What makes a good nurse leader?

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“Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile” (Vince Lombardi).

What makes a good leader? More importantly, what makes a good nursing leader? What defines a “good” leader versus a “bad” one?

When I first thought of the idea of a nurse leader, I thought of the traditional roles: Charge nurse, unit (or department) manager, chief operating officer of a hospital service (or services), chief nursing officer, etc. While thinking of leaders, I also thought of the traditional, and more formal, leaders that function outside the hospital system and more at the organizational level.

I seem to be victim of the traditional way of thinking. Because the truth of the matter is, every nurse out there is a leader in his or her own right. Every one of us. We have to lead every day of our professional career. My question is: At what point is a nurse NOT a leader?


I wanted to better define what makes a good leader. I did some searching for the optimal qualities that one should possess to be a good, effective leader, but it seems that everyone has a different opinion.

I decided to take a different route. I believe a good leader is defined by what they are NOT. What they are NOT doing. What qualities they do NOT possess. An all-encompassing apophasis argument for defining a good leader (yes, I had to look that word up).

Here are the qualities and practices that do NOT make up a good leader:

Having no presence

I’m talking physical and metaphysical. Are they physically on the unit more often than not? Do they have the most days off on the unit? Effective and successful leadership cannot be done from afar in our profession.

Playing favorites

Is there equality of treatment across the board, or do certain employees get away with breaking the rules? Is everyone held accountable for everything they do, including the leaders themselves?

Losing touch – becoming a suit and no longer a nurse

This is a tough one to describe unless you’re working at the bedside. It’s a common opinion that most of the “suits” have no idea what goes on at the bedside. What’s on paper is not what actually happens in real life.

Not fighting for their people

Do they stick up for and defend their employees? Fight for better working conditions? Fight for better staffing ratios? Or do they simply walk the drone-like line?

Forgetting how to follow

The best leaders are forged from the best followers. Those in the trenches know better than anyone how the machine should run. The further away a leader gets from “following,” the harder it gets to lead.

Not practicing what they preach

 Do they say one thing and do another? Is there consistency?

Always giving negative feedback

This is probably the biggest downfall of most leaders. So quick to judge, correct and point out the faults, yet can’t take the time to give the positive reinforcement when it is well deserved.

While this list is not exhaustive or all-inclusive, it has some merit. The very best leaders have worked on these and continue to work on these tips every day. Every leader = every nurse.

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One Response to What makes a good nurse leader?

  1. amani

    I was interested to read this article based on the title. I have a background in Servant Leadership (that I am constantly trying to improve on, learn about, and implement in the workplace), and was eager to read the ideas of this article.

    The perspective of what a leader is not was a great method to write. In regards to Presence as the first topic, I had an immediate reaction based on personal experience. I think if a leader is effective and has developed a solid Team, than eventually the Leader does not have to be physically present because he/she has facilitated a mindset in their team that will allow for them to work at a highly functional level without the Leader. This also eliminates micro managing, which is the experience I am referring to. Our so-called leader constantly called the unit even on her days off to check on us – this led to a sense of distrust instead of genuine concern.

    The spin the writer has taken on Every Nurse = Leader is true but I would have love to see that more elaborated. For your typical bedside Nurse for instance, each has their own set of patients to take care of therefore making them the Leader or Facilitator of that patient’s care. But you are only a Leader if there is a (sense of) Team or else you are standing alone, right? So making your patients, your coworkers, and even your superiors a part of the Team is ultimately the goal of Leadership in my opinion.