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How to become a nurse leader

Queensland,Griffith University,nurse leader,leader
Photo: Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Adjunct Professor Debra Thoms
With the ageing nursing workforce and increasing challenges confronting the health sector, there’s never been a better time to become a nurse leader. Leadership qualities can be found in many nurses but it takes a passion for your work, focus and determination to elevate your nursing career and drive change, writes Karen Keast.


Nurse leaders can be found at every level of nursing in Australia.

Whether it’s nurse leaders at a clinical or executive level or nurse leaders in research, education or policy, nurse leaders are integral to not only improving patient outcomes but in delivering high quality, cost-effective and innovative patient care, and in strengthening the nursing workforce through recruitment and retention.

Nurse leader Professor Debra Anderson is head of Griffith University’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. She says nurses make ideal leaders for the nation’s health sector.
“Nurses tend to be across the whole picture of the health spectrum,” she says.

“For that reason, when it comes to leadership positions, a lot of nurses are being tapped on the shoulder to lead projects or to lead organisations because of that breadth that they bring to the health area.”

Nurses don’t have to be a manager to be a nurse leader. With a career in nursing, health management and nursing leadership spanning more than 30 years, Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Adjunct Professor Debra Thoms says all nurses can exercise leadership.

“You don’t have to be in a senior role to exercise leadership,” she says.

“In your own workplace, think about how you can contribute to an improved work environment and how do you as an individual engage with people,” she says.


Tips on how to become a nurse leader:

1. Be professional. Nurse leaders have a passion and vision for their nursing work and a commitment to excellence. They also showcase qualities such as courage, integrity, empathy and an ability to inspire and develop others.

2. Find a mentor. A good mentor is worth their weight in gold. In her role with premier nursing society Sigma Theta Tau International (STII), Professor Anderson is a mentor to aspirational nurse leaders in the Oceania region. She says mentors are essential for nurses wanting to take the next step. Find someone you admire or someone whose qualities match your own. “Ask to go for a coffee and just have a chat and see if they would like to be your mentor. The worst thing they can say is ‘no’,” Professor Anderson says.

3. Draft a plan. Aim to build on your strengths and understand your weaknesses, so that you can improve on your weaknesses. In her role as a mentor, Professor Anderson says one of the first things she does with aspirational nurses is review their resume and then have the mentee consider their one year, three year and five year goals. “Really think - what is the missing piece you could do? Maybe it’s a qualification or maybe it’s just really looking at yourself and being able to really speak up and step up.”

4. Invest in yourself. Continue to pursue education in your area of interest or expertise. Nurses can also sign up for leadership courses, seminars or workshops. Professor Thoms says nurses should take the time to reflect on good leadership qualities and attributes. “Think about your behaviours, read up about good leadership behaviours and understand what makes a good leader,” she advises.

5. Get involved. Join your peak body or key organisations in your field. Volunteer for a small leadership position and build up from there. Professor Thoms says a key role of a leader is to drive and lead change. “Be prepared to take on some new roles that will stretch you and will provide you with the opportunity to exercise some of your leadership capabilities.”

6. Be authentic. Be true to yourself, honest and live with integrity. One of the best pieces of advice Professor Anderson received was that you don’t have to take on male leadership qualities to be a good female leader. “That was very valuable because what we do see is some women will take on those male leadership qualities to try to get up further in the boardroom, etc.” She says what makes a good nurse leader is someone who is confident to work alongside a variety of people but who is also inspirational and authentic. “I think a good nurse leader leads from the front and really is value driven as well.”

7. Give back. Good nurse leaders also support others to achieve their goals. “I always think of leadership with mentorship is that you have one hand up and one hand down, so we can pull up the next generation of global nursing leaders as well,” Professor Anderson says.

8. Self management. Ensure you look after your own health with physical activity, a healthy diet and stress management. As founder and director of the Women’s Wellness Research Program at Menzies Health Institute, Professor Anderson says women often neglect to care for themselves. “If you become a leader, it’s very easy to then not look after yourself and, in fact, you’re not a good leader if you don’t. Make sure you look after your health.”

9. Have fun. Enjoy the journey in your nursing career. “I love what I do - it’s lots of fun,” Professor Anderson says. “You need to have fun along the way. I love working with people, and helping people become the best that they can be under your leadership is, I think, my greatest reward.”

10. Put your hand up. Professor Anderson say it’s imperative nurses demonstrate that they want to excel in their career. “I think it’s really important to show up, to think up and let people know that they do want a particular position. A lot of nurses just don’t say it but unless you let people know what you want, no-one is going to offer it to you, so be bold and be strong.”

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords