7 Essential Leadership Qualities of Nurse Educators


Published: 17 March 2018

The most successful nurse educators are leaders in their organisation – leading those that they educate to learn and develop.

But what essential qualities make a nurse educator a successful leader?

In their seminal work, Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris and Hopkins (2006) identified and built upon 7 core beliefs around what qualities contribute to successful educational leadership.

7 Qualities of Successful Educational Leadership

Successful educational leaders:

  • Adapt to the situation
  • Push their boundaries
  • Influence others
  • Set the direction
  • Develop their staff
  • Develop their organisation; and;
  • Improve teaching and learning.

These characteristics form the basis of a leadership framework which in turn outlines the essential qualities of successful nurse educators.

Nurse Educators are Adaptable

Leading nurse educators must learn how best to adapt and respond to ongoing changes in the broader context.

They should have a sound understanding of themselves, and an understanding of what skills they may need to still further develop in order to become a better leader.

Associate Professor David Gurr from The University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education suggests that being responsive and adaptable to the broader context relies on constantly gauging the situation and being “one step ahead”.

Nurse Educators Push their Boundaries

Successful leaders and clinical nurse educators often push the boundaries of their role.

In the modern context, it is generally accepted that formal recognition of credibility and ability is needed to progress through leadership roles. However, what is perhaps more important in terms of being a successful leader, is what the individual demonstrates and achieves once in that leadership role.

Successful leaders spend the majority of their time outside the traditional boundaries of what their role states. This requires inspiration, courage, experimentation, imagination, innovation, passion and vision (Drysdale 1998).

Nurse Educators are Influencers

Influence is the very definition of leadership, and as such, not just a component of successful leadership, but also the outcome.

Nurse educators must not only embrace and acknowledge their role as an influencer, but also ensure that they have willing students that can reciprocate the effect.

The most successful clinical educators are formed based on the reciprocal nature of influence between themselves and their students, and the ongoing learning and adapting that results from this.

Gurr (2014) states that whatever leadership role you have, there is an opportunity and responsibility to help people to be better at what they are doing.

Nurse Educators Set the Direction

Those who ‘set the direction’ provide others with the route that they want the individuals, and consequently, the organisation to follow.

Leithwood and Riehl define setting direction as helping a group to develop shared understandings about the organisation and its activities and goals that can undergird a sense of purpose or vision.

Three key practices can help set the direction of an organisation:

  1. identifying and articulating a vision;
  2. fostering the acceptance of professional group goals, and;
  3. creating high performance expectations (Leithwood & Riehl 2003).

Successful nurse educators enact these practices to set the direction in their facility and improve their students’ learning.

Nurse Educators Develop their Staff

A leading nurse educator will constantly work to develop others which, in turn, furthers their own personal growth and learning.

This can be achieved through empowering others in their development and taking a genuine interest in their development path. Empowering others through language, communication and genuine interactions, will lead to development of both the leader and the led through quality, reciprocal relationships. These are essential skills of a clinical educator.

The reciprocal nature of learning and growing together contributes to better teams that are able to effectively achieve outcomes together.

Doherty et al. (2014) observe that successful leaders do not lead by themselves, and that much of their work is focused on the development of [their] staff.

Nurse Educators Develop their Organisation

Strong leadership has the ability to positively influence on, and develop, an effective organisational culture and in turn have a positive impact on outcomes.

A leading nurse educator will develop their organisation through creating a culture of learning, which Cardno (2012) argues is advantageous for companies. This leads the culture of the company  to becoming one of productiveness, problem solving, and effectiveness.

Developing the organisation speaks directly to developing a supportive environment for all members of staff. A successful nurse educator will achieve this by identifying and articulating a vision, building a collaborative culture, restructuring and broadening the gaze of the organisation outwards.

Nurse Educators Improve Teaching and Learning Programs

The final component of the leadership framework, and the one that overarches every other component, is that of ‘teaching and learning’.

This concept is especially important to understand for nurse educators as it is at the core of their role.

There are a number of different ways in which nurse educators can positively impact on student outcomes.

The impact that an educator has on a learner can occur via three levels:

  • Level 1: direct instruction and involvement in the educational intervention
  • Level 2: involvement in the planning of the intervention
  • Level 3: involvement in the broader educational strategy and direction

These levels of impact are illustrated in Gurr, Drysdale and Mulford’s (2006) model of successful school leadership in Australia. A nurse educator can have a positive impact on learner outcomes via engaging in activities within these levels.

Not all educators will be skilled in Level 1 domains, and likewise not all will be strong in Level 2 or 3 aspects. By understanding one’s context and focusing on the ultimate outcome of improving learner outcomes, a successful nurse educator will be able to identify where their efforts are needed in order to improve teaching and learning.


Through the work of Leithwood, Day, Sammons, Harris and Hopkins (2006), 7 leadership qualities of successful nurse educators have emerged:

  • Nurse educators are adaptable
  • Nurse educators push their boundaries
  • Nurse educators influence others
  • Nurse educators set the direction
  • Nurse educators develop their staff
  • Nurse educators develop their organisation; and;
  • Nurse educators improve teaching and learning

These key traits and characteristics are well documented and researched, and are present in many case studies of successful educators, validating their importance and applicability.


  • Cardno, C E M 2012, A journey of leadership: From bedside nurse to Chief Executive Officer, SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, CA.
  • Doherty, J, Gurr, D & Drysdale, L 2014, ‘The formation and practice of a successful principal: Rick Tudor, Headmaster of Trinity Grammar School, Melbourne, Australia’, in
  • C Day & D Gurr (Eds.), Leading Schools Successfully: Stories from the field, pp. 85-97, Routledge, London.
  • Drysdale, L 1998, ‘Dare to Make a Difference: Pushing the Boundaries of Your Role’, Prime Focus August, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 28-29.
  • Gurr, D 2014, ‘Finding your leadership’, Perspectives on educational leadership, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 1-3.
  • Gurr, D, Drysdale, L & Mulford, B 2010, ‘Australian principal instructional leadership: Direct and indirect influence’, International Journal of Research in Education, vol. 2, no. 4, pp. 299-314.
  • Leithwood, K, Day, C, Sammons, P, Harris, A & Hopkins, D 2006, ‘Seven strong claims about successful school leadership’, National College for School Leadership, viewed 19 Mar 2018, http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6967/1/download%3Fid%3D17387%26filename%3Dseven-claims-about-successful-school-leadership.pdf
  • Leithwood, K & Reihl, C 2003, ‘What Do We Already Know About Successful School Leadership?’ prepared for the AERA Division: A Task Force on Developing Research in Educational Leadership.


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Hilary Bush View profile
Hilary Bush is a registered nurse and consultant who trained and works in Melbourne. She has previously worked as a Nurse Planner and Online Education Manager at Ausmed Education. She enjoys actively contributing to the advancement of nursing professional development in Australia, as well as developing and evaluating engaging continuing education activities for nurses, worldwide. Hilary is currently undertaking a Master of Education (Educational Management) at the University of Melbourne.