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5 Ways to Become an Outstanding Nurse Leader

Analysis  |  By Jennifer Thew RN  
   May 03, 2019

Nurses Week, May 6-12, is the right time to reflect on how to evolve as a leader

It's Nurses Week—a time to pause and celebrate all that nurses do. And, as the healthcare industry shares its gratitude this week for nurses, it must not forget to include nurse leaders when giving thanks. Because it's not easy being a nurse leader.  

"As nurse leaders, we help create circles of care, safety, reliability, quality, and trust for the patients and communities. We are guardians at the gate of all of these things," Cole Edmonson, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, chief clinical officer at AMN Healthcare, Inc., said during the AONE 2019 Keynote introduction.

"Leadership in healthcare is not an easy path and, in order to do it well, we have to take time to develop ourselves and those around us," Edmonson said.

While much has changed since the time of Florence Nightingale, the original nurse leader,  the qualities that make a nurse leader great have not.

"We must be willing to be brave, courageous, authentic, vulnerable, and practice forgiveness to create the future," Edmonson said.

AONE 2019's opening keynote presentation, "Get Out of Line: Step Up, Stand Out & Succeed" by Sarah Robb O'Hagan, founder of EXTREMEYOU and former executive at companies such as Nike, Gatorade, and Virgin Atlantic, covered how to develop some of the qualities Edmonson mentioned.

Below are five ways O'Hagan said nurse leaders can propel themselves toward personal and professional success. 

1. Get Out of Line

"[Get out of line] means stepping up, standing out, kicking butt, and stepping out of the line of others around you to take risks and create new value for your organization," O'Hagan said. "Often it can be uncomfortable. Many of us choose not to do that because we don't want to take a risk and fail."

During the keynote, O'Hagan shared a personal story when she took a risk and it paid off. On her first day in a marketing position at Virgin Atlantic airlines—after moving from New Zealand to New York for the job—she was informed that the person who hired her was no longer with the company. Fortunately, she still had a job but secretly wondered if the "last in, first out" philosophy would be implemented. As she noticed the chaos that had developed in the department, she made a bold move by drafting a marketing plan and slipping it under the marketing president's door.

"That could have gone one of two ways, but what ended up happening is I got a promotion," she said.

While O'Hagan was new to the company, she had enough career and marketing knowledge to fill in the leadership gap that occurred when the hiring manager left the company.

The lesson here: Embrace your knowledge and experience and don't be afraid to share solutions with others.

"If you recognize those moments where your experiences [can fill a gap you see] in front of you and you're solving a problem for someone else, it can be incredibly, incredibly successful" she said. "I always say to everyone, scan for opportunities around you."

2. Make Failure Your Fuel

With the rare exception, nobody likes to fail. According to O'Hagan, fear of failure is increasing.

"For about the past 50 years, every generation from the boomers to Gen X to the millennials to Gen Z has statistically become more scared of failing. We do not like taking risks," she said.

But willingness to fail, and to learn from it, is necessary for personal and professional development.

"We have a generation that is scared of failure and, therefore, somewhat risk averse. [If] people are going to develop the best sides of themselves, they actually need to take risks every now and then," she said. "If you don't experience different environments, different types of work, you don't know where you are going to shine, and you want to learn where are you at your very best."

Nurse leaders should keep this in mind especially when working with younger generations of nurses."Talk to the younger people on your team because [a willingness to fail] is actually the most important thing," she said. "When we start our careers, in the world we live in today, there's this feeling that I have to look perfect on Instagram. I have to have a perfect resume on LinkedIn. And, guess what, you actually have to fail."

3. Play Your Specialist Game

O'Hagan asked the AONE attendees: Where do you excel? What excites you? She said once nurse leaders answer those questions, they should embrace their strengths because that will help build a foundation of success.

"Once you know you at your very best, if you find yourself playing in an organization that really wants that out of you, you will be more confident, and you will be more involved," O'Hagan said.

4. Bring Out the Extreme in Others

For nurse leaders, bringing out the best in others is the key to developing an outstanding and engaged nursing staff.

"If we're doing a good job of knowing who we are at our core as leaders, then the most important thing is how you bring out the best in others, so they can play to their full potential," O'Hagan said.

Leaders can encourage staff to reflect on their positive attributes and exceptional skills. Then the leaders should commit to helping the nurses develop those skills at their organization. O'Hagan said committing to diversity in age, ethnicity, gender, and skill can also contribute to an organization's success.

"Diversify those different styles and points of view and the team because that is when you will perform at your best. I do think it's important to partner with those that are least like you," she said.

5. Break Yourself to Make Yourself

"Get yourself out of your comfort zone," O'Hagan said. "It may be at work, it may be in your personal life, but take on a new adventure. Just get out of your comfort zone so that you're being exposed to new and different things."

By being uncomfortable, says O'Hagan, leaders can challenge their most stubborn beliefs.

"Often those beliefs are things that we think we're not good at and we're not giving ourselves enough of a chance," she said.

For example, O'Hagan says she labeled herself as terrible at finance. But when working at Gatorade, she realized she didn't have the option of not feeling comfortable with the subject.

"I took myself back to what I call 'remedial education' and did a finance for executives course and discovered at the age of 38 that I absolutely loved it," she said. "And, because I now had real-world experience that I could apply to what I was learning, it suddenly made sense. I'm never going to be a powerful finance person but at least I now feel confident in that fundamental."

"Sign up for an initiative or a project with other people. It might be that you are needing to transfer to a different kind of hospital or somewhere else [in your current organization]. You have to get out of the places of comfort if you're really going to allow yourself to blossom and find new areas of growth."

Jennifer Thew, RN, is the senior nursing editor at HealthLeaders.


Embrace your knowledge and experience and don't be afraid to share solutions with others.

A willingness to fail, and to learn from it, is necessary for personal and professional development.

Surround yourself with those who think differently from you to add diversity to your perspective.

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