The Making of a Leader

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

“A leader is someone who has a sense of what is right and has that at the heart of everything they do.”

All you have to tell me is that you are a nurse, and I already know you have leadership skills. Every nurse has leadership skills. You manage other members of the healthcare team, you cause others to act, and you facilitate positive outcomes.

This is what I told a woman who approached me during a break while I was presenting a seminar for nurses several years ago. As she walked toward me, I noticed her head was down, her shoulders were slumped, and her facial expression, from what I could see of it, was strained. She began to speak, and her voice was barely audible. “I want to get into a particular specialty,” she started. “Someone told me I need leadership skills for that. I don’t have leadership skills,” she said emphatically, obviously distressed. “I don’t want to manage people,” she continued. “I just want to go in and do my job, solve my own problems, get the job done, and take care of business.”

I smiled as I listened to her and said, “What you just described to me are leadership skills.” With this realization, she began to slowly lift her head and straighten out her body. She looked me square in the eyes and said proudly, in a now audible voice, “You’re right. I do have leadership skills.”

In this example, it took only a few reassuring words on my part to remind this nurse of her own capabilities. But it also highlights how many of us have a tendency to underestimate our abilities and convince ourselves that we are somehow inadequate or insignificant in the scope of things. Every nurse has leadership potential that can be, and should be, fostered and developed.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Leadership is the ability to take charge of a situation, to assess problems, and to facilitate solutions. Effective leaders have high regard for others, see the best in those around them, and have a way of making others feel good about themselves. A good leader possesses certain knowledge and skills and feels confident in that knowledge. Leaders have a sense of what is right and keep that at the heart of everything they do.

Leadership is not about telling others what to do. Rather, it is about inspiring others to be their best. It is about giving those around you a sense of what needs to be done and the desire to do it. It is about supporting every member of the team and recognizing another’s efforts. An integral part of effective leadership involves the ability to listen and hear what others have to say and to allow an opportunity for those thoughts and ideas to be put into action.

Just because someone is a manager does not automatically make him or her a good leader. While “manager” is a title, “leader” is an attribute. Good leaders are not born; they are developed through experience, studying, mentoring, and a basic desire to be the best they can be.

How To Set Your Sights on a Leadership Role

Although every nurse has leadership capabilities, there are certain ways to hone those skills and work toward a formal position of leadership within an organization.

1. Look for role models and mentors. When you encounter people whose leadership style you admire, take some time to observe how they deal with others. What is it about them that you admire? What makes them stand out? Spend a little time talking with them, if possible. Ask them what they believe makes a good leader.

2. Seek out challenging assignments. Ask for projects that will give you the opportunity to develop your communication skills, negotiating skills, and managerial skills. Volunteer to work as a preceptor, to take occasional charge, or to manage a group project. Personal and professional growth comes, in part, by challenging yourself. It also builds confidence, keeps you interested and excited about your work, and helps you to become more self-aware. These are all leadership characteristics. Be sure to ask your supervisor for feedback and constructive criticism, too, so you can continue to grow.

3. Get active in professional associations. Get on committees and run for office. This is a great way to develop your leadership capabilities. Years ago, I volunteered to chair the education committee of an association I belonged to. I had to learn how to motivate a group of people, delegate tasks, and speak in a diplomatic and tactful manner — never one of my strong points. But as with anything else, the more you practice and the more experience you gain, the better, and more humble, you are likely to become.

Involvement in professional associations also gives you the opportunity to observe other leaders in action, find a mentor or be one, and take part in leadership training courses. It provides the professional support you need to be successful in the workplace. Professional associations are excellent breeding grounds for good leaders.

4. Do some reading. A while back, when I became president of a local association of women business owners, I dreaded running board meetings for a large group of very strong and opinionated women. I went to the library and looked for books on leadership and management. Even though I had been a manager in several healthcare settings, I felt I had a lot to learn and was determined to be a good leader. I made a study of how to run an effective meeting, principles of group decision-making, conflict management, and how to motivate people. I picked up some great tips and practices that proved to be invaluable to me.

You Are a Leader Where You Are Right Now

Whether you have a designated title of authority in an organization or not, each nurse has the ability to influence his or her surroundings. You can, and do, have a positive impact on those around you by exhibiting leadership qualities in everyday situations. Continue to develop these qualities by showing some initiative, treating others with the utmost respect and regard, challenging yourself, and making a commitment to continuously become a better leader and role model.

As I told the nurse who approached me at that seminar, you already have leadership capabilities and you already use them on a daily basis. Understand your circle of influence, nurture and develop those capabilities, and put it all to good use to make a brighter tomorrow for nursing.

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