Why front line leaders don’t see themselves as leaders

Posted on: 12/10/2021

By Abby Hunt, Co-founder at DataDrivesInsight.com

On a recent visit to an aged care site, I asked a team of 90 staff members how many leaders were at the facility… Their answer was ‘one’.

When I asked, “What about the nurses and the deputy services manager?’ their response was, “No, they’re all clinical”. The belief that nurses and deputies could not also be leaders meant that all leadership issues were viewed as the responsibility of the one service manager.

Technically, there would have been 16 leaders on this site with 90 staff. The belief that there is only ‘one leader’ is common within aged care organisations, and it creates a massive bottleneck of issues that often don’t get dealt with and as a result, service managers are burning out—they’re feeling completely overwhelmed.

The perception is not only from the workforce, but also coming from the service manager themselves, as well as from further up the chain. Even some executives feel that RNs and ENs are not leaders. They may rationally understand that these roles have leadership components, but it’s not always demonstrated through support that actually encourages nurses to step up as leaders within the organisation. For instance, clinical staff may not be provided with the requisite training or the self-belief to fulfill leadership roles.

Becoming More Than ‘Just Clinical’

RNs and ENs know how to lead clinical conversations, give directions in clinical matters, communicate with families, and give information to clients and carers, but they may not have learned the art of leadership, which requires two-way communication.

One common issue is that nurses often feel that carers don’t respect them and therefore they’re not going to listen. Their belief is that carers don’t see RNs and ENs as leaders, and so it makes it impossible for the people holding these positions to be respected.

A lot of the leadership programs or coaching that organisations put their staff through is targeted at service managers and executives. By upskilling at the frontline—RNs, ENs, and other staff who have some of the qualities that will help them to take on a leadership role—organisations can help to ensure their top level staff are not overwhelmed.

This also helps to address problems at a grassroots level, so that things are resolved quickly and efficiently.

We know through the CILCA 360 data that there are often bigger gaps at the frontline (RN and EN level) compared to higher levels in leadership capabilities linked to Leading Others as well as adherence to some of the quality standards. This puts the whole organisation at risk and as a direct result issues continue being passed up to the service manager.

Imagine what impact it would make if nurses felt really confident, competent, and upskilled in their leadership! If they were able to manage a lot of the day-to-day concerns and nip things in the bud, then it could prevent so many issues from escalating to the top.

A Matter Of Perception

So why do nurses not recognise themselves as leaders?

One of the reasons is that nursing is exhausting. The idea of taking on more leadership responsibility is not necessarily going to be met with great enthusiasm—more likely, with a lot of overwhelm.

This means that there is a need to change the perception of what leadership means.

A great deal of leadership is about communication. For instance, do the clinical staff in your organisation know how to respond when they ask someone to do something and are blatantly disregarded? Do they have the skills to have a constructive conversation or is the response to report it up to management, in the hope that one day it will get resolved? If they notice someone doing something incorrectly, do they know how to raise that with the person in a way that’s not going to create any drama or division?

By helping people understand that leadership is really about how to manage some of these situations day-to-day, rather than it being a formalised additional workload, it becomes apparent that taking on leadership roles has the ability to make their lives easier and reduce their workload while improving the culture and the smooth running of the site.

Connecting The Dots

There needs to be a mindset shift so that nurses are supported and celebrated. There needs to be an investment of money, energy, and time to support these clinicians to become leaders, and recognising which members of the clinical team are going to be best suited to leadership roles is key to the success of implementing this change.

Building leadership skills at a clinical level, so that these staff feel more confident about delegating certain duties and are not being pulled into everything so they can focus more fully on the essential requirements of their role, is crucial.


Key Takeaways

  • Nurses need to be supported to be leaders, not just clinicians.
  • Nurses need to see themselves as leaders.
  • You can’t learn to be a leader in a three-hour training session.
  • Organisations need to be prepared to invest in all levels of leadership, particularly the front line. Providing the required level of training ensures the right clinicians receive the right training to fulfill these crucial roles.

Learn how our HILCA 360 and CILCA 360 Assessment can help individuals understand and strengthen their abilities as leaders.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash