Where are the Nurse Leader Candidates?

Where are the Nurse Leader Candidates?

By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, FAAN

“Where are the nurse leader candidates?”  This question came in an email last week from a human resource director in a smaill town who was having little success in recruiting a director of nursing.  He noted that every hospital in his area was having the same experience in trying to recruit nurses for leadership roles.  My advice to him was that he needed to consider an internal leadership development program aimed at nurses on their staff with leadership potential.  In the end, growing your own leadership bench strength is probably the best defense against the growing problem of a nurse leadership shortage.

A Global Shortage of Nurse Leaders by 2020

The pending shortage of nurse leaders is a global problem.  Throughout the world, the nursing workforce is aging.  Twelve European countries are participating in the rn4cast project. Their data indicates that Europe could have a shortage of up to 600,000 RNs by the end of the decade and this shortage includes nurse leaders.  Leaders in the Academy of Canadian Nurse Executives have expressed concerns that there should not only be a focus on the pending nursing shortage but also on the shortage of nurse leaders in their provinces.  In the United States, 2008 data from the national nursing sample indicates that 45% of working Registered Nurses are over the age of 50 and the age of nurse leaders is even older .

In 2006, Nursing Management conducted a survey of 1000 nurse leaders in the United States in partnership with the Bernard Hodes Group.  A staggering 55% of their respondents indicated that they would be retiring between 2011 and 2020.  The numbers could change with the recent downturn in economic conditions but at some point, these nurse leaders will retire.  In recent research that I conducted with 256 perioperative nurse leaders,  I learned that despite the recent economic downturn and the impact on retirement planning, 21.5% study participants planned to retire within 3 years.  By 2018, 37.8% of the sample plan to be retired and by 2022, this number jumps to 64.8% of the sample.  These are seasoned nurse leaders with 72.2% reporting that they have 10 years or more experience in perioperative leadership roles.  Their departure will create large leadership gaps and less than 50% of their organizations have done succession planning to replace them.

The Importance of Succession Planning

Health care organizations are slowly embracing the idea that it is important to begin leadership succession planning before it is too late.  John Maxwell, an internationally recognized leadership expert, points out in his 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that “a leader’s lasting legacy will not be measured by the buildings we build, the institutions we establish, or what our team accomplished.  Leaders are judged by how well the people they invest in carry on after they are gone”.   

Succession planning can happen in many ways.  Sometimes, nurse current leaders identify and coach staff members who they believe have high potential to succeed in leadership.  Unfortunately, this does not happen often enough in some nursing environments.  It may be that you have identified yourself as someone who has the talent to lead others.  There has never been a better time to choose nursing leadership as a career goal. The retirement of a large number of baby boomer nurse leaders will result in great career opportunities by the end of the decade.  Oprah Winfrey often says that “luck is preparation meeting opportunity”.

Changing the Image of Nursing Leadership

Unfortunately although great opportunities exist, many nurses express hesitancy about moving into leadership based on their observations of their own nurse leaders.  I often ask nurse leaders to carefully consider the image they project to staff about leadership.  If you ask most nurse leaders what is the most satisfying aspect of their roles, they will very likely tell you that it is the connectedness that they feel with their staff.  In a national research study conducted with nurse managers, Barbara Mackoff found that the leaders she interviewed cherished their relationships with staff, colleagues and their leaders.  Watching their staff work in challenging patient care situations and seeing their phenomenal confidence and skill left them feeling very honored to be the leader of such a great team.  Nurse leaders love to hear the stories of their staff.  Watching staff grow and develop and realizing they had a part in their success and accomplishments is deeply satisfying.  One nurse manager told me that her new graduates are her legacy – “I am touching the future and making nursing stronger but giving them their wings and watching them fly”. 

Health care today is challenging and we need our best and brightest nurses to be willing to step up to the challenge of leadership.  Where are the nurse leader candidates?  The answer to this is that they are among us on every unit and in every department - and we need to nurture them.

Read to Lead

Hader, R., Saver, C. & Steltzer, T. (2006). No time to lose. Nursing Management,  37(7), 23-29.

Mackoff, B. (2011).  Nurse Manager Engagement: Strategies for Excellence and Commitment.  Sudbury, MA.: Jones and Bartlett.

Sherman, R.O. (2005).  Growing our future nursing leaders.   Nursing Administration Quarterly. 29 (2) 126-133.

© emergingrnleader.com 2013