Many people I’ve met while serving as president at prominent universities couldn’t believe I was a nurse before entering academic leadership. It’s not surprising — you can count the number of university presidents with nursing…
Many people I’ve met while serving as president at prominent universities couldn’t believe I was a nurse before entering academic leadership. It’s not surprising — you can count the number of university presidents with nursing backgrounds in the U.S. on one hand.
My colleagues with law, business and education degrees in similar roles don’t receive the same reactions. Even though I earned a PhD, some people can’t wrap their heads around the idea of a nurse in a leadership position.
The truth is, nurses are slowly making their way into leadership positions everywhere — health care settings, professional organizations, community boards and non-health care organizations. Several nurses have also made their way into Congress.
I believe we need more nurses in leadership positions everywhere — after all, there are more than 3 million nurses currently in the U.S. and their everyday work makes nurses naturally effective problem solvers and leaders.
There is still a lot of work to be done to get nurses into leadership positions, both in health care and non-health care environments. It’s my mission to ensure that we do everything we can to make that happen.
The first barrier to address is that nursing is still largely viewed as a blue collar profession and, as a career, can be a broad term with many different meanings. Those outside the nursing world can have difficulty understanding the difference in levels of training and education required for the various nursing roles.
Whether you have a graduate degree, work as a nursing assistant or are an APRN, all nurses are often viewed under the same umbrella. In other words, a nurse is a nurse.
We must continue to educate the public and our professional peers that nursing can mean a variety of things. There are many levels of training and expertise involved.
The second barrier is that nurses are not always seen as decision makers and leaders. The same can be said today about women in leadership positions. As the majority of nurses are women, it becomes an especially important issue when talking about nurses in leadership roles. For all nurses — both male and female — it’s essential that we work together to break the glass ceiling for women and encourage more nurses to pursue leadership opportunities.
Nurses Make Great Leaders
There are many reasons why nurses make great leaders. To start, nurses tend to look at issues in a holistic or ecological way. Because of the virtue of training and education in any health care setting, nurses are accustomed to seeing the entirety of a problem and dealing with many different groups to help solve issues.
Whether it’s medical errors, quality of care or the efficiency of how health care is delivered, an enormous amount of coordination and knowledge of the environment and systems is required. Nurses are effective with a systems approach because nothing in the health care setting can be addressed without it.
Florence Nightingale is the classic example. She knew to look at the whole environment to reduce deaths of British soldiers — considering a variety of factors such as ventilation, hygiene and medicines. When you’re in a leadership position, you must understand how pieces fit together and have a strong systems approach. These are skills that nurses are accustomed to developing throughout their careers.
Additionally, the personality traits of nurses — empathy, caring and nurturing — translate well in leadership roles. When I think about leaders, I think about people who can understand their team members and know how to mobilize them. Leaders that can enable their teams to work with each other in a way that’s positive and achieves a goal.
For nurses, these qualities are ingrained in their advanced education and training. They set nurses up to be successful leaders in both health care and non-health care settings.
If you’re a nurse and thinking about pursuing a leadership position, believe in yourself and take action. First, I’d advise you to pursue advanced education, because you need an area of expertise to be a leader. I also encourage you to volunteer and serve on boards and committees at professional organizations.
If you want to enter a leadership position in the health care space, committees can be especially important and teach you more about issues at the organization — whether it’s regulatory, ethical, professional — and how the organization functions overall. A leader needs to know how an organization functions inside and out to make an impact, which make committees a great place to start.
Local or national community service boards, such as Habitat for Humanity and AARP, allow you to help others while learning more about yourself and how decisions and policies are made. Leaders are constantly dealing with policy, so understanding how they are made and implemented and their organizational impact can be beneficial throughout your career.
Also, always have a mentor and mentor others. When I was a dean, I had an assistant who was extremely bright and talented. After speaking with her, I learned she went to school as a pre-med major and dropped out. After our conversation, I mentored her and she ended up going back to college and is now a doctor.
The Future Is Bright
There are many opportunities for nurses to grow and gain valuable leadership skills, both in clinical specialties and functional roles. Whether you’re a clinical nurse, staff nurse, nurse educator in a hospital or school or a school nurse, the opportunities are endless.
When I think about leaders with nursing backgrounds, I think of Terry Fulmer, a geriatric nurse who became the President of the Gerontological Society of America and is now the President of the John Hartford Foundation, dedicated to improvement of care for older adults. Or Audrey Nelson, a VA nurse scientist and inventor who developed patents and programs to improve the quality of care for veterans with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.
I also encourage nurses to be more involved in the business and technology startup communities. I always wonder: Why aren’t more of these businesses founded by nurses?
The primary reason is because nurses aren’t accustomed to thinking about commercialization. When nurses have ideas, they tend to think locally in their unit or community. Nurses are on the front lines of patient care and medical technology, giving them an advantage when it comes to new ideas.
There are more opportunities than ever before for nurses. Advanced education and training can make them very effective leaders in both health care and non-health care environments. Nurses who are considering leadership positions should speak up, get involved and feel empowered to be leaders across all areas of health care and business.