Registered nurses comprise 30% of hospital workers in the United States, making nursing the largest occupation in hospitals in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Leaders in nursing are responsible for motivating and inspiring other nurses, strengthening their team, and, in turn, improving patient outcomes. All nursing professionals — regardless of their formal position — can provide valuable leadership among their teams.
To become an effective leader in this profession it’s important to know the six leadership styles in nursing and which of those would be best for your team.
Leadership Styles in Nursing
Leadership in nursing directly impacts the organization's drive, performance, and people. However, nurses have the greatest impact on patient care, and their leadership can positively or negatively affect patient outcomes. Understanding the six different leadership styles — as well as their strengths and weaknesses — is the first step to growing as a leader.
Transformational leadership is characterized by empowering employees to find their own path. These exemplary leaders motivate their team to own their roles and take initiative.
This leadership style is inspiring and motivating. It focuses on letting employees find the best way to achieve a goal. Nurses who adopt this style can quickly mobilize groups to efficiently complete work. They also excel at raising morale and maintaining open communication.
While inspiring, a transformational leader can be ineffective in new organizations. This style works best in environments with an established work structure in place, allowing the opportunity to create efficiencies and improvements.
Similar to transformational leaders, democratic leaders value team communication. Their relationship with their team and the freedom they allow team members to voice concerns and ideas are core characteristics of nurses with this leadership style. They also excel at and focus on providing feedback to their team.
This leadership style creates a culture of open communication and team input. It allows employees to feel valued and comfortable in offering their opinion during the decision-making process. These leaders also create a transparent environment — something greatly valued at high-reliability organizations like hospitals.
Since this form of leadership thrives on group feedback, it isn’t as effective in high-stress situations where quick responses are needed. These leaders also can struggle with making independent decisions without team input.
The first two leadership styles in nursing take a hands-on approach. Laissez-faire, on the other hand, quite literally means leave it alone, and this leadership style is known as the hands-off approach. These leaders provide limited supervision and decision-making. They don’t often provide feedback or direction to their team.
Laissez-faire leaders are best for an experienced and high-functioning team. They don’t micromanage, preferring instead to let the team decide how they want to function.
This is one of the least popular leadership styles in nursing because of the position’s need for rapid decisions. While it does work well for experienced teams, laissez-faire leaders are not effective when managing new nurses. Their teams are less likely to be proactive during patient care.
Strategic leaders work to improve team and organizational structures through analyzing current processes. They work on implementing improved policies and procedures, and ensure they are carried out across teams. This type of leader focuses on objectives and using their resources to achieve a goal.
Setting attainable goals is a major strength of strategic leaders. They are clear in their decisions and lay out a path for their team members to achieve predetermined goals. Strategic leaders create an efficient team and organizational structures, boosting overall performance.
While strategic leaders can create an efficient team, the process of setting goals and procedures is time-consuming. These leaders continually assess structures to find areas for both long- and short-term improvement. This involves many hours of prepping, researching, and communicating.
Like transformational leaders, servant leaders aim to motivate. However, they do so through building relationships rather than leading by example. They work on developing the skills of each team member. These leaders have an affinity for caring for others first. They care about their team and give each member the individual tools they need for success.
Servant leadership is best for diverse teams. Regardless of role or specialty, these leaders strive to have the ability to meet the needs of every person. Servant leaders make every member feel valued, which helps create a nursing team whose members are enthusiastic to do their jobs and can lead to better patient care.
Since servant leaders focus on individual leadership, their teams can suffer when in need of collective instruction. Their teams also work less efficiently when facing a crisis, because of the team decision-making process they follow. Additionally, out of all the leadership styles in nursing, this one takes the longest to develop, due to the reliance on individual relationships within the team.
The final leadership style in nursing, autocratic, is defined as taking a very hands-on approach. These leaders are entirely comfortable making decisions without input and withholding information from their team. They allow little room for mistakes.
Autocratic leaders work best in an environment where quick decisions need to be made — think, critical care nursing. They are the best leaders in emergencies because they are able to make decisions without contributions from others.
While autocratic leaders work best under pressure, they don’t create a trusting team environment. Their lack of open communication can make a nurse on their team feel unwelcome. It can also lead to insight or knowledge not being passed between team members.
Choosing and Developing a Leadership Style
While every nurse may have one dominant leadership style, they can utilize more than one depending on the situation. To find a leadership style, it’s important to self-reflect and ask those who are close to you what your best fit is. After deciding which one best fits you, it’s time to research and fully understand that style. Finally, let your team know your new strategies and be open about your decision. Then practice your new style and make adjustments to fit your team. It’s also important to stick with one style while you are developing your skills.
Become a Leader in Nursing at St. Catherine University
Start your leadership in nursing at St. Catherine University. Students enrolled in both graduate and undergraduate nursing programs are given the critical-thinking skills to lead through classes like Leadership in Designing Systems for Nursing Education and Leadership and Systems Change. Learn more about St. Kate’s nursing programs and advance your nursing career.