5 Attributes of Great Nurses

Editor’s Note: Please join me in welcoming guest contributor, Sam Omulligan. Omulligan is a writer and educator interested in finding and sharing information relating to the healthcare profession. Primarily working with and for nurses who have an interest in better education, and developing a more substantial career.

Do you have the 5 attributes of a great nurse?

As a professional path, nursing has long been an attractive choice for many: steady and available work, good pay, and flexible hours. Nurses usually work for practical reasons, and paying the light bill is surely a valid reason that most of us share. Yet, many yearn for deeper job satisfaction – they are looking for ‘Something More.’ Below we will discuss the attributes of great nurse. Please tell us what you think in the comments section below. 

Attribute 1: The Attitude of Adventure

In her delightful book, Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self, Sarah Ban Breathnach speaks of the “search for Something More as a sacred adventure…the willingness to shed what’s safe and predictable in order to embrace the new.” Nurses can live this attribute every day:

  • Are you willing to advance your formal education? Today’s options of accredited online educational programs have provided flexibility for those who desire to advance, perhaps with an RN to BSN or MSN degree program. Use the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to search by state and by your desired degree program: http://www.aacn.nche.edu/ccne/reports/accprog.asp
  • Are you willing to achieve practice excellence via certification? Empowered nurses contribute to better patient outcomes. Opportunities to validate your clinical skills, knowledge and abilities are offered in multiple specialties, such as school nursing, community health, high-risk prenatal nursing, cardiac rehabilitation and more.  Search all your options via the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC): http://www.nursecredentialing.org/Certification.aspx
  • Are you willing to invest the time and energy to stay current in your field? Reading professional journals literature is a click away on your computer. Use the free online access to reliable nursing research and evidence-based knowledge at the Virginia Henderson International Nursing Library, housed on the Sigma Theta Tau website: http://www.nursinglibrary.org/

Attribute 2: The Ability to Think Critically

The ability to directly apply knowledge to manage the complexities that actually exist in practice is a key attribute for nurses. This involves much more than just memorizing facts and principles. If you struggle with this, Judith Wilkinson’s Nursing Process and Critical Thinking (5th edition) offers concrete examples and hands-on exercises, so nurses can understand and apply the nursing process to today’s healthcare environment.

Attribute 3: The Willingness to Collaborate

As Bach states in the introduction of Goodman & Clemow’s Nursing and Collaborative Practice, “Nursing is a far from solitary occupation…and there are many reports into health and social are situations that have gone disastrously wrong because of poor collaboration and communication between fellow workers.” Successful nurses learn how to effectively interact with colleagues, patients and peers in the working world.

Attribute 4: The Ability to Care for Others

According to renowned theorist Jean Watson, caring forms the basis for the nursing profession.

Successful nurses go beyond a task, infusing their practice with a respect for humanity and the desire to heal. To learn more about this central art to nursing, refer to Watson’s Human Caring Science: A Theory of Nursing. 

Attribute 5: The Ability to Care for Self

Making a difference in the lives of others is second nature for most nurses. But when does ‘being selfless’ become emotionally and physically unhealthy – increasing the chance for burnout? Successful nurses access energy, vitality and calmness in the midst of the busy world of healthcare. Here is a sample of the many available resources that will help you care for yourself as well as your patients:

  • Gary Scholar’s Fit Nurse: Your Total Plan for Getting Fit and Living Well discusses various comprehensive wellness plans.
  • Sharon Weinstein’s B is for Balance: A Nurse’s Guide for Enjoying Life at Work and at Home offers ideas to find your purpose, simplify your life and manage stress. 

Bringing It Home

Every year, nurses graduate from nursing school and find a job within the healthcare field. Yet learning to be a successful and great nurse is something different. You might desire more than a paycheck from your nursing career, and that requires courageous choices and living authentically. If you do, listen to Ban Breathnach: “For the sake of all that is holy, believe that you deserve nothing less than Something More.”

Your turn. What attributes do you think make a great nurse?

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  1. #1 by Ron Hurr on October 12, 2011 - 4:54 PM

    My sister was a nurse and loved it. She also had 5 boys to raise. I don’t know how she did it. Now she retired and enjoying life.

    • #2 by Samantha Gluck on October 12, 2011 - 5:18 PM

      Nurses are the heart and soul of medicine. Kudos to your sister for showing us you can raise a family while helping others in such a noble profession. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Samantha

  2. #3 by Surveyor_MS_RN on October 13, 2011 - 3:06 AM

    I agree with your list of attributes, particularly #1 and #2. I believe that the most important characteristics of a good nurse include a love of knowledge and willingness to continue learning, as well as the ability to think critically. Nursing is a continously changing field and nurses have to be willing to continue to grow and change or update their practice. Also, the ability to critically think is vital when it is the nurse who is at the front lines delivering care and shouldering a great deal of the responsibility related to patient safety and quality of care. The nursing profession requires a lot of technical skill and knowledge. While I do agree with your other attributes, I think they minimize the level of expertise and knowledge, as well as the overall intelligence that is required to be a great nurse. So many people think all being a nurse takes is compassion and the desire to “help people”. I agree that it is a part of being a great nurse- but there is much, much more to it.

    • #4 by Samantha Gluck on October 13, 2011 - 4:39 AM

      Hi Katy,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. i agree that numbers 1 and 2 represent the most important characteristics of a great nurse, but I don’t think the other 3 minimize the required level of expertise at all. I think it’s the people out there who dismiss nurses as only having worth as deep as their compassion and helpful desires that minimize the nursing profession as a whole. Just as there’s much more to being a good cop than knowing how to use the various weapons they carry, so it is with nurses and the three last attributes listed in the article. Knowing how to use the various weapons properly does not guarantee a police officer will be great, but it is an essential requirement. Without it, you just have a guard or a bully — not a cop.

  3. #5 by tomblogue on November 30, 2011 - 8:26 PM

    I think the technical attributes of nursing are what make a good nurse — if you don’t have those, you shouldn’t be in the profession. But attitude is what makes a *great* nurse and creates a great patient experience. After a few hospital stays this year, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between a nurse who treats an illness and a nurse who treats a patient.

    • #6 by Samantha Gluck on November 30, 2011 - 9:17 PM


      What wonderful insight you have. I’ve had a couple of hospital stays myself, though not recently. During those stays, I experienced wonderful nursing from the LVNs on up to RNs and CRNAs who took care of me. I think my positive experiences may be skewed, however, due to the fact that I am the sister of a very prominent physician — basically worldwide, and sister to two other physicians who are well-known in the Houston metro area. Perhaps I’m treated with kid gloves because of that. It would be an interesting post for you to write about the difference in treating an illness and treating a patient from a personal perspective.


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