View all Blog

How to Become a Nurse Leader or Executive

May 31, 2023

Nurse Leader

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

Nurse leaders play a critical role in the delivery of healthcare in this country, motivating staff, promoting collaboration, creating a supportive culture, stewarding limited resources and inspiring colleagues. 

“All nurses are leaders and exhibit leadership traits by sharing knowledge, coaching and mentoring other nurses,” said Mandy Bell, DNP, MSN, RN, clinical faculty of graduate nursing programs at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. “There are universally recognized industry standards regarding education and experience requirements to qualify in a formal nurse leader role.”

Although some people appear to be born leaders, most nurses must learn how to become a leader. Clinical skills might get a nurse noticed, and even promoted, but it takes some proactive steps to transition into healthcare leadership—and achieve success.

“Nurse leadership requires a combination of progressive education and experience,” said Richard Prior, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, interim associate dean of graduate programs at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing in Ohio.  

6 Steps to Become a Nurse Leader or Executive 

1. Understand the Role of a Nurse Leader

Nurse leaders inspire and motivate others. They are vital to a successfully run healthcare organization, whether in acute care, home care, case management/care coordination, insurance companies, clinics or research settings. 

“The skills are the same across work settings,” said Sandra Galura, PhD, RN, director of the master’s in nursing leadership and management program at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing in Orlando.

Leaders are focused on vision and empowering people to meet organizational outcomes, whereas managers are more task-oriented, Prior explained.

Healthcare leadership roles for nurses range from clinical nurse specialists and assistant nurse managers up through directors of nursing or clinical services to executive-level chief nursing officers. 

Browse interim and permanent nurse leadership roles with B.E. Smith.

2. Pursue Necessary Qualifications and Education

Many colleges and universities across the country offer master’s level programs in nurse leadership. Such programs can increase nurse leaders’ marketability, Bell said. 

“Most of the folks that enroll in our master’s degree program are starting at entry-level positions with some experience as a charge nurse or moving into a formal leadership role,” said Galura. She explained that the higher the position in the organization, the higher the degree the nurse should possess.

Master’s programs help nurses develop both the analytical and soft skills necessary to be successful healthcare leaders. 

The American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) has outlined core competencies for nurse leaders to be successful. They include:


  • Professionalism
  • Communication and relationship management
  • Business skills and principles
  • Knowledge of the health care environment

Many programs, including those at UCF and Rasmussen, align curriculum with these core competencies. 

Continuing education courses can help steer a nursing career into healthcare leadership by learning more about leadership theory and professional development.

Bell also recommended, “engaging in professional organizations, especially with an appointment as committee chair or other leadership role.” 

Nurses aspiring to leadership roles can participate in or lead a quality improvement or change initiative at their organization, Bell said. They also can engage in volunteer or networking activities. Also, a mentor can help with the transition to leadership.

3. Achieve Certification as a Nurse Leader

AONL offers a Certified Nurse Manager and Leader credential for nurse managers. It demonstrates the nurse has the required knowledge and expertise to serve as a nurse manager.

The American Nurse Credentialling Center offers Nurse Executive Certification. This competency-bases credential demonstrates entry-level knowledge of nurses leading a unit, service line, department or other entity.

4. Develop the Traits of a Successful Nurse Leader

“Successful nurse leaders will be required to possess a leadership style that embraces relationship building,” Prior said. “It requires leaders to develop a good working relationship with their employees.” This helps to build trust and facilitate communication.

“Nurse leaders possess both hard and soft skills,” Bell explained. “In addition to demonstrating knowledge of professional nursing practice, there are essential qualities, traits and skills the nurse leader should possess to be effective in the role of the nurse leader.” 

Bell suggested the successful nurse leader must possess excellent communication and interpersonal skills, business and financial acumen, and be able to prioritize collaboration across the organization. She also recommended leaders engage in self-awareness to reflect on their strengths and identify opportunities, and practice and promote work–life balance. Nurse leaders must demonstrate effective decision-making skills, social and emotional intelligence and empathy, while at the same time being flexible, agile and an effective educator.

Nurses can learn these skills in a graduate-level program and by actively participating in professional organizations. 

5. Explore Career Advancement and Growth Opportunities

Nurse leaders can advance into ever-increasing levels of responsibility, including chief operating officer or chief executive officer of a health system, dean of nursing in academia, healthcare board member, and other positions in the community, Bell reported. These advancement opportunities might be found within a nurse’s own organization, or in other health systems.

“There are opportunities for nurse leaders at every level,” Prior said. “Shared governance and newer care models and patient safety approaches require nurses who are prepared and able to lead.” 

Excelling at one’s current job can boost chances for moving up in an organization. Additional education will provide a nurse with practicum experience to succeed to positions higher up the career ladder, such as nurse executives.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 28 percent growth rate for medical and health services managers, which is much faster than other positions.

Josh Hamilton, DNP, RN/PMH-BC, FNP-C, PMHNP-BC, CTMH, CNE, FAANP, assistant vice president and dean of post-licensure nursing at Rasmussen University in Las Vegas, reports 20 percent to 30 percent job growth year over year for the school’s graduates. He expects this trend will continue for the next five to 10 years.

6. Prepare to Overcome Key Challenges

Many challenges face nurse leaders and executives, including leading diverse teams in the workplace, the dynamic nature of the healthcare system, emerging technologies, and the nursing shortage, Bell said. Nurses in leadership roles should recognize and address intergenerational and cultural differences by practicing empathetic leadership. They also need to remain flexible and adapt to the changing healthcare environment.

“Emerging technologies include artificial intelligence, telemedicine/telehealth, electronic patient care documentation, robotics, nanotechnology, smart wearable technology and home monitoring,” Bell continued. “Nurse leaders should role model technological competence and support the nursing workforce – with resources, training and soliciting feedback – to develop the skills to fully engage with new health and digital technology.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the nursing shortage and created healthcare staffing challenges, Prior said. Nurse leaders at the unit level can foster a work environment in which staff nurses feel valued and therefore, less likely to leave.

“Nurse leaders must implement strategies to retain incumbent nurses,” Bell said. “Mentoring, coaching, reskilling, and upskilling to create pathways for nurses to learn new skills and expand their knowledge of current skills are important strategies to support nurse recruitment and retention.

Become a Nurse Leader with B.E. Smith

Nurse leaders need more than strong clinical skills; they must learn to collaborate and deliver results for better outcomes. Nurses aspiring to leadership positions can take the steps toward becoming a nurse leader or executive with B.E. Smith's expert guidance. We offer interim and permanent placement in a variety of roles.

Read More About This Topic

Blog Benefits of Stepping into a Nurse Supervisor Role

Have you considered taking the leap into a nurse leadership role? Discover the career and lifestyle benefits that you can expect with this important career decision. 

Blog AMN Healthcare Named Top Healthcare Executive Search Firm by Modern Healthcare

Because of our critical role in finding and providing high quality leaders to hospitals and health systems across the nation, AMN Healthcare has again been named the top executive search firm by Modern Healthcare, the leading independent healthcare industry magazine.  

Blog Steps to Become an Interim Leader in Healthcare

Discover the steps to take to become an interim leader in healthcare with B.E. Smith. Learn about the role, responsibilities, and key skills required for success.