Career advice

Preparing for leadership roles: tips for developing confidence

How to learn from a mentor, silence your inner voice of doubt and develop your own leader style

How to learn from a mentor, silence your inner voice of doubt and develop your own leader style

A few years ago, if someone had asked me who I am, I would have said I am a wife, a mother and a nurse, without giving the question any real thought.

But now I would say that I am a confident, bold, driven and capable senior leader in healthcare although far from the finished product.

My career path to leadership

When I started my nursing career in 2005 as a staff nurse in neurology, my focus was purely clinical and I didnt really think about leadership. I loved the complexity of the specialty and the wide mix of patients

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How to learn from a mentor, silence your inner voice of doubt and develop your own leader style

Illustration showing a woman climbing a set of blocks, which represent career progression
Picture: iStock

A few years ago, if someone had asked me who I am, I would have said I am a wife, a mother and a nurse, without giving the question any real thought.

But now I would say that I am a confident, bold, driven and capable senior leader in healthcare – although far from the finished product.

My career path to leadership

When I started my nursing career in 2005 as a staff nurse in neurology, my focus was purely clinical and I didn’t really think about leadership. I loved the complexity of the specialty and the wide mix of patients I saw, and I wanted to learn everything I could about disease processes and treatments.

I wanted to be part of a team supporting people from diagnosis to discharge, and like all nurses, I grew as an individual after dealing with some emotional and distressing situations.

‘I didn’t understand just how complex leadership is… I was leading and managing diverse teams through turbulent times and I was ill-prepared’

After roles as a multiple sclerosis specialist nurse and a Parkinson’s disease and movement disorders specialist nurse, I successfully applied for my first leadership role – an end of life care lead nurse for acute and community services – while also doing my master’s degree to become an advanced nurse practitioner.

At the time, I didn’t understand just how complex leadership is. I had no real experience as a nurse leader and hadn’t given much thought to influencing, negotiating and taking the time to understand others. I was leading and managing diverse teams through turbulent times and I was ill-prepared.

I felt completely out of my depth, but I soon realised that leadership is fluid; approaches need to be adapted for each situation and you learn from experience.

The difference a good mentor can make to your leadership success

I went on to hold a quality matron role, followed by an assistant director of nursing post. At the time, the trust was rated ‘inadequate’ by the Care Quality Commission and I led a team of about 300 nurses through the transition to a ‘good’ rating.

Organisational culture was the overwhelming factor in this challenge, and the need to convey compassionate leadership was pivotal in achieving the improvement.

Learning from others is essential to good leadership. I have been fortunate enough to meet an exemplary nurse who has become my confidant, mentor and friend in recent years. It is because of her advice and support that I am now deputy director of governance and I am on track to achieve my ambition of becoming a director of nursing.

In April 2019, I started a year-long leadership scholarship for aspiring directors of nursing with the Florence Nightingale Foundation. The scholarship challenges people to think differently about their approach to leadership and the learning has been invaluable, enabling me to grow into a confident and authentic leader.

‘It has never been more important to be creative in our thinking, employing compassionate leadership to deliver the care our patients need and provide support for each other’

The most valuable thing I have gained from the scholarship is a true understanding of myself and how I might be perceived by others.

Taking the time to understand what drives and motivates other people is equally important, so we can openly reflect in a safe space.

Aspiring to a leadership role? My top 10 tips for band 5 nurses

  1. Don’t wait until you are in a senior role to act like a leader. Start preparing by observing those around you and reflecting on your own practice. Could you have done things differently to achieve a better outcome
  2. Use criticism constructively and use feedback to grow as a person and a leader
  3. It is okay to show some vulnerability, as this can positively influence engagement, but not so much that you lose credibility
  4. Take time to build your resilience by looking after yourself and having some ‘me time’
  5. Contain the inner voice that makes you question if you are good enough – of course you are, but it is also important to acknowledge that you have a lot to learn
  6. Find a good role model. I have worked with many excellent healthcare leaders and have been fortunate enough to meet a true role model whom I trust and can learn from. If you meet someone like this in your career, don’t let them go
  7. If you experience leadership that you don’t consider to be effective, see it as an opportunity; there is a lot to learn from ‘what not to do’
  8. Use your knowledge and confidence to challenge leadership, performance and practice. This is the only way to ensure patients and staff receive the highest standard of care and support
  9. Don’t be afraid to step out of the norms of nursing and get a breadth of experience. There is more than one route to achieve your end goal, so be brave and trust in your own abilities
  10. Take the time to understand yourself and others. Coupled with leadership theory and experience, this is what will make you a strong future leader

Negative feedback can build insight and resilience

No one really wants to receive negative feedback, but when delivered constructively and used in the correct way, this will enable you to become a strong and resilient leader. It is about insight into our own actions and understanding how our own behaviours affect others and their ability to perform in the workplace.

Discussing these issues openly shows vulnerability, which can make people feel uncomfortable. But I know many senior leaders who have experienced vulnerability throughout their careers.

The more I have spoken to people, the more I have come to realise that vulnerability and self-doubt are normal and can help to ensure we are all practising safely. We just need to be careful that these feelings don’t progress into imposter syndrome, which can lead to anxiety, perfectionism and fear of failure.

I have certainly felt like that in the past – and at times continue to do so – but I have learned how to rationalise this to regain perspective, and now I consider these factors to be a driver to my future success.

Learn to stop fearing failure

I am at a point where I am confident in my abilities and I don’t fear failure; no one is perfect, and we can all learn from our mistakes. I believe in myself and have no doubt I will achieve my end goal of becoming a chief nurse.

With COVID-19, we are addressing the biggest challenge the NHS has ever faced. Excellence in leadership is required, but that doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes or find things difficult.

It has never been more important to be creative in our thinking, employing compassionate leadership to deliver the care our patients need and provide support for each other.

In the words of my fellow scholars, remember how amazing you are.


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