The Influential Nurse Leader: Cultivating Your Executive Presence

Nurse leaders are positioned to be powerful changemakers in healthcare. And yet, they often struggle to influence decisions, behaviors, and events. It’s a challenge they can overcome with the right guidance and habits.

My mother was a combat medic in the Army. I saw early on how meaningful her work was; it inspired me to pursue a career in nursing. However, when I started working in the field, I was distressed to find that nurses often weren’t viewed as leaders and influencers. 

After 30 years of clinical experience and work in leadership roles, I learned ways to counter those misconceptions and drive meaningful change as an influential nurse leader. 

Becoming that type of leader requires two essential ingredients: executive presence and emotional intelligence.

Strengthening your executive presence

What is executive presence? The term can be somewhat elusive — some call it the “it” factor. 

Researcher Sylvia Hewitt  describes it as “the missing link between merit and success.” Put another way, people with a strong executive presence are more effective in shaping opinion and mobilizing teams toward a shared goal.

Further study on executive presence helps clarify the trait, with three factors rising as indicators of strong executive presence:

❶ Gravitas.

The Harvard Business Review describes gravitas as a quality that means “you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected.” When you act with confidence, demonstrate grace under fire, and make challenging decisions in times of crisis, you establish gravitas.

❷ Verbal + Non-Verbal Synchronicity.

Think back to a time when someone apologized, conveyed concern or care, but their body language screamed the opposite — perhaps with folded arms, a scowl, body angled away from you, no eye contact. How people perceive your executive presence is impacted by verbal and non-verbal cues. When your words match your body language, you’re more effective in holding people’s attention and building rapport. Work to read the room, maintain eye contact, and keep people engaged when you speak.

❸ Appearance.

The way you visually present yourself is the first filter by which people assess you and your abilities. Flash judgments are made in the blink of an eye, and once they’re made they tend to stick. Give yourself an advantage by keeping your appearance professional and consistent.

Strengthening your emotional intelligence

I’ve often heard, “words are like toothpaste, once they come out you cannot put them back in.” Careful thought to what you say and how you say it is part and parcel to a high degree of influence.  

To gain and maintain respect, you must be disciplined in your speech and have strong control over your emotional response. Being aware of your triggers in the workplace can help you learn to mitigate and improve your emotional intelligence, which in turn will increase your executive presence.

A few common sense steps that should become common practice in your daily interactions:

  1. Listen first and then respond. Your receiving audience may put up a mental blockage if they feel you don’t value first their thoughts and standpoints. To assuage any doubts your audience may have on whether to trust and engage with you, work to actively listen, rather than listening to configure a response that best supports your standpoint. Listening requires honest interaction between you and those you wish to influence.
  2. Invest time in hearing and considering standpoints that oppose your own. When you begin to address concerns or requests where able, you often gain advocates.
  3. Understand who the decision makers are and tailor your communications to convey how your idea or perspective adds value to them and advances mutual goals.
  4. Become an expert with deep and wide knowledge of your craft and proposed solutions. The most effective nurse leaders can confidently respond to questions like, “Why should I care and what’s in it for me?” Anticipating questions and preparing for them in advance will help you establish authority and influence.
  5. Say “yes” when you can, and respond with tenacious follow-through. This establishes trust and credibility which will pay off in the long run.  
Upleveling your influence as a nurse leader

The good news about executive presence and emotional intelligence? They can be cultivated. 

The higher you go in leadership, the more prominently emotional intelligence and executive presence feature as selection factors for new opportunities. 

As you progress in your career as a nurse leader, prioritize a professional demeanor, communications and leadership style that feels authentic to you. Investing in nurse leadership coaching is one way to discover, develop and refine a leadership style that translates into meaningful influence and sustainable gains — personally, professionally, and organizationally.

About the author

Laurie L. Smith, MSN, RN, NEA-BC is a visionary health care executive with more than 30 years of clinical and administrative experience.
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