Leadership for Nurses: the MSN and Beyond

All industries require talented, capable, and passionate leaders – and nursing is no different. If you have been working as a nurse for a while now, you might be wondering how you can move up into a leadership role and what skills you need to develop in order to do so. There are many abilities that nurses must have in order to succeed in a leadership position, but luckily there are also many ways in which you can gain them.

One of the most effective methods is to study for a Master of Science in Nursing degree (MSN) with a specialization in leadership. This program is specifically designed for ambitious and accomplished registered nurses who want to achieve new heights as transformative nurse leaders in a wide range of organizational and clinical positions.

This article will outline the course in more detail, looking at the sort of topics you’ll focus on and the traits it will help you to develop. The intention is that this will be useful to you in deciding whether or not this is the right pathway for you. Towards the end, you’ll also find some other ideas for boosting your leadership skills as a nurse, which can be used in conjunction with an MSN in nursing leadership or on their own.

Why are leadership skills important for nurses?

Nursing might not be the first field that springs to mind when you think of leadership. You probably picture a person in business in a suit, right? However, leadership skills are just as important for nurses as for people working in any other industry.

Nurse leaders are crucial for improving the quality of care that patients receive, as well as maintaining high levels of safety in the workplace. They are also key for successfully managing the teams of nurses who work in a hospital or other healthcare facility – for example, through mentoring and development. Nurse leaders play a vital role in advocating for individuals and the nursing community more widely, ensuring a professional and positive work environment for everyone.

As a nurse, they are well aware that the healthcare field is constantly changing. Good leaders help to ensure that all these changes and developments are successfully implemented for the benefit of nurses, patients, and all other stakeholders. Not only that, nurse leaders can work to drive positive changes within their workplace and the field more widely. This could be by evaluating and revising policies, introducing new technologies and work systems, and spearheading new initiatives.

What kind of skills does a good nurse leader need?

Let’s get into specifics. What kind of characteristics and abilities are required to be a successful nurse leader? Firstly, you must have exceptional nursing knowledge and good clinical skills. This much is obvious. You must understand the industry inside out in order to know how to improve it. However, there are also a lot of more general transferable skills that leaders in all industries must develop in order to be successful.

These include:

  • An ability to work with people from all different backgrounds and with all different temperaments, including those you don’t like on a personal level
  • A talent for motivating and inspiring people to want to be the best they can be
  • Strong presentation skills for speaking in public, whether that’s to fellow nurses, other healthcare professionals, patients, policymakers, or any other interested parties
  • Good written communication skills
  • A drive to make positive changes
  • An ability to successfully implement external changes
  • The ability to deliver negative news or communicate unpopular decisions
  • A talent for mediating and resolving conflict, whether that’s between two nurses, a nurse and someone in a higher position, or situations involving patients
  • An aptitude for financial tasks such as budgeting
  • Excellent decision-making and problem-solving skills
  • The flexibility to adapt to unexpected situations as they arise and respond appropriately
  • Competence in general administrative tasks
  • The ability to think critically and analytically
  • Soft skills such as organization and time management

This list might look daunting at first glance, but don’t panic – you don’t have to develop all of these overnight! You likely already have many of the skills you need. As you’ll see below, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve them and develop those talents you don’t have yet.

What is a Master of Science in Nursing Leadership?

A Master of Science in Nursing Leadership is an advanced nursing degree that combines the business side of healthcare with the wisdom of nursing. It is aimed at those who already have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an active, unencumbered registered nurse license, and are eager to move up into higher-level job roles as a nurse leader.

It’s possible to study the course on both a part-time and full-time basis, making it easier to fit your learning around your existing professional responsibilities and family life. In addition, you can choose to do your MSN nursing leadership online for even greater flexibility and a wider variety of colleges to pick between.

The specific curriculum you study on the course will vary depending on which college you enroll at. However, you can anticipate covering modules such as:

  • Theoretical Foundations in Nursing Practice
  • Advanced Health Assessment and Physical Diagnosis
  • Quality Improvement in Healthcare
  • Organizational Change
  • The Healthcare Enterprise
  • Biostatistics for Healthcare Research
  • Health Policy, Politics, and Perspectives
  • Concepts in Population Health
  • Health Information and Technology
  • Health Economics and Finance

Some modules will be compulsory, while for others, you might be able to pick between certain electives. This gives you some ability to tailor the program to your individual interests.

You may also be required to complete an independent research project on a topic of your choice towards the end of the program. Again, this is a chance to put what you’ve learned into practice and demonstrate your mastery of the subject. Consequently, many students find this to be the most stimulating and rewarding part of the program.

Next steps

For those who like the sound of taking a formal program in nursing leadership, the first step is to start researching degree options. Take a look at the individual curriculums to find a set of modules that you like the sound of, and make sure that you meet the entry requirements before applying. It’s also important to enroll at an accredited institution.

When you apply for an MSN in any specialization, you will generally need to submit certificates and transcripts from your BSN along with a couple of academic or professional references. Most programs additionally require you to submit a personal essay about why you want to take the course. This is a key part of the application, so dedicate plenty of time to it. Make sure you talk about your career aspirationsand how a nursing leadership qualification would help you achieve your goal.

At this stage, it’s also a good idea to look into any financial aid options, whether that’s scholarships or a grant from your current employer. Some will sponsor your studies if you agree to continue working for them for a certain number of years after graduating, so don’t be afraid to ask if that’s a possibility. When it comes to scholarships, these often have earlier deadlines than the MSN itself, so start looking into those as soon as possible to avoid missing out.

Other methods for nurses who want to boost their leadership skills

Returning to college and doing a Master’s course isn’t a viable option for everyone. However, if it’s not possible for you, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dream of a leadership position in nursing. There are plenty of other techniques you can use that will help you to develop the sort of skills and experience you’ll need in order to succeed. Below you’ll find five of the top suggestions to get you inspired.

1. Set up your own study program

Formal education isn’t the only way to learn! If you have a relatively clear idea of the particular leadership skills you need to work on, why not create your own study program to tackle them? You can find plenty of recommendations online for materials, ranging from books and nursing journals to blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts. Get a comprehensive list together, and spend some time on the contents every day.

This method is particularly helpful because it is so customizable. You can select the resources you want to use, the leadership skills you wish to focus on, and interesting topics. Plus, the internet is such a treasure trove of information that you’ll never run out of materials to use – just be sure to only work with those that are reputable!

2. Take a short course

If you don’t want to commit to a full nursing leadership MSN but would rather have something more structured than a self-study program, you might like to try looking for some relevant short courses. These could be online or run at an educational institution near you. Alternatively, your current employer might have some suitable internal training available.

This method can be particularly useful if you’re currently just testing the waters when it comes to nursing leadership. You can dip your toe in with a course that focuses on one or two specific skills or areas of nursing that you want to improve and see how it goes. If you feel they were beneficial, you can either continue with this style of learning or reconsider the option of a degree course.

3. Network and attend events

Building connections is important for succeeding in a leadership role in any field, nursing included. Networking with people in the nursing and wider healthcare industry can be a great way to learn from others, find out about relevant opportunities, and grow your list of contacts. If you’re not sure where to begin with this, try joining some nursing events and chatting with other attendees. These could be anything from conferences to workshops, both within your current company and externally.

For those who find the thought of striking up a conversation with a stranger terrifying, try challenging yourself to just do it once per event. That’s all. If it amounts to nothing more than a few minutes of awkwardness, you haven’t lost anything and can move on. If it becomes a valuable lifelong connection, that’s fantastic – and well worth the risk!

4. Find a mentor

For a more intensive type of networking, you could always search for someone who can act as a mentorto you. This should ideally be a person already working in the kind of nursing leadership role you’re interested in but doesn’t have to be someone within your current hospital or clinic. It’s often better to find someone external as there won’t be any conflict of interest.

Once you’ve identified a potential candidate, send them a polite message via email or on social media with an elevator pitch about what you’re hoping to get from them and what you can bring to the arrangement. Then ask if they’d be willing to meet for coffee or have a chat over Zoom. You can talk to them about anything from how they achieved their position to how they deal with the trickier aspects of leadership and get some personalized advice on how to reach your goals.

5. Build relevant experience

There’s only so much you can learn from books and courses. Eventually, you’re going to need to get some real-world experience if you want to make it as a nurse leader. There are lots of ways to do this, but you’ll need to be proactive.

To begin with, make an effort to always participate in meetings and new initiatives at work, making thoughtful and helpful contributions to solve problems or introduce new ideas. You can also volunteer to take on some extra responsibilities that will give you a chance to work on specific leadership skills. If there are no such opportunities in your current workplace, you can always look for them in your local community instead. Just be careful not to overload yourself – you want to build yourself up, not burn yourself out.

Another top tip is to ask for feedback wherever you can. This will help you to get an outside perspective on your strengths and weaknesses and show you exactly what you need to work on. Good luck!