse leaders develop.
  • Nurse managers focus on systems and structure; nurse leaders focus on people.
  • Nurse managers ask how and when; nurse leaders ask why.
  • Nurse managers have an eye on the bottom line; nurse leaders have an eye on the horizon.
  • Nurse managers accept the status quo; nurse leaders challenge it.

Can nurses who do not manage others be leaders? Yes, Prior says.

"Think of a staff nurse, for example, who is very grounded, who is the anchor of their shift, and who people go to for help with problems or for advice or coaching and mentorship. They might not be the charge nurse or manager. So, certainly there can be great nurse leaders who don’t have authority over employees."

What are the most important skills for nurse leaders?

Sevy-Majers supports what’s called an authentic leadership style, which is characterized by personal integrity, transparency, shared decision-making and caring for others.

The most important skills for nurse leaders who practice an authentic leadership style are:

  • Balanced processing, which requires seeking input from all sides before making a decision
  • Relational transparency and openness in communication
  • An internal moral perspective that consistently guides decisions
  • Self-awareness and the ability to recognize personal strengths and limitations and how they impact others

Research shows the authentic leadership style creates a supportive professional environment, enhances job satisfaction, reduces burnout and decreases adverse patient outcomes.

What challenges do nurse leaders face?

"It’s a tough time for nurse leaders and managers," says Sevy-Majers. "This healthcare environment is unlike anything they have experienced. … Our systems have not been prepared for what we’re dealing with right now."

A nurse shortage combined with a groundswell of support for healthier work environments has professionals "seeking leaders who can remain calm and are candid, thoughtful, and — believe it or not — optimistic," Sevy-Majers says.

Nurse leaders know their employees are struggling. A 2021 study by the ANOL found three-fourths of nurse leaders think their most pressing challenge is the overall well-being of their team.

"All of that requires nurse leaders to have a strong degree of resilience," Prior says. "Nurse leaders have difficult and stressful jobs, and not only do they need to foster resiliency in others, but they need to be resilient themselves."

How do nurse leaders cultivate resilience?

Simply put, resiliency is the ability to bounce back from an unexpected event. Research shows effective nurse leaders, as teachers, mentors and coaches, foster resilience in their team members in seven distinct ways. Those include:

  • Facilitating social connections
  • Promoting positivity
  • Capitalizing on strengths
  • Nurturing growth
  • Encouraging self-care
  • Fostering mindfulness practices
  • Conveying altruism

Nurse leaders who exhibit strong resilience themselves manage stress in three ways:

  • Self-care, which included learning to manage emotions, developing supportive relationships at work and establishing boundaries
  • Accountability and reminding themselves of the impact their work makes on patients and staff
  • Reflection and the ability to learn from mistakes, be humble and recognize the difficulty in making meaningful change, especially in challenging situations

Ready to become a nurse leader?

UC's Systems Leadership graduate programs prepare nurses to leverage evidence-based practice and decision-making framework to lead the design, implementation and evaluation of health care services for individuals, populations, and/or communities.

Learn more about our fully online Systems Leadership programs:

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