How Leadership Qualities in Nursing Affect Health Care

A nurse manager goes over a schedule with a nursing team member.

Every thriving organization needs committed, effective leaders, and this is especially true in health care. The unique complexities and dynamic nature of nurses’ work in hospitals and other health care facilities create an environment where leadership is especially crucial. Nurses who demonstrate strong leadership qualities in nursing can have a significant positive impact on their environment, their colleagues, and their patients.

One way for nurses to gain these leadership skills is through further education, such as by pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree, the terminal degree in the field. Earning a DNP degree can help nurses become successful leaders in their health care organizations.

Why Is Leadership in Nursing Important?

Leadership qualities in nursing have always been important, as effective nurse leadership has been shown to reduce patient mortality, drive better patient outcomes, decrease errors and inefficiencies, and improve the overall work environment and culture. However, that leadership is perhaps more important now.

NEJM Catalyst calls the changes that will be seen in the health care industry over the next decade "the coming transformation," noting that financial constraints, technology (including digital health), and an increasing focus on the consumer will all impact the industry. Strong nursing leaders will be key voices as health care organizations navigate these changes and challenges, and important advocates for patients and their fellow nurses.

Having effective nursing leaders can also help to address the ongoing nursing shortage in this country, which McKinsey & Company projects to be between a 200,000 and 450,000 nurse shortfall by 2025 if no action is taken by then. Good leaders set examples for their nursing teams and serve as mentors, helping keep their team members satisfied, engaged, and, most important, in the field.

What Are the Most Valued Leadership Qualities?

Several specific leadership qualities in nursing are key to having a positive impact in the field. While nursing leaders do not need to master them all to be effective, working to improve these skills as much as possible can help them increase their chances for success. These are also areas where leaders can help each other by leveraging each other’s strengths.

Expert Communication

Every workplace is inherently social, but this is especially true for health care workplaces. Consistent, clear, and concise communication between staff members is essential to making sure everyone is providing appropriate patient care. Nursing leaders must hone their communication skills and model them for their team to encourage and enable collaboration.

Compassion and Empathy

While emotions often must be kept in check while at work, we are all human and need to be able to empathize with one another. This is true as much for interactions between staff members as it is for those between staff and patients. Those seeking care may be going through one of the most difficult times in their lives, so nursing leaders need to make sure staff can convey compassion to patients and their families.

Strong Sense of Integrity

Health care organizations require professionals to operate with the utmost integrity in order to maintain the trust of patients. Any effective team needs its members to be able to trust each other to do the right thing. Nursing leaders must ensure that their team embodies this quality consistently.

Dedication to Continuous Improvement

An important aspect of professionalism is the ability to appropriately give and receive feedback. A nursing leader must be able to mentor their team members to grow as well as be open to receiving feedback themselves. This quality will allow for a team to consistently improve the quality of the care they provide to patients as they learn from their mistakes in the moment.

Ability to Delegate Effectively

Numerous tasks need to be completed on a daily basis in a hospital. An important leadership quality in nursing is the ability to determine the best person to efficiently and effectively perform each task. Each task must also be clearly outlined so the person knows how to do it, for whom, and by when.

Detail Oriented and Organized

Health care is a complex field that requires staff to be mindful of all of the details of their patients’ cases. Nursing leaders play a crucial role here, making sure their team takes thorough, organized notes so that everyone is on the same page. This helps create a culture where the team takes the time to do things the right way.

Advanced Clinical Skills

Nursing leaders play a critical role in the core work with patients. They often are the ones who can employ higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills to solve difficult problems. Nursing leaders must also encourage their team members to do this and not get stuck in rudimentary thinking.

Strong Motivator

Working in health care can be draining at times, so a nursing leader must be able to rally their team to stay motivated each day. This motivation can take many different shapes, such as sharing a specific appreciation with each member of the team or highlighting a collective win. Without this quality, teams will start to burn out and patient care will suffer.

Which Health Care Roles Require Leadership Qualities?

As a nurse develops their leadership qualities, they may begin to consider leadership roles in their organization. Leadership roles in nursing include nurse manager, charge nurse, director of nursing, and chief nursing officer. While these roles can have some similar tasks and overlapping responsibilities, their scope broadens from nurse manager to chief nursing officer.

  • A nurse manager oversees administrative duties such as scheduling and training while having limited time directly with patients.
  • Charge nurses are responsible for frequently giving patients care while also managing the nursing duties for an entire ward, such as labor and delivery, during their shift. A charge nurse supervises people more than a nurse manager does.
  • Directors of nursing supervise the entire nursing team, coordinating nurse recruitment efforts, the budget, and policy enforcement. A larger organization may have multiple directors to help supervise the charge nurses and nursing manager. Directors very rarely if ever see patients directly.
  • The chief nursing officer is a member of the executive team collaborating with the other executives to achieve positive patient outcomes. An organization has only one chief nursing officer, and they are mostly removed from day-to-day patient care. Nevertheless, they must be mindful, since they make large-scale decisions that will impact every staff member and patient.

How to Earn a Leadership Role in Health Care

The path to any of the aforementioned roles involves a combination of education, certification, and experience. Although an advanced degree is not always required for leadership roles, those with a DNP or other advanced degree will stand out as candidates for these positions. Obtaining certification from a relevant professional organization, such as the certified executive in nursing practice (CENP) certification, can be helpful as well. The CENP certifies proficiency in areas such as business and leadership skills, communication and relationship building, and professionalism.


Nurses also will be well served by gaining diverse professional experiences before applying for a leadership position. This will prepare them to understand the dynamics of different departments and provide context for the types of decisions they will have to make. The rule of thumb here is that one can never have too much experience.

Begin Your Journey to Becoming a Leader in Health Care

Leaders in health care provide the necessary oversight of crucial functions that allow their organizations to run efficiently and provide quality care to patients. Their work also helps their organizations navigate the challenges of an ever-evolving field and helps the next generation of frontline nursing staff develop the nursing leadership qualities they’ll need to succeed.

Those with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) who are ready to lead the future of the nursing profession should explore what Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online MSN to DNP program can offer you. Its curriculum — which covers development and implementation of health care policy, informatics and technology, and leadership and systems management, among other subject areas — will help you develop the leadership qualities you need to be a successful nursing leader.

Recommended Reading:

How Family Nurse Practitioners Can Play a Major Role in Addressing the Growing Physician Shortage in the U.S.

NP vs. MD: Understanding the Differences

Nursing Job Growth: Opportunities for Advancement


American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Certified in Executive Nursing Practice Certification

Chron, "The Goals for a Nurse Manager"

HealthStream, "Defining and Experiencing Good Nursing Leadership"

Indeed, Charge Nurse Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, Director of Nursing Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, Nurse Leaders and Managers: Key Qualities, Roles and Duties

Indeed, Nurse Manager Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, "What Is Nursing Leadership: Definition and Strategies"

Indeed, "What Is the Role of a Nurse Executive? A Career Guide"

McKinsey & Company, "Assessing the Lingering Impact of COVID-19 on the Nursing Workforce"

NEJM Catalyst, "Health Care 2030: The Coming Transformation"

Ohio Association of Advanced Practice Nurses, The Importance of Leadership in Nursing

Symplr, "How Nurse Leaders Drive Change and Affect Strategic Goals"