Why providing good examples of leadership is imperative for all of us

If nurses can think about how to be good role models, we can teach the next generation leadership skills without trying

If nurses can think about how to be good role models, we can teach the next generation leadership skills without trying

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We can all name people who we think are good or even great leaders. Often people cite Winston Churchill or Florence Nightingale. These people had vision, determination and got things done – all attributes of great leaders. What is it though, that makes a good leader in nursing?

A research study I carried out with colleagues (Health Education England 2016) considered the question of what a ‘good’ leader is in the context of discerning how students learn about leadership. 

Role models

Factors included having confidence and competence and being a role model. That last one is important, as we can sometimes feel at a loss when thinking: ‘How am I a good leader?’ 

Think of those you have worked with who made a positive impression and perhaps inspired you. 

We may not think of ourselves as leaders, but in primary and community healthcare we lead all the time

Baldwin et al (2014) said that good role models are approachable, instil confidence and create a relaxing atmosphere as they instruct, counsel, guide and facilitate the development of others. Role models provide positive examples of how we should practice in clinical nursing. We can all learn from them, including students, newly qualified nurses and nursing associates (Nursing and Midwifery Council 2018). 

Respected colleagues

I remember the nurses I worked with in my nursing career who I respected and who received respect from others. I am sure you can recall the colleague who you wanted to emulate. What was it they taught you and how did they teach you?

Students must learn about leadership. Often there is limited time for teaching in practice and we may think it is something that can only be taught by those higher up the institution – in the top posts. 

However, by developing ourselves as role models, students will learn positively from us about being a leader. We may not think of ourselves like that, but in primary and community healthcare we lead all the time. We are leading a team, a project, a course of action, or a nursing intervention. In our daily work we take the lead, even if that is not our primary designated position in the team. How then do we develop as a role model for student learning?  

Exemplary nurses

Perry (2009) interviewed and observed eight ‘exemplary’ nurses and identified behaviours that made them good role models. Apart from their clinical nursing skills they also had excellent interpersonal skills and behaviours. The nurses were selected by their colleagues as being exemplary. 

The interpersonal behaviours they exhibited were:

  • Attending to the little things – it’s the ‘not what you do, but how you do it’ phenomenon.
  • Making connections with others – finding out what they had in common.
  • Willing to ‘model’ – taking every opportunity to show others how to do things.
  • Affirming others – taking steps to value others.

Although at times we may be stuck about how we can teach leadership to our students or newly qualified colleagues, especially when we have challenges and demands in our daily practice, one excellent way is to act as a positive role model. 

By thinking about those that were role models to us, those that we wanted to ‘be like’, we can carry on the tradition and be role models to others. Perhaps if we can undertake some of the behaviours identified by Perry a little more often, we can teach others about leadership without trying.


About the author

Patricia Owen is head of school of Nursing and Midwifery, Keele University, Staffordshire

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