What is Leadership in Nursing and WHY is it so important?

I get asked this question all the time, “what EXACTLY do you mean by nurse leadership?”

The concept of “Leadership” in and of itself can be vague and poorly understood.  Often times leadership and management are used interchangeably, and while that can be the case for some nurse leaders, the International Network of Nurse Leaders focuses on all nurses and their leadership potential, regardless of whether they have a management title or not.

Therefore, we define nurse leadership as the art & science of critical thinking, action over stagnation and advocacy not only for our patients, but also for ourselves. Nurse leaders are visionary and energetic, eager to step up and inspire other nurses to help create a movement of change in the nursing profession.

The Canadian Nurses Association defines Nursing Leadership the following ways (see their position statement here):

Nursing leadership is…

  • …about nurses who understand that the development of nursing leaders must begin at the outset of every nursing education program and continue throughout the career of every nurse. Educators, from academics to clinical nurse educators to personal mentors and those in between, instill the expectation that nurses can be and must be leaders. Leadership in this context is about helping nurses lift their practice so they see nursing not solely as a series of acts of scientific caring that can change individual lives but also as a lifelong commitment to political action for system change. Leadership begins when students are imbued with the meaning of ethical nursing practice and continues throughout one’s career as nurses make the links from individuals to populations, and from the local to the global context.
  • …about the competent and engaged practice of nurses, who provide exemplary care,2 think critically and independently, inform their practice with evidence, delegate and take charge appropriately, advocate for patients and communities, insist on practising to their full and legal scope and push the boundaries of practice to innovative new levels.
  • …about nurses who create and use research, who ask the kinds of questions and seek the kinds of answers that can shape healthy public policy. Leadership in this domain is about combining science with a deep understanding of population health needs, nursing practice and nursing education to envision new futures and drive the nursing discipline strongly forward. It is about mentoring junior researchers, and it is about linking closely with practice and policy leaders to help shape larger public policy outcomes.
  • …about nurses who develop, analyze and interpret policy, and who speak with knowledge of human health, health and regulatory systems and health economics to usefully and credibly inform the development of regulatory frameworks and healthy public policy.
  • …about innovative and visionary administrators from the first level to the most senior nurse executives – leaders who understand and hold themselves accountable for creating vibrant, exciting practice settings in which nurses can deliver safe, accessible, timely and high-quality care for the Canadians they serve.” (Position statement available here)


Leadership in nursing needs to be a shared responsibility among all nurses, at every stage of their career. We believe that this type of collective action is needed in order to not only transform and sustain our nursing profession, but healthcare in general.

Putting an emphasis on your leadership skills as a nurse will help support an environment of high-quality, professional practice in which nurses voices are heard, respected and valued. We know this is not a reality where some of you are practicing – that is why it is crucial for us to come together and start making changes, today. Together, we CAN make a difference.

Nurse leadership does not just “happen”. It requires a community of support, tools and resources to continually develop and enhance leadership skills and a network of other nurse leaders to mentor and support all generations of nurses. This is why the International Network of Nurse Leaders was formed; to give nurses that community, those tools, that support.

Together we can build our leadership capacity, learn from one another, and develop innovative and visionary strategies to build the future of nursing and healthcare.

There has been a steady decline of nurses in formal leadership positions since the mid 1990’s and an increase in non-nursing leaders in areas primarily responsible for nursing care (CNA position statement). It seems this change has lead to nursing shortages, unsafe nurse:patient staffing ratios, and plummeting staff morale. We are being called to take back our profession. We are not “just a nurse”. We CAN BEa profession of highly capable, empathetic, highly effective leaders.

Changing the current landscape of not only the nursing profession, but also healthcare in general, will require nurses stepping up as effective leaders. In collaboration with other healthcare professionals and policy makers, nurse leaders can lead the change to create a stronger, more effective healthcare system at a global level.

If you are interested in the leadership in nursing conversation or would like to learn more about how you can develop your skills as an effective nurse leader, we encourage you to check out our International Network of Nurse Leaders membership program.

Share this episode of Shift Change: