Concerns About Changes in Nursing Leadership

Nursing leadership in hospitals and other HCOs has a key role with respect to the deployment of the nurse workforce in these institutions and overall patient care. This role, however, at least in hospitals, is changing. Evidence suggests that these changes may diminish the ability of hospital nursing leadership to (1) represent nursing staff and management to each other and facilitate their mutual trust, (2) facilitate the input of direct-care nursing staff into decision making on the design of work processes and work flow, and (3) provide clinical leadership in support of knowledge acquisition and uptake by nursing staff.

The senior nurse leadership position in hospitals has not always been an executive-level position. A 1983 national Commission of Nursing report and publications of the American Hospital Association recommended to hospitals that chief nursing officers (CNOs) be regarded as a key component of a hospital’s executive management team.2 Prior to this time, CNOs typically were not involved in strategic planning for the hospital overall; many did not participate in the development of the budget for their own department. Recommendations that nurses be involved in policy development and decision making throughout the organization were important in bringing the CNO position to the executive management team in many hospitals (Clifford, 1998).

This view of the CNO position is consistent with both old and new management concepts. Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, made major improvements in the education and training of nurses in the latter part of the nineteenth century. She proposed an administrative system for hospitals that included a triad of lay administrator, physician leader, and senior nursing leader. Her model was an important contributor to the development of hospital management systems and was responsible for the introduction of the position of superintendent of nurses to U.S. hospitals. Nightingale asserted that only those trained as nurses were qualified to govern other nurses (Clifford, 1998). This view also is consistent with the more recent management philosophy embodied in the Toyota Production System, which requires that all managers know how to perform the jobs of those they supervise (Spear and Bowen, 1999). Until recently, the CNO was the official leader of a hospital’s nursing staff. Although other administrative responsibilities may have been involved, the primary role of the CNO was the administration and leadership of the nursing service (Clifford, 1998).


Unlike the title of CEO or chief financial officer (CFO), the title of CNO is not used consistently across HCOs, nor is it always accompanied by executive-level functioning. The CNO designation can be found at all levels of an HCO (Clifford, 1998).

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