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Phoenix Forward magazine

Top traits of a nurse leader

Nurse leadership

Nurse leaders work both behind the scenes and in the public arena to improve their profession, as well as health care in their communities. And not all nurse leaders necessarily occupy top executive positions, either.

“All nurses have a leadership role to play,” says Angie Strawn, MS, associate dean of the Division of Nursing for the University of Phoenix College of Health Sciences and Nursing.

Discover the top qualities of a nurse leader:


A strong core sense of ethics is required. Nurse leaders are the first to speak up when they discover errors that could harm patients — even if they’re responsible.

“If you’ve made a mistake, [the leader] owns it, takes responsibility and doesn’t blame others,” says Janeen Dahn, MS, assistant dean of the University’s Division of Nursing. “Leaders think outside the box for ways that could prevent errors in the future, and own that decision.”

The issue of patient safety emerges in other ways, too, according to Dahn. “Say a nurse is asked at the end of her shift to stay on for another eight or 12 hours to cover for someone who called in sick,” she says. “A lot of nurses would say yes, but a true nurse leader says, ‘Sorry, I’m too tired to be safe for the patients.’ Leadership is not being afraid to do and say the right thing [under pressure].”


Nurse leaders always look for opportunities to improve the profession, according to Dahn. “They eagerly pick up the responsibilities they don’t have to do,” she says.

That kind of attitude, she points out, helps nurses move into managerial positions, as well as onto nursing-practice committees at hospitals and for national nursing associations. Nurse leaders also lobby legislators and other government officials to pass laws to improve public health, Dahn says, noting that nurses were instrumental in winning approval of seat belt and drunk driving laws in the past.


“When I look at a nurse leader, I see someone who is personable and passionate,” Dahn says. “They have to love what they do, and it has to show.” These leaders view nursing not as an occupation, but as a personal identity — and act accordingly both on and off the job, she adds.

Strawn agrees, adding that she often counsels individuals who are considering nursing as a career. “Everybody I know understands that I love this job, and they come to me with their questions,” she says.



Recognizing leadership potential in others is a key attribute, Dahn stresses. “In the classroom, I look for the students who use evidence-based articles to support their theories,” she says. “In the hospital, I look for the nurse who sets the example and refers to policies and procedures.”

Meanwhile, Strawn says she goes out of her way to help develop leadership potential in younger colleagues by recognizing their accomplishments and offering support and encouragement. “I try to reflect to my colleagues what I see in them … so they know they have what it takes to strive ahead.”