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Grooming our future leaders


The future of nursing may be in jeopardy. For almost a decade, we’ve known that when the current shortage peaks around 2020, we’ll have 1 million fewer nurses than we need.

We also know that the nursing leaders of today will be retiring during this epic shortage. Perhaps as many as 55% of the current nursing leaders plan to retire between 2011 and 2020—a time when effective nurse leadership will be in demand.

And many worry about what will happen to the profession because so few younger nurses seem interested in leadership positions. The success of our profession hinges on our ability to recruit, develop, and mentor our future leaders.

Our challenges
Attracting our best and brightest nurses into leadership positions will be challenging for a couple of reasons. One is our recent history. When nursing care delivery models shifted from the team approach to the total-care or primary-care approach with all registered nurse staffs, nurses assumed fewer leadership responsibilities. Team leadership became less important in the nursing curriculum, and some nursing professionals saw leadership as an option, not a professional responsibility.

Now, in response to the nursing shortage and financial constraints, healthcare organizations are shifting back to the team approach, which requires nurse leaders. Today, organizations recognize the need for strong nursing leadership at all levels. And innovative initiatives like the Clinical Nurse Leader role, which is designed to provide leadership at the point of care, have developed.

Another challenge is generational. Most of today’s nursing leaders are baby boomers—a generation that’s career driven. This generation accepts a grueling work pace that makes the balance between work and life difficult. These baby boomers have shaped nursing leadership roles to fit their values. But the next generation seems less willing to accept leadership roles as they’re currently designed.

The third challenge—image—is closely related. Frequently, younger nurses don’t aspire to leadership roles because of their perceptions of the current nursing leadership. In recent focus groups conducted by one of the authors, younger nurses were asked what today’s nursing leaders say about their own roles. The 10 top answers were negative. Young nurses reported that current leaders frequently talk about the stress of their role, powerlessness, and unrealistic expectations. Potential leaders are also discouraged by an insufficient salary differential and 24-7 accountability.

All efforts to groom nurse leaders will need to include succession plans that analyze the expectations of our current leadership and create new roles that provide adequate compensation and work-life balance.

Key strategies
Our search for innovation in succession planning lead to research by the Nurse Executive Center of the Advisory Board Company, which recommends that nursing leaders identify positions that require succession planning, assess the potential talent in their organization to fill the positions, and provide training to cultivate leadership.

Create expectations of leadership
Leadership should be an expectation of every nurse. For most nurses, supervision and delegation have become key parts of their jobs, and recently, educational programs have started placing more emphasis on leadership development. To enhance expectations, nurse leaders should create a development plan for and with each staff member.

Leadership expectations should also be included in position descriptions for nurses at every level in the organization. And leadership behaviors should be incorporated into annual performance evaluations and become part of career-ladder planning. Most important, all of us should view ourselves as nurse leaders whether we are in a formal leadership role or not.

Assess leadership potential during the interview
Succession planning should begin with the interview process. An interviewer should evaluate not only a candidate’s clinical skills but also the ability to communicate and build relationships, see the bigger picture in organizations, develop other nurses, plan and recognize the importance of standards and accountability.

When interviewing potential leaders, ask for examples of how they motivate others and delegate responsibilities and whether they are interested in furthering their education. Ask what they see as the positive aspects of leadership roles and which specific issues would discourage them from applying for leadership positions.

A focus on succession planning can be a powerful recruitment magnet for young, talented nurses who see the potential to grow and develop in an organization. Ask candidates about their career goals, their long-term vision, and their time line. Offer aspiring leaders career mapping and funding for continuing education and conference participation as well as tuition reimbursement. Healthcare organizations that offer emerging leadership programs should highlight the programs during the recruitment process.

Expose new graduates to leadership
New graduates should be exposed to nurse leaders at every level of an organization. Opportunities to shadow senior nursing leaders and to attend nursing leadership meetings can help young nurses develop a different perspective on nursing leadership. Encourage new graduates to develop stretch goals. Appoint them to shared governance committees and task forces that implement unit-based projects. Provide opportunities to co-chair committees with seasoned nursing leaders.

Some hospitals have developed strategies to focus on leadership development for all nurses.  One such strategy is a community-based novice nurse leadership initiative designed to help new graduates develop a leadership mindset during their first year of practice.  On a national level, the American Organization of Nurse Executives offers an Aspiring Nurse Leader Institute for emerging nurse leaders.

Residency programs can also help aspiring nurse leaders experience different management styles and help determine if management is for them. These experiences give trainees visibility in the organization and help them become known for their talents and experience. All of these initiatives plant the seeds of interest in a leadership career for new graduates.

Identify and develop talent
All of us need to be leadership talent scouts. Look for nurses who have shown leadership in other settings. Take notice of nurses who inspire cooperation in others. An aspiring leader should be well organized, have high energy, demonstrate strong communication skills, and try to make a difference every day.

Develop a plan of action that includes educational, human, and financial resources to support the aspiring nurse leader:

• Encourage candidates to attend leadership seminars and obtain additional education.
• Nominate candidates for stretch assignments to help them grow and develop.
• Include candidates in projects, assignments, hospital committees, and leadership retreats.
• Give candidates feedback on their strengths and areas for improvement.
• Discuss behaviors or performance issues that can derail a nursing career.
• Provide a mentor

Identifying talent and developing it early can help prevent leadership by those who simply fall into leadership positions—a phenomenon we see all too often in nursing.  Organizations that develop succession plans ensure that they have a pool of talented nurses in place, familiar with the facility, and committed to the organization’s culture and mission.

The future
Ensuring the competencies, skills, and success of our next generation of leaders requires planning and action. All of us as nursing leaders need to groom our replacements, so they can learn, adapt, and prosper. By dedicating ourselves to this goal, we’ll make a difference for future generations—and for our profession.

Selected references
The Advisory Board Company. Cultivating leadership ambition: building a foundation for effective nursing succession planning. Available at: Accessed November 15, 2006.

Hader R, Saver C, Steltzer T. No time to lose. Nurs Manage. 2006;37(7):23-29, 48.

Redman R. Leadership succession planning: an evidence-based approach for managing the future. J Nurs Adm. 2006;36(6):292-297.

Sherman RO. Growing our future nursing leaders. Nurs Adm Q. 2005;29(2):129-133.
For a complete list of selected references, visit

Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, CNAA-BC, is Director, Nursing Leadership Institute at Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. Mary Bishop, MSN, RN, CNAA, CHE, is Chief Nursing Officer at Jupiter Medical Center in Jupiter, Florida.

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