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Leadership Positions in Nursing

Nurses are a fundamental part of the healthcare industry, with more responsibilities being assigned to them every year. With the critical shortage of healthcare professionals in the United States, nurses at all levels have become integral members of medical teams, and in some cases, the only medical professional available to individuals who live in rural areas or are unable to travel. Nurses who want to move up in their positions can do so with additional education, certifications, and licenses that will lead to higher pay, more fulfillment, and better autonomy. Some leadership roles available for nurses include chief nursing officer, healthcare administrator, and director of nursing, among others.

Leadership Roles in Nursing

Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)

A chief nursing officer acts as the most senior-level nurse in a medical institution and directs all activities related to the nursing team, including writing policy and overseeing hiring. They are also responsible for assessing the safety needs of staff and coordinating with other leaders in the organization on improving nursing operations. While they do not work on the floor and in person with patients, they have the most impact on the nursing department because they are responsible for hiring and training staff as well as purchasing equipment and supplies needed for optimal patient care.

A chief nursing officer is usually a senior nurse with many years of experience and knowledge who brings a collaborative and open mind to the position and teaches their staff to do the same. A strong CNO will encourage communication between staff members as well as cultivate a strong sense of teamwork to boost staff morale and confidence.

CNOs must have strong leadership skills to effectively manage and motivate teams of nurses and have a high level of knowledge to make decisions and provide expert guidance. They must also be able to effectively communicate with nursing staff, other healthcare professionals, and stakeholders to ensure efficient and effective operations.

Effective CNOs must understand budgeting and financial management to ensure that nursing resources are allocated appropriately. Most chief nursing officers will further their education with courses that provide them with additional knowledge. They must also be able to develop and execute strategic plans that align with their organization’s goals and mission.

These successful leaders in nursing must also be able to effectively manage change within their organization to implement new programs or adjust processes and build positive relationships with patients, families, and staff to foster a supportive and collaborative work environment.

Healthcare administrator

Healthcare administrators oversee all health services in a medical organization and, depending on the role they have within the institution, can manage a unit, a department, or an entire facility. Part of their responsibility includes ensuring compliance with health regulations, implementing plans for improving patient outcomes, and overseeing budgets, schedules, and other areas such as staffing and training.

Health administrators must have strong leadership skills to manage and motivate teams of employees, as well as be able to effectively communicate with healthcare professionals, patients, and stakeholders.

Like a CNO, a health administrator must understand budgeting and financial management to ensure that resources are allocated properly and execute plans that are in line with their organization’s goals. They need to be able to monitor and ensure that the services provided are all within organizational policies and adhere to the regulations and compliance requirements.

Skills such as these can be part of the curriculum when taking an online DNP program at an accredited school such as Wilkes University. Online programs provide a flexible way for nurses to further their education and learn the skills necessary to lead while still working full-time.

Director of Nursing

A director of nursing acts as a manager for a nursing unit in a medical organization and oversees all aspects of the unit. They set goals, both long-term and short-term, and supervise and evaluate staff. The director of nursing is responsible for assessing the performance of nursing staff and creating plans for improving the unit. They must also ensure their staff has adequate rest and their schedules are not interfering with their health or life-work balance. That includes making sure there is a proper schedule in place that works for everyone.

One of their primary duties is to set clinical procedures and assess the staffing needs of the unit. These medical professionals monitor the care of the patients looked after by their staff and assign new tasks as needed to ensure the care is consistent. A director of nursing is also involved in the development of their staff and will connect them with learning opportunities and find ways for them to further their education while performing their duties. When a nurse is looking at a director position, a DNP, alongside other licensing and courses, is a great option. Directors of nursing should also have extensive experience in nursing and patient care so they can provide expert advice to their staff and gain their respect.

Clinical nurse manager (CNM)

A clinical nurse manager is a leadership role in a hospital setting that is responsible for creating schedules for staff and making sure policies and procedures are in place and adhered to. They coordinate with other clinical managers to improve patient outcomes and also resolve any disputes that may arise between their nursing staff and other individuals in the workplace.

Clinical nurse managers have extensive experience in nursing as well as the appropriate degrees and licenses to be successful leaders in their institutions. With experience and knowledge behind them, clinical nurse managers are an excellent resource for their staff.

Director of patient care services

The director of patient care services oversees the outcomes of patient care in a hospital or other healthcare facility. These medical professionals evaluate the system for patient care across all departments and recommend any improvements or resources needed. These directors create programs that teach their staff about proper healthcare delivery and collaborate with other department directors to assess policies surrounding patient care.

A director of patient care services holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, has many years of experience, and is constantly updating their own education. A certificate in management in healthcare is also a great source of additional learning for these professionals.

Nursing coordinator

A nursing coordinator creates treatment plans that help patients and medical teams connect with each other to provide excellent care. They also meet with patients and discuss their ideas for their treatment plans and educate them on other possible treatments. Some of the nursing leader’s other responsibilities include tracking health changes for patients, making sure there is communication with the healthcare team, and monitoring patient outcomes.

Nursing coordinators are usually employed in hospitals, hospice and long-term care facilities, treatment centers, and other organizations that provide medical treatment to patients. These medical professionals typically have a bachelor’s degree and will take further education courses in administration and communication. They will have ample experience as a registered nurse and want to take one of the necessary steps to attain a higher career.

Nursing shift supervisor

Shift supervisors in nursing are individuals who are taking the first steps toward a leadership position within a medical institution. They oversee a nursing team and create schedules to make sure there are enough staff to meet patient needs and arrange for backup if needed. In certain cases, they will provide clinical care if necessary. 

These supervisors are the main point of contact for the rest of the medical staff. They will also make sure the medical records of patients are maintained and review the work of their nursing staff. Shift supervisors will also collaborate with other healthcare professionals to set practice standards.

Nurse educator

Nurse educators are responsible for training new nurses in important patient procedures, healthcare delivery methods, and safety procedures. These professionals teach medical procedures in classes and clinical placements. They sometimes will work in universities and colleges in postsecondary nursing programs, as well as in hospitals and clinical units. Some nurse educators are also involved in research. These professionals typically have a master’s degree and licensing and clinical experience. 

Skills that nursing leaders need to succeed

Nurses play an important role in the healthcare system and can lead in areas including patient care, policy, and administration. Nursing leaders will possess certain skills that make them respected and valued members of the medical community.

Communication skills

Nurses must have excellent communication skills to convey complex health information, provide emotional support, and collaborate with interdisciplinary teams. Nursing leaders can develop their communication skills by attending communication training or seminars offered by healthcare institutions, nursing associations, or other professional organizations. They can also observe how effective communicators, including other healthcare professionals or experienced nursing leaders, communicate with others and learn from their communication techniques and best practices.

Another way nursing leaders can hone their communication skills is by practicing active listening. By paying attention to what others are saying, clarifying misunderstandings, and asking questions, nursing leaders can gain insights into what others are thinking or feeling.

Clinical expertise

Nurses must have a high level of clinical expertise to provide patient-centered care and make informed decisions based on evidence-based practice.

Leadership skills

Nurses should develop strong leadership skills to manage teams of healthcare professionals, delegate tasks, and solve problems. They can attend leadership training or seminars offered by healthcare institutions, nursing associations, or other professional organizations to learn more about being an effective leader. Nursing leaders can identify mentors, including nursing executives or other experienced nursing leaders, to guide and coach them on leadership and management issues. They can also volunteer for leadership roles, including serving on committees, leading quality improvement projects, or mentoring junior nurses.

Another way nursing leaders can cultivate their leadership skills is to pursue formal education, including advanced degrees or leadership certification programs, to gain a deeper understanding of leadership theories, principles, and practices. They can practice self-reflection by evaluating their own leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses and developing a plan for continuous improvement. Nursing leaders can also collaborate with interdisciplinary teams, including physicians, pharmacists, social workers, or other healthcare professionals, to develop and implement effective healthcare strategies.

Critical thinking and decision-making skills

Nurses must be able to analyze information and make decisions based on clinical data, patient preferences, and relevant policies.

Emotional intelligence

Nurses must have high emotional intelligence to manage their own emotions, respond to other’s emotions, and communicate effectively with patients and colleagues. Nurse leaders can assess their current level of emotional intelligence by taking online self-assessments or working with a coach or mentor who specializes in emotional intelligence. They can also practice self-awareness by becoming aware of how their emotions affect their behavior and decision-making.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Nurse leaders can develop empathy by putting themselves in their colleagues’ and patients’ shoes, actively listening, and acknowledging others’ emotions. Nurse leaders can practice effective communication by using active listening skills, choosing the right words, and controlling their emotional responses.

Stress can affect emotional intelligence. Nurse leaders can develop techniques for managing stress, including mindfulness practices, exercise, and taking regular breaks. They can also seek feedback from colleagues, superiors, or patients to identify areas for improvement and adjust their leadership style accordingly.

Developing good emotional intelligence can help nurse leaders to respond more effectively to conflicts, manage change, develop meaningful relationships in the workplace, and promote a positive work environment and reduce burnout incidence.

Cultural competence

Nurses must have awareness, knowledge, and skills in caring for diverse populations and respecting their cultural beliefs and practices.

Continuous learning and professional development

Nurses must engage in ongoing learning and professional development to keep up with advances in healthcare, regulations, technology, and leadership skills. These skills are crucial for nurses who aspire to become leaders in healthcare and make meaningful contributions to improving patient outcomes and advancing nursing practice.


There are a variety of leadership roles available in nursing, from healthcare administrator to nursing educator, and all are important in their own specific way. With key skills such as good communication, emotional intelligence and strong leadership, those going into nursing can set their sights on leadership roles and become key healthcare workers that ensure the best care for patients.

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