Magnet-Worthy: Building Transformational Nurse Leaders

It’s tough to achieve and maintain Magnet status — the gold standard of nursing excellence — in the midst of a massive nursing shortage, growing defections and discontent. Healthcare is undergoing a deep transformation, and navigating it well requires transformational leaders. 

More than managing checklists and processes, transformational nurse leaders are adept at being change agents through flexibility, values focus, and interpersonal motivation to maximize individual and group potential. They are able to navigate conflict, lead teams through crises, fuel engagement and cultivate a culture of shared governance where input from bedside nurses drive clinical and work environment decisions. This work is also at the heart of aligning nursing strategy with the organizational strategic plan. Easier said than done, sure.

In our experience helping healthcare organizations develop nurse leaders, we’ve found common misconceptions around leadership development that tend to keep organizations from achieving their goals.  

When nursing success doesn’t translate into leadership success

Unlike management occupations in other industries, clinicians are never taught to lead, nor are they typically rewarded for good leadership. “When you’re a nurse, patient care coordinator, an administrator or middle manager, when you get promoted, almost instantly you will be expected to have new skills you didn’t have before,” note leaders at the Harvard School of Public Health.

While some people are “born leaders” with innate charisma and good instincts, most of us need to learn or refine our leadership skills. There’s considerable risk in delaying or neglecting leadership development, points out the Journal of Healthcare Leadership: “Leaders who believe they can do it without any formal training often succeed for some time, but eventually will encounter critical situations they are not prepared to handle alone. Then they urgently seek the resources to help them succeed, often too late to salvage a career.”

From transactional to transformational

Despite their best intentions, new nurse leaders often default to transactional leadership because it feels productive to check boxes. Often, that’s all they know, having never learned there’s a better way to lead. In contrast, transformational leaders excel at compelling others to move in the same direction and orchestrating team dynamics in a way that fuels inventive solutions, high engagement and performance.

Put simply, transactional leaders tell subordinates what to do to achieve a goal. Transformational leaders equip and inspire them to co-create movement around a shared vision. Transactional leadership is no longer adequate for thriving in healthcare.

Aligning head and heart

Famed author Howard G. Hendricks once said, “A good leader has a compass in their head and a magnet in their heart.” If you’ve ever observed a leader whose heart was at odds with the direction their team or organization was headed, you know the story doesn’t end well. For nurse leaders, the consequences of that mismatch can be catastrophic.

Strong leaders are crystal-clear on their core values and align them with the team’s direction. That alignment is where nurse leaders can make the most gains in earning trust, inspiring unified action, and advancing the organization.

Driving and sustaining change

The path to becoming a transformational leader demands deep self awareness and lasting behavioral change. That takes time. While it’s tempting to rush past the learning process, a disproportionate focus on quick wins can subvert long-term results. That’s where organizations go wrong with leadership development, failing to make improvements “stick.”

Behavioral change is where leadership coaching shines. Researchers in a pilot study on the delayed effects of leadership coaching agree, explaining that it requires a period of incubation or a triggering event before it manifests in behavior. “Evidence now exists to show that [coaching clients] require time to clarify, consolidate and enact personal learning facilitated during coaching,” write researchers.

Maximizing the opportunity for transformation

Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Built into every problem is an opportunity for transformation. As market pressures grow and nurses continue to favor employers that offer greater rewards and opportunities for growth, investing in nurse leadership coaching is one way to ensure nursing excellence in your organization for years to come.

Laurie Smith
About the author

Laurie L. Smith, MSN, RN, NEA-BC is a visionary health care executive with more than 30 years of clinical and administrative experience.
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