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The Most Important Leadership Skills for Nurses

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Sep 14, 2023
 A nurse stands in a hallway in a medical facility and speaks with a doctor.

The Most Important Leadership Skills for Nurses

For many, nursing is more than a job — it’s a calling. Nurses often treat patients during the most difficult periods of their lives, and the way they approach their work can make all the difference in patients’ experiences. To provide quality care, nurses rely on supportive and knowledgeable leaders dedicated to creating a workplace culture that encourages nurses and provides them with the resources they need to succeed.

Leadership skills for nurses can be developed through training and experience. By pursuing an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing, nurses can set themselves up for success by honing the skills they need to pursue leadership roles in nursing.

Core Nursing Leadership Skills

In addition to their clinical expertise, nurse leaders need to possess a comprehensive set of soft skills and competencies to effectively carry out their duties, from guiding their staff to advocating for patients.

The following are some of the core leadership skills for nurses that can help them in senior clinical, research, or administrative roles.


Communication is arguably one of the most important leadership skills for nurses, both for supervisors and clinical practitioners. Without effective communication, nurse leaders would have a difficult time identifying what is and is not working within their department, among their staff, and in each patient’s care plan.

By cultivating key communication and interpersonal skills such as active listening and empathy, nurse leaders can establish meaningful and productive relationships with their staff as well as their patients. Taking the time to listen, understand, and respond thoughtfully when interacting with their team members enables nurse leaders to foster a more inclusive and collaborative workplace.

Collaboration and Teamwork

To function effectively, hospitals and other health care facilities require a multitude of skilled professionals to work together. By fostering a workplace that encourages collaboration and teamwork, nurse leaders can capitalize on the individual strengths of each team member to provide the most efficient and highest quality care for their patients.

Critical Thinking and Ethical Decision-Making

Health care decisions are often complicated, multifaceted, and time sensitive. Nurse leaders apply critical thinking and ethical decision-making to weigh options and consider a variety of contributing factors when making decisions, whether related to staffing or the next steps in a patient’s care.

By taking the time to contemplate their options objectively, nurse leaders have a better chance of making decisions that lead to positive outcomes. When it comes to patient care, these skills enable nurse leaders to thoroughly review the facts of a case, consider the patient’s wishes, and recommend care strategies that respect all parties.

Emotional Intelligence

While emotional intelligence may not be the most obvious leadership skill for nurses, it can be instrumental in helping nurses make objective decisions in challenging situations.

Emotional intelligence — the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions and reactions as well as the emotions of others — enables nurse leaders to empathize with their patients and staff while also allowing them to separate themselves emotionally so they can make ethical decisions based on the facts of the case.


With a multitude of factors influencing their roles — ranging from standard protocols and timelines to financial constraints, insurance, and patient preferences — nurse leaders may find themselves acting as advocates for change in their workplace or in patient care.

For some nurse leaders, this may require them to act as representatives for their nursing staff and lobby for improvements in certain workplace conditions or the addition/allocation of resources. When caring for patients, advocacy can take the form of acting as a representative for their patients and communicating patients’ wishes to family members or other medical professionals.


Being able to take responsibility for one’s successes, mistakes, shortcomings, and strengths is one of the hallmarks of strong leadership.

Nurse leaders who are accountable for their actions gain the respect and trust of their team members and patients. By demonstrating that they are willing to learn, adapt, and take ownership of their decisions, accountable leaders are better able to collaborate with colleagues and prioritize positive care outcomes for their patients.

The Impact of Nursing Leadership

All managers and leaders have an influential role within their workplace, regardless of their industry. According to a survey by GoodHire, 82% of Americans said they would potentially quit a job due to bad management. Leadership skills matter.

The stakes are particularly high when it comes to leadership skills for nurses, with breakdowns in procedures, protocols, or standards of care due to poor leadership having the potential to negatively impact the lives and health outcomes of patients.

The leadership skills of nurses in senior-level roles can affect overall staff morale and their ability to deliver quality care. It can also impact the bottom line of a health care organization. Since they are responsible for their patients, staff, and the operation of their department, nurse leaders must have the wherewithal to prioritize issues, delegate appropriately, and ensure that their staff have the resources they need to succeed.

Nursing Research and Skills for Innovation

Procedures and standards of care in the health care industry are continuously evolving to adapt to the latest scientific research. As treatments and programs improve, outcomes for patients often improve along with them. Among the many key leadership skills for nurses, the ability to conduct research, comprehend the results of the research, and implement evidence-based improvements in nursing practice based on those results can be one of the most essential for maintaining high-quality patient care.

Become an Effective Leader in Nursing

Nursing care can have a lasting impact on the health and wellness of patients, and nurses perform at their best when they receive the proper guidance and support from leadership. Aspiring nurse leaders can develop the skills to foster a supportive and collaborative atmosphere for their colleagues and contribute to optimal patient outcomes by pursuing an advanced education, such as the online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) from The University of Tulsa.

Coursework in the MSN program is taught by experienced faculty and prioritizes a growth mindset, ensuring graduates have the practical knowledge and skills they need to succeed. The program is designed with the working nurse in mind, with an eight-week format and multiple starts each year, providing busy nurses with the flexibility to earn their degree at their own pace. Discover how you can make a positive impact in nursing.

Recommended Readings

The Benefits of Nurse Mentoring

The Importance of Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing

Self-Care for Nurses: Strategies for the Modern Nurse


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “Leadership”

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Workforce Fact Sheet

American Nurses Association, Leadership in Nursing: Qualities and Why It Matters

GoodHire, “Horrible Bosses: Are American Workers Quitting Their Jobs or Quitting Their Managers?”

Indeed, “10 Nursing Leadership Qualities and Behaviors”

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

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