Ultimate Guide to Nursing Leadership Skills

Nursing leadership is a specialty you might not consider when looking for a change in your career path. However, leadership roles take specific high-level skills that not every nurse possesses or wants to work towards having. Learn about the skills you need to be a successful nurse leader.

Updated:   Published

  • Workforce Development Columnist
    Specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement. Has 25 years experience.

Have you ever considered becoming a nurse leader? It's a specialty area of nursing that requires education, skills, and the desire to lead others and make a difference. You might not even consider it a true specialty; however, not just anyone can step into a leadership role and thrive.

Nursing needs excellent leadership. Nurse leaders fill everything from charge nurse roles to executive-level nursing administration roles. At every leadership level, a unique set of skills are required that expand beyond anything taught in nursing school. In fact, most nursing leaders never receive formal leadership training. Instead, they lead according to their natural leadership abilities, whether good or bad.

You're in the right place if you're considering a leadership role or are already in one and wondering what skills you need to learn or improve upon. We've rounded up some of the top skills nurse leaders need to help you on your nursing leadership career pathway. Let's dive in!

A Good Attitude

Nurse leaders set the tone for the department. So, if you have a bad attitude and don't always do what you're supposed to, your team will follow your lead. So, be sure the team sees you work hard, show respect for others, and any other qualities you want them to copy.  

Change Management

The nursing profession is full of changes. And how successful your team is at embracing these changes comes from your lead. You'll develop and revise processes, protocols, and treatments as a nurse leader. You must be able to support staff through these changes to ensure long-term success.

Change Management also requires visioning, planning, and reviewing progress made. You must be able to communicate with and motivate the team to gain their buy-in to achieve the needed changes. 

Emotional Intelligence

Nursing leaders must be adept at understanding their emotions while also being in tune with the feelings of others. Nursing is a challenging profession where burnout and caregiver fatigue can creep in silently and rob you of joy and happiness. However, if you've built your emotional intelligence levels up, you'll be able to navigate these difficult situations easily. 

Thick Skin

Being a nurse leader isn't always about getting your way or making the rules. Sometimes you'll get negative feedback from peers, your supervisor, and your staff. Therefore, you must have thick skin along with the ability to separate criticism of your work product from you as a person. 


Leaders communicate in various methods with many people. Therefore, you must be able to have difficult conversations with staff and your supervisor too. Depending on your job, you'll also need to be skilled at written communication, presentations, and public speaking. 


Your leader entrusted you with a team of healthcare professionals who have jobs to do. You can't watch everything they do daily, so you must trust them. You must deliver clear expectations and allow your team members to do their job without you looking over their shoulders. No one wants to be micromanaged, and you probably don't want to be a micromanager, either. 

Ability to Laugh and Have Fun

No one can be all business all the time. And, if you try, you'll burn out, and your staff probably won't like you much. So, integrate fun and laughter into your daily routine. Chat with staff and get to know them well. Engaging in small talk and being human with your team helps to build trust and rapport. 

Respect and Appreciation

Showing respect and appreciation goes beyond buying pizza. Instead, tell staff when they've done an excellent job. Thank them for their hard work and acknowledge them publicly at team meetings when you've witnessed someone going out of their way.

Nurse leaders also ensure staff members make a fair salary for their work. Evaluate pay often and if you feel salaries aren't appropriate, go to your supervisor and see what you can do. Even if you cannot make a significant change, your team will appreciate you going to bat for them. 


If you tell your team you'll do something, follow through. Demonstrating accountability builds trust and makes the team feel respected and cared for by you. 

Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

As a nurse leader, you will have hard conversations with staff members. You'll even have to deliver bad news, like performance improvement plans, workforce reductions, or terminations. These are uncomfortable conversations that you must be comfortable with to be effective.

You'll also navigate other uncomfortable situations where you won't know exactly what to do. But building comfort with being in awkward situations will help you get through these times easily. 

Listening and Receiving Feedback

You might think that being a leader is all about giving feedback. However, the best nurse leaders are excellent listeners. Not only do they listen, but they also take the feedback they receive and use it to improve in the future.

What other skills do great nurse leaders possess? We'd love to hear your opinions. So tell us in the comments to get the conversation started.

Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa is a registered nurse with over 23 years of experience. She loves workforce development, training, and operations.

142 Articles   319 Posts

Share this post