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An RCN forum project encourages all nursing staff to recognise and value themselves as leaders

How do you define good leadership? Ask the internet and it will respond with a range of qualities, all apparently vital for anyone with aspirations to lead: empathy, vision, positivity, honesty, humility, integrity, compassion, confidence.

It might sound like an unobtainable list of attributes, but the Emerging Leaders project headed by the RCN Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum aims to encourage all nursing staff to see that they possess and demonstrate these skills every day.

It seeks to demystify the concept of leadership by showing that leading is an innate part of nursing and, even when not in a formal leadership role, nursing staff can assert their influence and lead.

Be a role model

Graphic of nursing leader

This is about displaying values and behaviours that exemplify professional practice. Leadership is a shared responsibility and exists at all levels, so you don’t have to be “in charge” to be a role model. Think “influence” rather than “seniority”.
Role models hold high standards, support colleagues, and know the limits of their own skills. They also understand and help shape the culture of an organisation. Visit the leadership subject guide from the RCN Library to find out more.

Show emotional intelligence

Graphic of a mind filled with life and intelligence

There are many theories and frameworks regarding emotional intelligence (EI), but common to all is an individual’s ability to monitor and manage their own feelings while understanding those of others. EI enables you to respond calmly and rationally, but crucially also allows you insight into another person’s emotions. 

Can you learn EI? Certainly. Reflection will improve your self-awareness, providing clarity on what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. Listening to others – being able to give and receive honest feedback – is also important, as is being responsive to what you’ve heard and showing empathy. 
Less conventional methods, like storytelling, can work too as shown by the Council of Deans of Health student leadership programme.

Motivate others

Graphic of someone standing up an speaking out

Leadership behaviours are interlinked. Effectiveness as a role model, for instance, helps motivate others. All team members can play a part in influencing colleagues; some things to think about could be:

  • recognising team members’ passions and concerns
  • seeking out and listening to different views
  • encouraging the whole team to own an idea or initiative.

Create shared goals

Graphic of a jigsaw puzzle coming together

Good leadership isn’t about being the best, it’s about making everyone else better. It involves working together towards a shared aim, with people influencing each other. 

When nursing leadership is effective, team members each contribute and act together, producing positive clinical outcomes. Team members feel valued and supported in that process.

But while those in formal leadership roles have a responsibility to create the conditions for that to happen, building constructive working environments, positive cultures and the freedom to innovate rests not on one person but on a collective contribution to leadership from each team member.

Display courage  

Graphic of someone climbing to greater heights

Leadership, no matter what stage of your career, can be difficult. But whether you’re a student with concerns about poor care or a senior nurse struggling to meet the needs of patients due to short staffing, staying silent can pose risks.

Leaders make tough decisions and doing so can upset people. But don’t settle for mediocrity, the Ward Leader’s Handbook advises. If you feel prevented from providing safe, compassionate care, read our guidance on how to raise concerns.

‘We are all leaders’

Sally Bassett speaking at RCN Congress

Sally Bassett, Chair of the RCN Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum

Our understanding of leadership has developed over the last 20 to 30 years, with the relationship between leader and followers becoming better understood. Followers are no longer passive and subservient, and leadership now is about influencing each other and working together towards a shared aim. This understanding helps clarify what it is to lead and to be a leader. It also means we can more easily recognise leadership and apply it to our work.

At this point we might ask what the difference is between leadership and management. A helpful distinction is to think of leadership as being about change, while management is about coping with complexity and maintaining stability. We can see in the current pandemic that both leadership and management are required. And I believe, because of the work we do, that nursing staff are good at both. We care for the whole person and advocate on behalf of patients and the services and resources they need. We also co-ordinate and integrate the contribution of the multi-professional team into the daily care and treatment that patients need.

Nursing staff share clear values and a moral compass that informs their practice. They possess the attributes of good leaders and their actions create effective leadership. All of us need to recognise that we have these capabilities and we must have the confidence to rightfully identify as leaders of our clinical practice. 

Want to be a better leader?

Our Developing Leadership Programme is designed to help you be an effective role model and bring about positive change while promoting a team approach that is inclusive, vibrant, and supported by continuous learning. The programme can be delivered virtually to a group of aspiring leaders in your workplace or you can take part as an individual. Booking is now open for online sessions from April.

Learn more about, and join, the RCN Nurses in Management and Leadership Forum.

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