Printer Friendly

A survey of current valued academic leadership qualities in nursing.


AIM An informal survey was used to identify nurse faculty leadership qualities currently valued and relevant.

BACKGROUND The accelerating retirement rate for seasoned leaders has created a need for nurse educators and academic leaders. Our school was concerned that we were not meeting students' needs for today's leadership challenges. We were also interested in the experiences of leadership preparation.

METHOD This was a cross-sectional, online survey of faculty at top nursing schools as determined by US News & World Report.

FINDINGS The top leadership qualities identified were integrity, communication clarity, and problem-solving ability. Current challenges for leaders were finding qualified faculty, obtaining resources, and team building.

CONCLUSION The results may guide curricular adjustments and the transition to a new generation of nurse academic leaders.

KEY WORDS Academic Leadership Qualities - Nursing Education - Leadership Preparation - Mentoring


In the last 10 years, few research-based articles have been published on the topic of academic nursing leadership. A search of the CINAHL research database found 607 articles or dissertations listed using the search parameters nursing education and nursing leadership. That number fell to 39 when nursing leadership was changed to academic leadership, and only six articles and two dissertations were research reports. Almost all that has been published in the nursing literature are opinions or strategies for teaching leadership, and almost all of this content is focused on workplace leadership/ management rather than academia, where leadership abilities are or should be fostered.

The implication of this phenomenon is that studies done decades ago maintain relevance and are still appropriate, despite the remarkable changes that have taken place in both the health care industry and modern nursing education. The general consensus appears to be that nursing leadership qualities are a constant amid the frequently chaotic advances in nursing and health care. Based on the belief that leadership is a valuable skill that can be taught (Middleton, 2012), leadership as a skill is a part of all professional nursing education programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels and mandated by accrediting agencies (American Association of Colleges of Nursing [AACN], 2008, 2011).

In a review of the Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) education track at the authors' school of nursing, we examined the extant literature on nursing academic leadership. Reflecting on this process and on our personal experience, we asked whether established views would take nursing into the remainder of the 21st century. We wanted to know if nurse educator students are adequately prepared for leadership in the real world of modern nursing education.

It became apparent that a survey of nurses active in academia was needed to determine the leadership qualities valued by current nurse educators and academic leaders in nursing education and how they prepared for leadership. We developed an informal survey plan, approved by the Institutional Review Board of the university, which we deployed in the summer of 2014. Our goal in developing this cross-sectional, descriptive survey was to determine if academic leadership education in our program was focused on qualities and issues relevant for today's nurse education student and if our pedagogy could be improved.


The easiest and most accurate method to obtain this information was to ask nurses and leaders. To that end, we designed a straightforward, one-time survey for nurse educators and academic nursing leaders, and used top university-based nursing education programs identified by U.S. News & World Report in 2013 as the sample pool.

With the assistance of SurveyMonkey, an online survey service, the survey was sent to nurse faculty from 12 of the 15 highest ranked universities; the three that were not surveyed did not have readily available directories that clearly identified faculty from the nursing school or college. SurveyMonkey was used to collect and compile data for the inquiry without personal identifiers. One question asked if the respondent was a nurse; if the reply to this question was not in the affirmative, data from the respondent were discarded.


The survey instrument consisted of 27 questions focused on academic leadership qualities that participants identified as important, and the ranking of those qualities. The same was asked regarding leadership challenges. A large shopping list of qualities traditionally considered most important allowed respondents to select from the list or provide their own valued qualities and challenges.

Participants were asked if they believed leadership could be learned and about the nature of their leadership journey, formal or informal preparation, mentoring, and how they were preparing leaders at this time. Demographic data included leadership positions held and possible work-life factors that may be perceived to impact one's leadership position trajectory.

Sample and Data Collection

Because some faculty members had multiple listings or were not readily identified as nurses, selective editing of the list of potential participants was necessary. All email addresses were obtained from the faculty directories of the universities selected from the list of top universities. Many email addresses were returned as undeliverable. This could have been the result of out-of-date faculty directories, retirement or separation from the college, school, or program, or typographical error in recording the addresses.

The survey was deployed at the end of the academic year when faculty may be at peak activity and stress levels and when access to the Internet through a workplace URL may be unavailable. This may have had a significant negative impact on the survey return rate, always low for unsolicited surveys. Of the 724 surveys that were sent out, 52 were returned with enough data to be usable. The small, nonrandom convenience sample is a limitation of the study for research purposes, but for us, the results were valuable in identifying the trends in academic leadership we were curious about.

Descriptive statistics were calculated by an SPSS-18PAW program. Some questions contained an "other" option for clarification or additional information, and these responses were reported as written by the participants. While this information did not rise to the level of qualitative data for formal analysis, many comments provided insights that were valuable in the interpretation of the results.


The survey respondents were primarily female, Caucasian, married, and in nursing for more than 30 years; about half had been nurse educators. The mean time that respondents expected to remain active in nursing education was just over seven years. The majority were prepared at the doctoral level, with a PhD or other research doctorate or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or other practice doctorate. A summary of demographic characteristics is presented in Table 1.

Most Important Leadership Qualities

When asked to identify the qualities they considered most important for academic leaders in nursing, the respondents identified the top three in rank order as: integrity, clarity in communication, and problem solving ability. The least important quality was seen as a track record in research. All responses and their rankings are presented in Figure 1.

Greatest Challenges for Academic Nurse Leaders

The respondents identified finding qualified faculty, obtaining resources for the program, and team building as the three top challenges they encountered. Academic legal issues were ranked last on this list. Respondents took advantage of the "other" category option to add comments such as challenges that occur in "implementing decisions ... that you disagree with" and "decreased funding from state and federal agencies." Responses to this question are summarized in Figure 2.

Can Academic Leadership Be Learned?

More than three quarters (78 percent) of the respondents said that they believed that academic leadership can be learned, and 22 percent replied "maybe." No respondents were willing to state that academic leadership cannot be learned. Just over half (53.1 percent) had participated in a leadership program or class other than in their basic nursing preparation, and most of these respondents (78.8 percent) believed that it had made a difference for them.

Leadership training most often came on the job (75 percent) or through mentoring (70.8 percent). Equal numbers had attended classes on leadership in graduate programs (27.1 percent) or formal leadership programs external to their place of employment (27.1 percent). Programs that the respondents had attended included those sponsored by the American College of Nurse Midwives, Sigma Theta Tau, the Oncology Nursing Society, the John Hartford Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Macy Foundation. Only 10 percent had participated in a formal leadership program at their home institution.

The most helpful leadership experience came from mentoring (53.5 percent) and on-the-job experiences (30.2 percent). Only 22.5 percent reported not having a mentor, while most (61.2 percent) found mentors on their own; a small number (16.3 percent) had mentors assigned to them. Respondents voiced a willingness to serve as mentors "under the right circumstances" (24.5 percent), and about three quarters had already done so, most (61.2 percent) informally or as assigned mentors for junior faculty (14.3 percent). No respondents stated they had no interest in mentoring.

As could be expected in the highest ranking nurse education programs, employing institutions offered all levels of professional nursing education: BSN (83.3 percent), MSN/MA (95.8 percent), DNP (89.6 percent), and PhD/EdD (93.8 percent). The majority included leadership as a course option or embedded leadership within the curriculum (83.3 percent). Over half of the respondents (55.1 percent) taught leadership from an experiential background having held leadership positions.

Current titles in academia held by respondents included dean/director (23.8 percent), assistant dean and director, chair, vice chair, and coordinator (10.6 percent). When asked how long an academic leader such as a director or dean should hold this position, the majority (83.3 percent) responded that the position should be held for a set term (not specified) with renewal possible. Only a small number (4.2 percent) thought that this leadership position should be rotated among faculty members.

Leadership Barriers

Barriers to obtaining a leadership position were examined from two perspectives. Respondents were asked to describe barriers they encountered in their personal leadership development that occurred on the job; they were also asked about home/family responsibilities that might be seen as affecting their ability to function in a leadership role. Their answers, while not thematically analyzed, fell into easily distinguished categories: time management and support, which had three subcategories (administrative, collegial, and mentors).

Time management was often connected to complaints of unrealistic expectations, especially in research, and lack of appreciation for the role responsibilities of the clinical nurse educator. Other challenges related to poor working relationships with administrators positioned above them; poor personal relations with persons above them in the chain of command; and perceived lack of financial support for programs. Some respondents felt that they were penalized for "not having the right degree."

Collegial relationships were also seen as a challenge. Some respondents felt that acceptance as a leader for their leadership activities was subject to resistance from colleagues who were "biased," had "tunnel vision or were in competition with respondents. One felt that closed research cliques created a separation from more clinically oriented teaching faculty. The lack of a mentor was also identified as a challenge.

Personal Challenges

Challenges originating from family responsibilities were categorized as children (50.0 percent), elderly parent(s) (41.7 percent), spouses (16.7 percent), and siblings who required care (12.5 percent). It was not possible to determine if the responsibilities identified in this study were greater than those experienced in other professions. Nurses responding to this survey seemed philosophical; one commented that "the children grew up and the relatives died."

The fact that respondents had multiple family care responsibilities is significant. Previous research has shown that family care responsibilities can affect the decision to seek leadership positions (Goodrich, 2014).


There were several limitations to this survey, the most significant being the possible self-selection of the sample in combination with the low response rate (7.2 percent). The low return rate is likely attributable to multiple factors, such as the timing of survey deployment, which coincided with the end of academic year, the historically low response rate for unsolicited surveys, and the limitation of a single contact with respondents.

It is known that online surveys have a lower response rate than paper questionnaires (McNulty, 2008). The Pew Research Center (2012) has noted a trend of diminishing returns on surveys, from 36 percent in 1997 to 9 percent in 2012, although it found that samples remained representative of the population. This finding by the Pew Research Center was encouraging for the authors, but the results obtained from this survey should be viewed with caution. To use art as a metaphor, the results of this study are impressionistic works comprised of soft-edged figures that suggest, rather than clearly delineate, representational images.


Years of Experience

The demographics of the sample in this study indicate that nurse educators are, for the most part, nurses with considerable clinical and teaching experience. More than half of the respondents identified themselves as administrators, with titles ranging from coordinator to dean. The respondents averaged more than three decades in nursing, with nearly half of those years as nurse educators. While these individuals represent a valuable resource for the nursing profession, they also reflect a less desirable situation, that is, an aging academic leadership workforce.

Although a trend has been noted for experienced nurses to delay retirement (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2014), this serves only to postpone the exodus and does not resolve the existing crisis, evidenced by the difficulty many nursing programs experience in finding qualified faculty (AACN, 2011; Nardi & Gyurko, 2013). Not surprisingly, this difficulty was ranked first on the list of challenges for academic nurse leaders. From a more optimistic perspective, a study focused on transitions to the nurse educator role found that nurse educators with less than five years of experience were ready for and expressed intention to stay in the role (Goodrich, 2014).

Practice and Research Doctorates and Academia The impact of the emergence of practice doctorates, such as the DNP, on nurse education programs is not as yet discussed in depth in the literature. Although some faculty members hold this degree, it is not clear how these faculty are used in the education workforce. Some program directories used to identify potential respondents for this study listed no faculty members with DNP degrees. In other directories, nurses with this credential appeared to be clinical faculty for undergraduate programs and graduate-level programs for advanced practice nurses, such as nurse practitioners.

Inclusion of the DNP into faculty positions may be a strategy to increase faculty numbers, but the AACN does not consider the DNP to be ready for university faculty roles without additional preparation (2004). The emergence of the practice doctorate will have an as yet indeterminate effect on academic leadership, which may present a challenge in the future.

Diversity in academic preparation of nursing academicians (PhD, EdD, DNP) may also create team-building challenges, identified in the survey as the third most important challenge for academic nurse leaders. Comments expanding the responses to the challenge question included statements that some faculty felt in competition with, did not have the "right degree," or were not respected by other faculty. This was noted by respondents who self-identified as practice rather than research-oriented academicians. The existence of multiple entry-level paths to licensure, and the growth of layered practice degrees, creates a confusing picture of the profession, not only to outsiders, but for students who are considering career goals. We view the apparent development of competition among degrees as a negative.

Preparation as an Educator

While the lack of training in teaching techniques is recognized for the DNP, a similar situation exists for at least some PhD programs (Chase & Pruitt, 2006). Although some opportunity for acquiring teaching skills may occur, curriculum development and evaluation are not usually part of the preparation for a research role. It appears that these skills were most often acquired on the job, as were other leadership skills noted by the survey respondents. Only mentoring rated higher in leadership preparation strategies, and, as the majority of respondents found a mentor through their own efforts, this could be seen as an extension of education in situ for academic nurse leaders.

Transitional leadership role challenges, such as a perceived lack of mentoring and lack of an organized preparatory process for leadership, have been documented in previous studies and described as the process of moving from expert clinician to novice educator (Cangelosi, Crocker, & Sorrell, 2009). It appears that lack of mentorship is a lesson learned as most respondents had mentored or were willing to mentor others.

Leadership Preparation

The low ratings for effectiveness and respondents' participation in formal leadership preparation programs may be an indication that these programs are not meeting the needs for emerging leaders. More than three quarters of the respondents stated that their institution offered leadership content in the curriculum. It was not within the scope of this study to examine that content, but one explanation for the perceived low impact of formal leadership preparation may be found there, if leadership is presented in curriculum content as management techniques.

Calpin-Davies (2003) points out that leadership and management are complementary, not synonymous, concepts. Management skills are undoubtedly important to survival in the current academic milieu, which is rapidly developing a business or corporate mentality that mirrors the evolution of the health care industry. The challenges that academic leaders list are replete with management functions.

Respondents strongly believed that academic leadership could be learned, and management strategies appear to be teachable, but this raises the question of how some of the softer, but highly valued leadership qualities might be taught (e.g., integrity, clarity in communication, problem-solving ability). The idealism of nursing remains evident in examination of the ratings of important leader qualities, where inherent personal factors such as integrity, vision, and fairness dominate. This finding suggests that the respondents' views of leadership theory lie somewhere between those that consider leaders to have inherent behavioral traits (Stodgill, 1948) and situational or transformational leadership (Burns, 1978).

The lack of a unifying leadership theory notwithstanding, nurse educators and academic leaders from highly rated colleges and universities in this survey identified valued personal qualities that reflect the altruistic and idealistic heritage of a helping profession. Conversely, respondents described their greatest challenges as related to management functions. They expressed confidence that leadership can be learned and described their own leadership skills as acquired on the job and supported through mentoring. Their belief in the value of mentoring is reflected in their general willingness to assume that role for others.


We found that respondents in this survey appear to have embraced the image of a leader as someone with innate qualities such as integrity, intelligence, and vision. This complements the findings of Patterson and Krouse (2015), that the primary competencies in nursing education leadership are vision, values, and relationships.

Foundational knowledge, along with lifelong learning, are the mechanisms that our respondents have used in their leadership development. Academic leaders are challenged to achieve educational goals within a structured framework that requires the application of sound management practices. Leaders also face serious challenges that are unique to our times: a paucity of qualified faculty, competition for other resources, and continual and rapid technological and social changes.

Further examination of the transition from faculty member to academic leader is needed. The career transition from practitioner to educator has been studied, but there is little in the record regarding career transition within academia. Variables such as locus of control, self-expectations, flexibility, the ability to tolerate ambiguity, the timing of career moves, and the balance of work-life responsibilities should be assessed.

What then was learned from this experience? We were looking for a metric, or at least some Idea of curricular content necessary for leadership. We found some answers, but not all. Some qualities of leadership are inherently personal, but we believe that others can be taught or enhanced. We were strengthened in our belief that leadership content is properly embedded in all courses across the curriculum, reflecting that leadership is not a one-and-done event, but continuous and dynamic.

The results of this survey may help nursing education programs plan for the preparation of new leaders and the transition to a new generation of nurse academic leaders. Strong academic nurse leaders are needed to advance the profession, and we need to identify best practices to nurture them.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2004). AACN statement on the practice doctorate in nursing. Retrieved from

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2008). The essentials of baccalaureate education for professional nursing practice. Retrieved from www.aacn.nche. edu/education-resources/BaccEssentials08.pdf

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2011). The essentials of master's education in nursing. Retrieved from MastersEssentials11.pdf

American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2014). Nursing faculty shortage fact sheet. Retrieved from nursing-faculty-shortage

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper and Row.

Calpin-Davies, P. (2003). Management and leadership: A dual role in nursing education. Nurse Education Today, 23, 3-10. doi: 10.1016/50260-6917(02) 00157-0

Cangelosi, P. R., Crocker, S., & Sorrell, J. M. (2009). Expert to novice: Clinicians learning new roles as nurse educators. Nursing Education Perspectives, 30(6), 367-371. doi:10.1043/1536-5026-30.6.367

Chase, S.K., & Pruitt, R. H. (2006). The practice doctorate: Innovation or disruption? Journal of Nursing Education, 45(5), 155-161.

Goodrich, R. S. (2014). Transition to academic nurse educator: A survey exploring readiness, confidence and locus of control. Journal of Professional Nursing, 30(3), 203-212.

Middleton, R. (2012). Active learning and leadership in an undergraduate curriculum: How effective is it for student learning and transition to practice? Nurse Education in Practice, 13, 83-88.

McNulty, D. (2008). The adequacy of response rates to on-line and paper surveys: what can be done? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(3), 301-314.

Nardi, D., & Gyurko, C. C. (2013). The global nursing shortage: Status and solutions for change. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 45(3), 317-326.

Patterson, B. J., & Krouse, A. M. (2015). Competencies for leadership in nursing education. Nursing Education Perspectives, 36(2), 76-82. doi:10.5480/13-1300

Pew Research Center. (2012, May 15). Assessing the representativeness of public opinion surveys. Retrieved from surveys/

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2014, August). Unexpected growth in the nursing workforce. Sharing Nursing Knowledge [Newsletter], Princeton, NJ: Author.

Stodgill, R. M. (1948). Personal factors associated with leadership: A survey of the literature. Journal of Psychology, 25, 35-71.

About the Authors Cheryl Delgado, PhD, APRN-BC, CNL, is associate professor, Cleveland State University School of Nursing, Cleveland, Ohio. Maureen M. Mitchell, EdD, RN, is associate professor and graduate program director. Cleveland State University School of Nursing. For more information, contact Dr. Delgado at

doi: 10.5480/14-1496
Table 1: Demographic Characteristics of the Respondents

Respondent Characteristic

Gender                    Male                           6.25 percent
                          Female                         93.75 percent

Ethnicity                 Caucasian                      93.75 percent
                          African-American               4.17 percent
                          Asian                          No responses
                          Mixed                          No responses
                          Declined to answer             2.08 percent

Marital Status            Single                         2.13 percent
                          Married                        78.72 percent
                          Divorced                       10.64 percent
                          Separated                      0 percent
                          Widow(er)                      2.13 percent
                          Committed Relationship         6.38 percent

Years in Nursing          Range                          14 to 52 years
                          Mean                           31.83 years

Years as a Nurse          Range                          1 to 32 years
Educator                  Median                         15.5 years
                          Mean                           15.45 years

Estimated Remaining       Range                          1 -30 years
Active Years in Nursing   Mean                           7.17 years

Highest Level of          PhD/other research Doctorate   68.75 percent
Education                 DNP/other practice Doctorate   16.67 percent
                          MSN                            14.58 percent
                          BSN                            0 percent

FIGURE 1. Leadership Qualities Ranked by Importance.

Research Track Record                      17.7
Experience gaining grants                  17.7
Friendliness                               31.7
Time Management                            41.2
Change Leadership                          47.1
Management Skills                          52.9
Ability to make Interpersonal Connections  58.8
Empathy                                    60.8
Understanding of Adminstrative Structure   64.7
Ability to Build Partnerships              66.7
Mentoring Skill                            68.6
Intelligence                               68.6
Strategic Thinking                         70.6
Faculty Support                            70.6
Motivational Ability                       72.6
Fairness                                   74.5
Vision                                     78.4
Problem solving ability                    84.3
Clarity in ommunication                    89.2
Intergrity                                 92.2

Note: Table made from bar graph.

FIGURE 2. Leadership Challenges Ranked in Order of Importance.

Legal Issues                                           5.9
Accreditation Concerns                                11.8
Personnel Management                                  13.7
Securing Grants                                       17.7
Acquiring/Maintaining Technology                      21.6
Time Management                                       23.5
Support Program Growth                                25.5
Managing a Budget                                     25.5
Building Administrative Infrastructure                27.5
Fund Raising                                          29.4
Representing nursing in the university                29.4
Student Issues                                        33.3
Strategic Planning                                    33.3
Communication                                         37.3
Facilitating Faculty Research                         39.2
Establishing/ Maintaining Community Partnerships      45.1
Establishing/Maintaining Clinical Affiliations        45.1
Team Buildings                                          49
Obtaining Resources                                   52.9
Finding Faculty                                       56.9

Note: Table made from bar graph.
COPYRIGHT 2016 National League for Nursing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Delgado, Cheryl; Mitchell, Maureen M.
Publication:Nursing Education Perspectives
Article Type:Survey
Date:Jan 1, 2016
Previous Article:The doctor of nursing practice: from start-up to impact.
Next Article:Nursing students' use of electronic and social media: law, ethics, and e-professionalism.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters