What’s your leadership style?




5 leadership styles and how they impact staff and patient care

Being a nurse leader is a complicated thing. When all is said and done at the end of their nursing careers, the majority of nurses could say they either became a nurse leader or worked with several (at the very least) who had different ways of leading. But they probably wouldn’t all agree their nurse leaders’ styles were effective or even appreciated. Nurse leaders select their own styles based on their educational backgrounds, past experiences and personality traits. Even their values and expectations influence the way they choose to lead. Various leadership styles, some more popular and well known than others, have been labeled, shaped and adopted over the years. Let’s explore them.

A little history on leadership styles

Over the past century, numerous research studies have been conducted on leadership styles. The first major study, by psychologist Kurt Lewin and a group of researchers in 1939, “Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates,” appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology. It focused primarily on decision-making. This early research identified three leadership styles: autocratic, laissez-faire and democratic, and found the democratic style to be the most effective. The laissez-faire style was found to have workers who put in less energy and produced inconsistent work, and the authoritarian style could lead to unrest and even revolution, according to the study.

Authoritarian leaders

Anyone who has worked with an authoritarian (or autocratic) leader knows they are highly-disciplined and know exactly where they’re going and what to do to get there. When it comes to leadership it has been said “they do it all.” They prefer to tell staff exactly how to do things and they rarely ask for input. Often referred to as micromanagers, authoritarian leaders like absolute power. They often are described as domineering, totalitarian and even tyrannical. They are the ones we’ll likely hear saying: “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

“Often referred to as micromanagers, authoritarian leaders like absolute power.”

Laissez-fair leaders

Laissez-faire (or delegative) leaders provide minimal supervision. They take a hands-off, stand-back approach that can be difficult to work with. They tend to delegate tasks and avoid making hard decisions. If you’ve had a laissez-faire leader you know they like staff to be autonomous and not in need of a lot of direction and explanations. Rather than stepping in and taking charge themselves, they let consensus and group-think take over, or sometimes just allow things to work themselves out. They work hard, however, to create good teams who they can trust to get the job done. They would probably tell staff: “I know you’ll be able to get this done right.”

Democratic leaders

Democratic (or participative) leaders are known to be inclusive. They ask for input and listen to opinions, but they are careful not to let go of their own decision-making authority. They encourage open dialogue and make staff feel involved. They’re success oriented and like to work collaboratively. They know where they are going and where they want staff to go, and they’re the kind of leaders we know are apt to say, “I’d like you all to think about this and work with me on it.”

Two other leadership styles emerge in the ’70s

In the 1970s, two other styles, known as servant leadership and transformational leadership, emerged. Defined by Robert Greenleaf, founder of the Servant Leadership movement and the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, the servant leadership style motivates staff through relationship building and skill development. Servant leaders address the team’s needs and welcome input into decision-making. Some characteristics of this style are foresight, listening, persuasion and commitment.

Transformational leadership, defined by James MacGregor Burns, an American historian and authority on leadership studies, is a process in which “leaders and followers help each other to advance to a higher level of morale and motivation.” Transformational leaders are known to be impressive, inspirational leaders who define and lead change. They’re often described as charismatic and confident people persons who others want to follow.

“Transformational leaders are known to be impressive, inspirational leaders who define and lead change. They’re often described as charismatic and confident people persons who others want to follow.”

Always changing, always in style

The contributions leadership styles make to nursing and healthcare continue to be studied and taught, and additional styles are emerging, with some being hybrids of current styles. Leadership is not a one-style-only venture, and leaders don’t use the same style in every situation. They may need to change their approach to leading and decide how to handle things based on changes occurring in the work environment.

Regardless of the style they prefer, leaders know that strengths such as character, integrity, honesty, courage and passion are the necessary and constant strengths of their leadership. Who we are and what we do, particularly in emergent and stressful moments, are the true hallmarks of our leadership.

As a staff nurse, which style do you admire most in your leaders and feel best working in, and why? As a leader, which style do you believe has worked best for you, and why, and which would you encourage aspiring nurse leaders to adopt? Let us know your thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.


Courses Related to ‘Leadership development’

60106: Developing Your Leadership Potential (6.8 contact hrs)
The purpose of this program is to provide nurses with practical strategies that can help them to establish personal plans for developing their leadership potential. It discusses why it is important for nurses to develop their potential as leaders, describes leadership styles and characteristics and identifies techniques you can use to improve your communication skills.

60107: Coaching: An Essential Skill for Nurses (5.6 contact hrs)
The CE module can help nurses at all levels of an organization, in both formal and informal leadership roles, to understand coaching skills and appreciate the results they produce. It distinguishes between coaching from mentoring, therapy, precepting and training; identifies the basic components and the purposes of a coaching contract; create strategies for facilitating change and helping staff to embrace change; and much more.


About the author
Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN 

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, is a former senior vice president and CNE at OnCourse Learning, where she led nursing programs and initiatives. She continues to write and act as a consultant for Nurse.com. Before joining the company in 1998, Eileen was employed by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, where she held a number of leadership positions in nursing and hospital administration, including chief nurse at two of the system’s member hospitals. She holds a BSN and an MSN in administration, and is a graduate fellow of the Johnson & Johnson University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Nurse Executives program. She also is a board member and past president of the New Jersey League for Nursing, a constituent league of the National League for Nursing.

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