Leadership Styles in Nursing
8th April 2021
A group of JCU Master of Nursing Graduates walk down a hospital hallway talking.
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A group of JCU Master of Nursing Graduates walk down a hospital hallway talking.
A group of JCU Master of Nursing Graduates walk down a hospital hallway talking.

In a nursing environment that is increasingly more technological and complicated, nursing leadership has never been more complex or rewarding. With more paths available to become a nursing leader and more ways to lead than ever before, leadership careers are in some way more inevitable (and desirable) for most nurses.

Effective leadership in nursing can take many forms. Additionally, many different leadership styles can be employed by nurses, including servant leadership, democratic leadership and transformational leadership. Whatever style nurses choose, the benefits of effective leadership are clear, such as improved productivity and morale, and the ability to succeed under pressure.

This article will explore what effective leadership for team nursing looks like. It will begin by defining what a nurse leader is and exploring ten different leadership styles nurses can employ. It will also discuss how nurses can discover the best style of leadership for their team, and how they can lead different generations.

Become a leader in the nursing industry with a Master of Nursing from JCU. With the opportunity to specialise in Leadership and Management, Education or Advanced Practice, you can tailor your study to suit your career goals. Find out more by calling our enrolment team on 1300 535 919. 

What is a nurse leader?

Over the next few decades, Australia’s health system, and health systems worldwide, will face a number of complex challenges, according to the Australian College of Nursing. These challenges include the ageing population, rising chronic disease, increasing healthcare costs and the need to improve access to healthcare. To meet these challenges, nurse leaders are essential.

But what is a nurse leader? Any nurse who leads, whether it be as an expert in their specific field or as a leader of people, is considered a nurse leader. Nurse leaders can be found at all levels of the healthcare system. They may be clinical or ward leaders, or hold executive or government positions.

Nurse leaders may or may not lead people, as opposed to nurse managers, who predominantly are responsible for people management. Even if nurse leaders do not specifically have to manage people, they may still exhibit certain leadership styles in their interactions with colleagues, superiors and patients.

The benefits of effective nurse leadership include a more empowered workforce, better organisation, lower attrition rates and higher workforce morale. But for nursing in particular, the benefits of leadership extend beyond these. Effective nursing leadership is also associated with increased quality and integration of care for patients.

Across the board, nurse leaders are essential for better patient care, better healthcare organisations and better careers for nurses.

10 Leadership Styles in Nursing

Style 1: Democratic leadership in nursing

Democratic leaders encourage staff to participate in decisions and are known for their open and honest communication. Democratic leaders are natural delegators and empower their teams to be responsible and accountable for their actions. Beyond this, democratic leaders always provide feedback, as they value continuous improvement. They also do not dwell on the individual mistakes of their team members.

Perhaps the most important advantage of democratic leadership in nursing is that it makes honesty and accountability real priorities and as such, team members have a high level of trust in their leader. They are also more likely to understand the bigger picture when it comes to their work and be highly satisfied in their role.

There are some disadvantages to democratic leadership in nursing, however. It can cause leaders to delay decision making. Also, in some circumstances, it may not be possible to reach a consensus, so team members may feel like consultation was a waste of time.

Learn more about democratic leadership

Style 2: Transformational leadership in nursing

Another style of leadership that nurse leaders can display is transformational leadership. This style is heavily focussed on building relationships with staff, motivating staff members and enabling them to buy-in to a shared vision and mission. Typically, transformational leaders are charismatic, confident and inspirational. Staff are usually loyal to transformational leaders and look up to them.

Transformational leadership in nursing can be very beneficial in several ways. Firstly, employees feel united around the common purpose of the nursing unit. In addition, under a transformational leader there is generally less staff attrition. The transformational nurse leader can also manage change effectively.

Like any leadership style, there are downsides to transformational leadership in nursing. Transformational leaders can be known to be a little risky and disruptive, and employees under transformational leaders may burn out quickly.

Learn more about transformational leadership

Style 3: Laissez-faire leadership in nursing

Laissez-faire leaders provide very little direction to the nurses in their team and instead empower them to manage themselves.

This type of leadership can be advantageous for a number of reasons. With a loose style of management, staff can experience personal growth; when leaders are hands-off, it gives employees the room to be hands-on. Related to this, laissez-faire leadership encourages innovation, as employees are free to experiment. With this type of leadership, fast decision making is also possible, as decisions rest wholly with employees.

Laissez-faire leadership in nursing is certainly not ideal for everyone or in every situation. Usually, it is inexperienced leaders or leaders at the end of their careers who use this style, as it is not focussed on problem solving. When issues do occur, they are solved reactively, which in a clinical situation can be less than ideal.

Learn more about laissez-faire leadership

Style 4: Servant leadership in nursing

Servant leadership is exemplified by leaders who influence those around them, building positive working relationships and focussing on developing the skills of their team. Servant leaders are very attentive to the needs of their team and are known for listening, committing to team growth and accepting others. They are also persuasive and build a positive sense of community within their team and healthcare environment.

Servant leadership has several benefits, and as PracticeNursing reports, many researchers believe that it can strengthen the nursing profession. Under servant leadership, team morale is generally high and team members feel their leader genuinely cares about them and their needs. In addition, the collaborative style of decision making increases employee engagement, meaning that nurses will be less likely to leave. Servant leadership is also a strong example of ethical leadership.

On the flip side, this leadership style can have disadvantages. It takes time to build the trust required, and in some situations where nurse leaders need to make quick decisions, it might not work. Furthermore, the team may lose sight of the healthcare organisation’s goals, as the leader is too focussed on the people.

Learn more about servant leadership

Style 5: Affiliative leadership in nursing

Nurse leaders who consider themselves transparent may like to consider the affiliative leadership style. With this style, the leader is completely honest at all times. They are wholly invested in the healthcare setting they work in and the staff who report to them. They become a moral compass for everyone to follow. They’re also known for their exceptional communication skills and enjoy giving positive feedback.

There are many benefits to this type of leadership. Firstly, feedback is critical in the workplace, and giving positive feedback can help employees feel more motivated. Also, under this type of leadership employees will feel as if they are more highly valued. They will also be less stressed and know that their interests will be considered in all situations.

However, affiliative leaders typically avoid conflict, and may struggle to solve complex problems. Also, productivity may decrease under affiliative leaders, as they rely too much on their team’s self-direction to achieve success.

Learn more about affiliative leadership

Five common styles of leadership in nursing.

Style 6: Autocratic leadership in nursing

Another nursing leadership style is autocratic leadership. This style, however, is quite different from the styles described above.

Autocratic leadership, often used in the past but less popular these days, involves the nurse leader making all decisions about the nursing unit, typically not consulting staff. Autocratic leadership is a command-and-control style, where leaders use negative reinforcement and punishment to ensure compliance with rules. Under this type of leadership, mistakes are not tolerated, and individuals are blamed if they do make them.

Despite this style of leadership sounding, on the surface, less than ideal, autocratic leadership in nursing does have some benefits. These include effectiveness in emergency or stressful situations in which nurses can find themselves. Quick decisions can be made under this leadership style, which may be required.

Yet this style of leadership also has many downsides. It is inflexible, and employee engagement and motivation may suffer.

Learn more about autocratic leadership

Style 7: Coaching leadership

As the name suggests, there is one unique characteristic that nurses who follow this leadership style need: the ability to coach nurses in their team. Instead of showing direct reports how to do something, nurses who apply coaching leadership encourage them to try it on their own.

More than this though, coach leaders are known for the exceptional feedback they give. They help nurses see how their work fits into the bigger picture of the healthcare setting and take a personal interest in helping others succeed.

Nurse leaders who follow this style will notice it has many advantages. It produces a positive and uplifting work environment where everyone knows what is expected of them. Nurses under a coach leader also feel confident that they’ll experience personal and professional growth.

An unwavering focus on coaching alone, however, may not be ideal for every person or every situation. Coaching takes time to be effective, and it may not always be the right approach if there are tight deadlines. Nurse leaders who follow this style must be aware of when it can work, and when their focus must be elsewhere.

Learn more about coaching leadership

Style 8: Transactional leadership in nursing

Transactional leaders, also known as managerial leaders, are focussed on controlling and organising their staff and workload. They specialise in short-term planning and reward good behaviour. They also punish poor behaviour. Transactional nurse leaders give nurses clear structures and rules to work within, and give their teams precise directions on what to do.

Structure is almost always essential in nursing, so this type of leadership can have its advantages. Employees, when given a clear set of rules and either reward or punishment, do understand what is expected of them and are usually productive in achieving goals.

Yet the very structure that can be advantageous for transactional leadership can also be a disadvantage. Transactional nurse leaders can sometimes be inflexible and too formal in their approach, which may hurt employee morale. Inflexibility on behalf of the nurse leader also does not encourage creativity or out-of-the-box problem solving.

Learn more about transactional leadership

Style 9: Situational leadership in nursing

One advantage for nurse leaders is that they don’t need to apply a single leadership style all the time. In fact, they can – and should – use different styles in different situations. This approach is called situational leadership. As the name suggests, it is where nurse leaders adapt their style to suit a situation or work environment.

Nurse leaders who adopt this style are skilled in how they read a work situation and adjust their approach. They are known to excel at giving direction, being flexible, encouraging participation, delegating and being open and honest.

Given the flexibility of this style, it has many advantages. These include the ability to react to situations differently and provide the leadership needed in the moment. This leadership style is also comfortable for most employees, as they know their leader will provide them with what they need.

The flexibility of this style, though, is also its downfall. Situational leadership can be confusing to nurses and in different settings, as people never know what to expect. This type of leadership also doesn’t work as well with repetitive tasks.

Learn more about situational leadership

Style 10: Visionary leadership in nursing

The final leadership style that nurses may adopt is called visionary leadership. Visionary leadership is where a nurse leader provides a compelling vision and a clear and inspiring direction for everyone in the team. Visionary leaders understand the big picture and excel at articulating a long-term path for those around them. Visionary leaders are also great communicators and marketers. People feel inspired by them and like to be around them.

There are many benefits to being a visionary leader. Firstly, nurses who work with visionary leaders understand the goals that everyone is working toward. They are inspired by their leader’s energy and, as such, are more likely to overcome temporary setbacks. Visionary leaders are also great at acknowledging the achievements of their team and making them feel valued.

There are disadvantages to this leadership style, however. Visionary leaders place such great emphasis on the future that they can sometimes forget immediate operational concerns. They are leaders of personality more than organisation, so they can also forget to plan and execute important tasks.

Learn more about visionary leadership

How to find the best style for your team

Given the complexity and challenges involved in nursing, understanding the best leadership style for a team is an important consideration for all nursing leaders. This can depend on many factors.

For nurse leaders, the reality is that different situations will likely require different leadership styles, so a situational-type leadership style (to a degree) may be most helpful. For example, in emergency and high-pressure situations, a more autocratic style may be required. If the healthcare setting is transforming, which many are doing due to technological considerations, elements of a visionary style could be helpful to inspire nursing staff to embrace the change.

Whatever style is used, nurse leaders must remember that the nurses in their team will always appreciate input, direction, guidance and the opportunity to learn and grow their careers.

Beyond different situations and settings, another consideration for nurse leaders is the personalities of people in their team. Working with people who naturally have different personalities will require even more variation in how nurse leaders lead.

Take, for example, the Myer Briggs personality profiles. These profiles classify people using traits such as extroversion, introversion, thinking, judging, feeling, perceiving, intuition and sensing (and combinations of all eight characteristics). Using these classifications, nurse leaders may be able to decode what type of leadership suits different people with different personalities.

How different generations respond to leadership styles

Another important consideration for nurse leaders in today’s multigenerational workforce is how different generations will respond to different leadership styles, and what each generation will expect from their leader. The news source Chief Learning Officer explores different generations and their expectations when it comes to leadership.

  • Baby Boomers: Baby boomers are those born between 1946-1964. They are usually confident, optimistic, disciplined and independent. Work is very important in their life, and they enjoy achievement and feel accomplished at work. They are usually very loyal but susceptible to burnout. Baby boomers want leaders who understand what works means to them, and can provide structure, purpose and meaning in their work. They also want a leader who likes and respects rules and order.
  • • Generation X: Generation Xers are those born between 1965-1980. This generation likes independence and does not respond well to leadership styles that are too controlling, such as an autocratic style. They naturally question leadership and want to work collaboratively with their leader. They expect results, so they want a leader who will push them to achieve.
  • • Generation Y: This generation, also known as the millennial generation, was born between 1981-2000. Employees in this generation are team-oriented and want to feel respected by their boss to make decisions. They do not have the same hierarchical expectations of work as previous generations, so autocratic or transactional leadership styles may provide too much structure for them. They desire to connect with their boss on a more personal level and may be inspired by visionary leadership.
  • • Generation Z: Generation Zers are those born from 2000 onwards. This generation is known for being financially focussed, entrepreneurial, ethical and morally serious. They speak their mind, and expect change and transformation both in their lives and at work. A coaching style is a leading preference for these team-oriented employees, but they also expect to be consulted on key decisions and taken seriously at work despite their age.

As with different personalities and different situations, the key to managing different generations is to adapt nursing leadership styles when required.

Examples of how four generations respond to leadership styles.

Effective nursing leadership, now and in the future

The nursing environment is becoming more complex as more and more is required of the healthcare system. This presents a challenge for nurse leaders, but also a great opportunity for them to become more flexible with their leadership styles and learn more about their people than ever before.

Nurses, regardless of age, career stage or qualifications, will always be called on to lead in some way. Understanding what leadership styles can work and how to tailor these styles in certain situations can be powerful. It can be the key to growing the potential of the profession and optimising patient care, now and in the future.

Take your nursing career to the next level with a Master of Nursing from JCU Online. To learn about how a postgraduate degree from JCU online can help you achieve your goals as a nurse leader, contact our enrolment team on 1300 535 919. 

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Nursing

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