Why frontline leaders don’t see themselves as leaders

Believing there is only one leader in an aged care organisation creates a bottleneck of issues that often don’t get dealt with.

Believing there is only one leader in an aged care organisation creates a bottleneck of issues that often don’t get dealt with, writes Abby Hunt.

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 service manager?’ their response was, “No, they’re all clinical”. This 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. 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 and 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.

Becoming more than ‘just clinical’

Abby Hunt

RNs and ENs know how to lead and 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.

Leadership programs and coaching is often targeted at service managers, operational managers and executives. But by upskilling at the frontline 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) 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 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, it could prevent so many issues from escalating.

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 often met with feelings of overwhelm rather than enthusiasm.

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 delegate a task, and are blatantly disregarded? Do they have the skills to have a constructive conversation or is the response to report it to management? 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 managing these situations day-to-day, rather than it being a formalised additional workload, it becomes clear 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, ensuring staff feel more confident about delegating certain duties so they can focus on the essential requirements of their role, is critical. 

Organisations need to be prepared to invest in all levels of leadership, particularly the front line. Measuring their current capabilities using a 360 feedback tool and then providing tailored training ensures the right clinicians receive the right development to fulfill these crucial roles.

Abby Hunt is co-founder of DataDrivesInsight.com