Tips for Aspiring Nurse Leaders

When rising through the ranks as a nurse with an eye toward leadership opportunities, finding the right mentor is key. According to Veronica Rankin and Liz Stokes, two nurses with decades of combined experience, seeking out guidance is a great first step for nurses who want to carve out leadership roles.

Veronica Rankin, MSN, RN-BC, NP-C, CNL, CMSRN, entered the nursing field not expecting to pursue a leadership role, but found direction from a nurturing mentor who introduced her to the opportunities and connections that come from nurse leadership. She now serves as a clinical nurse leader coordinator at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Rankin is also a DNP candidate and an adjunct professor at Queens University of Charlotte.

Liz Stokes, JD, MA, RN, is a senior policy advisor for the Center for Ethics and Human Rights at the American Nurses Association. She pursued a career in ethics after working for many years as a critical care nurse for end-of-life patients. In addition to her role as an experienced nurse-attorney, Stokes demonstrates leadership as an international speaker on nursing ethics and volunteers with the District of Columbia Bar Association in Washington, D.C.

We asked Rankin and Stokes what they wish they had known at the start of their careers, and what encouraged them to pursue their current roles.

What do you remember about your first job as a nurse?

Rankin: I was scared to death. I remember the anxiety and fear that I might hurt someone, realizing there was no way I would ever know everything about the human body. It was very intimidating, but I was so eager to learn. There was nothing that could stop me from trying. Whenever I made mistakes, I was surrounded by colleagues, who held me accountable and then provided compassion. That first year I reflected a lot on what I had done successfully as well as the mistakes that I needed to learn from. I latched on to the nurturing nurses whose personalities clicked with mine. I looked for the nurses who would help me grow.

Stokes: I worked as a staff nurse in the intensive care unit for many years. During this time, I encountered numerous ethical issues, such as end-of-life care and challenges to patient autonomy. That was my impetus to pursue an ethics and legal background. After I worked as a clinical nurse for several years, I went back to law school and specialized in health care law and bioethics.

What do you wish you had known at the start of your career?

Rankin: Always put your patients first. Of course take care of yourself, but don’t come into the clinical space and expect your world to line up like it does on TV. Try to get engaged as early as you can.

Stokes: Always keep thinking ahead, no matter where you are in your career. Ask yourself, “What is the next step?” and “What skills do I possess that can have an impact on the nursing profession?” Keep that as a motivation for your career. People always say nursing is not a job, it’s your profession — it’s who you are. It’s important for new nurses to realize that it’s a beautiful and challenging profession. There are going to be days that are great and days that are not so great, but you will always have support from other nurses, mentors, and professional organizations.

What inspired you to pursue a leadership role?

Rankin: As a new nurse, I felt intimidated by the nurse leaders and I thought, “I will never be like them.” My goal was to become a proficient and confident nurse and make an impact at the bedside with the patients. After six years of nursing practice, I thought, “There is something more I can be doing.” I still wanted to have one-on-one contact with my patients, but I also wanted an advanced knowledge base to better lead patient care.

Stokes: I decided to take on a leadership role in ethics because I identified a need to provide other nurses with ethics education and a framework for decision making. Nurses have a significant impact on patient outcomes and the health care profession. Nurses continue to be leaders who advocate for and respect the values of our patients in all practice settings.

Who influenced your career decisions along the way?

Rankin: I’ve had plenty of mentors, some of whom probably never realized that they’ve mentored me. They’ve been role models for me and have greatly changed and impacted my perspective on nursing and health care. One of them in particular asked me “Why don’t you want to be a nurse manager?” I told her about my experience with a nurse manager whose personality didn’t match mine. She challenged me by asking, “Why do you think you have to be like her? You have to be yourself or else your staff will see right through you.” That helped change my perspective.

Stokes: When I first started pursuing a career in ethics, I didn’t have a mentor, and I didn’t know where to look. It wasn’t until I got further into my career that I thought, “I’ve got to find someone who is doing what I want to do.” So I found two nurse attorneys, one who is my director and another who is my friend and colleague, who have both been in the nurse ethics space for a long time. They both guided me and connected me to the right people. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for them.

What characteristics make for the most effective nurse leaders?

Rankin: A passion for service. Even after 14 years, the best days I’ve had in nursing include making a patient’s or colleague’s life better. Providing care often requires putting yourself on the back burner because you want to see someone else succeed. Once their health or confidence has improved, that’s the best feeling.

Stokes: Nurses should be engaged even when they’re not at the bedside. Some nurses might not have all the skills down from the beginning, but they are eager and ambitious to learn. Be active outside of the clinical space, in a committee or volunteering for a church or community program. That speaks to nurses’ professional code of ethics. We have an obligation to provide competent care across settings — not only in our professional life but also to encourage a healthier lifestyle in our communities. Nurses who demonstrate leadership early have the foresight to know that nurses work with team members and share knowledge with other providers in the health care space.

What advice would you give to aspiring nurse leaders?

Rankin: Reach out to people who are already in this role, and listen to what they have to say. See if what they have to say makes you feel more or less energized to do this job. Go into it with a positive attitude. Approach this job as if it’s your mission in life instead of a task that has to get done.

Stokes: Go to conferences and network. If there are conferences within your specialty, then go to them and become a member of the national organizations. You’ll meet like-minded people and see what other people are doing across the country. I would also tell aspiring nurse leaders to be encouraged and stay encouraged. On the days that are more challenging than others, make sure you are connected and not feeling discouraged.

The path to becoming a nurse leader is different for everyone. Finding your calling, connecting with a mentor, and becoming more involved in the field beyond the bedside are all steps toward becoming an effective nurse leader. Remember, each part of the process will be as unique as the nurse navigating it.