Launching yourself in nursing leadership


Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN

Editor’s note: At American Nurse Today, we believe every nurse can be a leader. This article is the first in what will be occasional guest blogs by Rose O. Sherman,  founder of the Emerging RN Leader blog ( In addition to her guest blogs, Rose will contribute articles on a regular basis to help nurses achieve their leadership potential.

You may know that you want to be a nurse leader but are unsure about your next career step. It is important to recognize that you don’t have to be a chief nursing officer or a nurse manager to “lead.” You can begin leading from wherever you are in the organization. If you manage your career around this concept, you will focus less on your linear progression up the career ladder and more on your own personal mastery and impact.

An important question to ask yourself as you begin your leadership journey is whether you have the qualities that nurses look for in their leaders. Successful leaders are unable to achieve goals without inspired and motivated followers. We have all probably observed nurses who have been placed into leadership positions and had the formal title of leader but are not successful in capturing the heart and soul of those they lead. John Maxwell, in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, makes the important point that leadership is above all the ability to influence others. We know from research some key qualities that nurses look for in their leaders include:

  • A commitment to excellence
  • Passion about their work
  • A clear vision and strategic focus
  • Trustworthiness
  • Respectfulness
  • Accessibility
  • Empathy and caring
  • A commitment to developing others

Honest feedback about whether or not you demonstrate these qualities is important at the beginning of a leadership career. A good mentor can help you grow as an emerging nurse leader and open doors to new learning. Unlike the preceptor relationship, which you may be familiar with in the clinical setting, a mentor provides career guidance and helps you become more aware of your strengths and areas where you need development. An ideal mentor for an emerging nurse leader is someone who is knowledgeable, has leadership experience, and is interested in helping you to grow.

For some nurses, just getting noticed in their organization can be a challenge, especially if it is very large or if you work a night tour. When opportunities become available for advancement, you want to be someone that the nurse leaders in your organization think about as a great candidate, so consider these tips:

 1. Look professional

First impressions do count if you want to get noticed. Professional dress and being well groomed matter in creating a good image. When nurse leaders see nurses with wrinkled scrubs and dirty shoes, the impression is generally not favorable. You want to be remembered as someone who will be a good candidate to represent the organization.

2. Stay updated

It is important to stay updated by reading professional journals and attending educational programs. Be a “go-to person” for new information in your specialty area. In addition to staying updated clinically, pay attention to the news and what is happening with health policy. Think about how proposed changes in health reform could impact your organization and share your knowledge with other staff. Recognize that health care is also a business and become knowledgeable about the business of caring.

3. Take leadership roles

Take leadership roles at the unit level. They can be small but it is a great way to get started. Volunteer to take a leadership role on a unit shared-governance committee. Take charge when you have the opportunity. This is an excellent way to connect with other staff and leaders in your organization.

4. Volunteer for task forces and committees

Volunteer for organizational committees and task forces, even if it does mean coming in on your day off to participate. Leaders do notice when staff members are committed enough to an organization that they are willing to give back some of their personal time to be involved in activities.

5. Participate in organization-sponsored community activities

Join the heart walk team, the breast cancer walk, the March of Dimes, or other teams your organization may put together to support the community. Get others on your unit to join you. You will find that organizational leaders participate in these activities, and it can be a great way to introduce yourself in an informal setting and meet many new people.

6. Be professionally involved

Join a professional nursing association and attend the local meeting. You will probably meet staff and leaders from your organization that you might not interact with in other forums. Local professional associations are always looking for members who are willing to assume some leadership responsibilities. Holding office in a local association can be a good way to gain recognition.

7. Serve as a preceptor and cheerleader to other staff

Be ready to share your skills and knowledge with others. Sharing and volunteering to be a preceptor can be a great way to get noticed. Your manager will appreciate your willingness to be a strong team player. Be the first to congratulate others for their achievements and be the person who helps create a healthy work environment on your unit.

8. Keep your commitments

I once asked a great nursing leader what he attributed his success to. He told me that he did what he said he was going to do when he said he was going to do it. This will get you noticed, he assured me, because so few people actually keep their commitments. This is really great advice. If you volunteer, be sure to follow through.

There has never been a better time to choose nursing leadership as a career goal. The retirement of a large number of baby boomer nurse leaders will result in great career opportunities by the end of the decade. Oprah Winfrey often says that “luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” The time to start preparing for these opportunities is now.

Rose O. Sherman is an associate professor of nursing and director of the Nursing Leadership Institute at the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. She is the author of a blog for emerging RN leaders

Selected references

Maxwell J. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2007.

The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.


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  • Thanks for this post. Its the topic that’s been on my heart and in my mind lately. I’m actually starting to go many of these things:
    Joining task force commitees
    Volunteering to be a super User
    joining the leadership group for our unit
    It reassuring to know I’m taking the right steps.
    Thank you.

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