Last updated on July 9th, 2024 at 03:25 pm

Now that you have some nursing experience under your belt, you understand the ins and outs of the profession. You’ve seen first-hand what it takes to provide excellent patient care—and you’ve probably had your fair share of supervisors and administrators.

But what if you’re ready to become a leader yourself? Working in a leadership position within the nursing field requires hard work yet can be exceptionally rewarding, and it certainly takes a special type of person to take on this essential type of role.

With the right qualifications and an effective leadership style, you could go on to work as a nursing director, transitional leader, or trainer. And by having a better understanding of some common leadership styles (and how they apply to nursing), you can set yourself up for success.

The Impact of Effective Leadership on Patient Care

There’s no overstating the direct impact leadership can have on nursing performance and patient outcomes. In fact, research has suggested that nursing leadership styles can influence everything from the quality of care patients receive to job satisfaction and retention rates among nurses. When applied in the right context, every style of nursing leadership can be effective—but it’s all about knowing which leadership style is best suited to each unique situation as well as your own goals and values.

Essential Qualities of a Successful Nurse Leader

Regardless of the leadership style you adopt, there are certain essential qualities and traits that will serve you well as a nurse leader. Some of the most key characteristics of a successful leader in nursing include:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Quick decision-making
  • Critical thinking
  • Communication and relationship-building
  • Managing tight deadlines
  • Working in emergency situations
  • Prioritizing patient care

Seven Common Nursing Leadership Styles

It is generally accepted that there are seven different leadership styles in the nursing field. Most nursing leaders will find that they fall into one of these styles, though it is not uncommon for effective leaders to shift between several of these as needs dictate.

1. Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leaders tend to be highly structured and confident in making decisions without needing to seek a great deal of input from others. These types of leaders usually operate by setting rules and delegating tasks or responsibilities to other nurses.

This style of nursing leadership has become less common as many nursing departments work toward a more collaborative approach. However, autocratic leadership certainly does have its applications; for example, it can be particularly effective in emergency situations or any other context where an important decision needs to be made quickly.

2. Democratic Leadership

Nurses with a democratic leadership style generally enjoy working and collaborating with others, including fellow nurses and other staff members. They believe that input and opinions from others ultimately lead to the most informed decisions, so they are always open to feedback and suggestions.

Democratic nursing leaders also tend to be among the most supportive and helpful to new nurses. They may put considerable time and effort into ensuring young nursing professionals have the knowledge and training they need to succeed.

Democratic leadership can go a long way in building happy and productive teams, but nurses with this leadership style should be careful not to let varying opinions sway their own decision-making. Likewise, democratic leaders must still be able to make swift and strong decisions in emergency situations.

3. Laissez-Faire Leadership

Laissez-faire leaders in nursing may be a bit more “hands-off” in nature, generally holding the belief that individual nurses should be trusted to make the right decisions on their own. These leaders are also more likely to leave decisions on larger issues up to the group entirely, though this is not always the case.

Laissez-faire leadership can be effective at building confidence and a sense of shared responsibility among group members. With that said, nursing professionals who embody this leadership style must be prepared to step in or intervene when necessary, especially when it comes to handling conflict or making decisions that may affect patient care.

4. Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders in nursing tend to be the most open to change while also taking a more collaborative approach. Rather than seeing themselves as authority figures “above” other nurses, they consider themselves an equal part of the team—and are thus happy to seek and create a shared vision with their peers.

This style of leadership can be highly effective at improving engagement and productivity because all nurses feel involved in the decision-making process and that their individual opinions matter. Such a leadership style also tends to be ideal for those who are more extroverted and creative-minded, but the challenge with transformational leadership can be knowing when to draw the line and initiate a more authoritative approach.

5. Servant Leadership

Servant leaders are those who observe other nurses in action, focusing on what they may need to do their jobs better. In general, servant leaders are of the mindset that if they take care of their nurses, nurses will take care of their patients. With this in mind, they constantly go out of their way to anticipate nurses’ needs and ask them about the resources they need to perform their jobs.

Servant leadership is an excellent way to help nurses feel valued and respected while ensuring better patient outcomes among diverse groups of nurses. Implementing this style of nursing, however, requires exceptional active listening skills and a keen sense of situational awareness.

6. Situational Leadership

Speaking of situational awareness, situational leadership is another common leadership style in the nursing field. Its primary characteristic is knowing how to “read the room” and adjust your leadership approach as needed. Situational leaders should be highly adaptable and have a strong sense of what each situation and team member needs. A situational leader, for instance, may understand that one particular nurse responds better to autocratic leadership than others.

Carrying out this style of leadership well can be a challenge because it requires a lot of internal knowledge about how the facility operates and how each individual nurse responds to different leadership styles. Still, it is something to strive toward because it can be very effective in a range of different scenarios.

7. Coaching Leadership

Coaching leaders or affiliative leaders are those effective at building a sense of comradery among individual team members. They are excellent at relationship building and using conflict-management skills to handle common issues such as low morale and stress between team members.

This leadership style can be extremely effective during times of conflict or change within a nursing team. However, it is most effective when coaching leaders have support from their own management and other higher-ups within the facility.

Advantages and Limitations of Each Leadership Style

There is a time and place for each of the seven leadership styles in the nursing field. The challenge for many aspiring nursing leaders is determining which style best aligns with their personalities and goals along with considering the specific context for using each leadership method.

Balancing Strengths and Weaknesses for Optimal Patient Care

At the end of the day, the primary motivation behind any decision you make as a nursing leader should fall back to providing the highest level of patient care possible. This will mean analyzing the situation and weighing the pros and cons of each leadership style to determine which approach will yield the best outcomes.

Identifying Your Leadership Style

In identifying which leadership style best suits you, it’s crucial to consider some of the primary traits and characteristics that define you as a person. For instance, if you’re often described as charismatic, creative, and optimistic, then a transformational leadership approach may be ideal. On the other hand, if you tend to be more authoritative and set in your beliefs, then an autocratic leadership style might be a better fit.

When Is It Appropriate to Use Each Leadership Style?

Remember that just because you “default” to a particular learning style doesn’t mean it’s the only approach you should ever take. The most successful nursing leaders are able to jump around between different leadership styles to best suit the situation. For example, you might consider yourself a transformational leader in most respects, but when the urgent need arises to make a critical decision, you should be able to shift into autocratic leadership mode with confidence.

How Can Nursing Leadership Styles Affect Your Career?

Different nursing leadership styles can (and do) impact nurses’ professional development and career progression in a number of ways. Being able to confidently commit to a leadership style and execute it well will directly affect the morale of the nurses you supervise as well as other aspects like nurse retention and patient outcomes. With this in mind, it’s important to decide on a leadership style that is the best fit for you (and know when to pivot styles as needed). This ability doesn’t often come naturally to most leaders, but it’s one you can build upon over time and with experience.

Improving Your Leadership Skills in Nursing: What Steps Can You Take?

If you’re looking to work in nursing leadership, it’s a good idea to pursue additional education and formal training that will best prepare you for this type of work. The right advanced degree program will cover such key topics as finance and economics for nursing leadership, behavior and workforce management, quality improvement, safety, and the like.

Meanwhile, gaining some experience in nursing curriculum and program development, instructional methods, and educational technology may also be useful if you are considering a leadership path that involves instructing or training other nurses.

In addition, current nurses in the field can work on developing their leadership skills by seeking out a mentor, volunteering for committee roles (when available), and getting involved with public policy.

Aligning Your Leadership Style With Your Career Goals

No matter which of these leadership styles in nursing best suits you, solid leadership skills serve you well in any type of supervisory role. These days, most hospitals and other medical facilities are also seeking nursing leaders with advanced degrees to fill these critical positions.

Interested in taking your career to the next level? Salem University’s Master of Science in Nursing program is an excellent option for many BSN graduates who aspire to serve as the next generation of nursing leaders. For your convenience, this program is offered 100 percent online and can be completed in as little as 10 months. Request more information today or fill out your online application to get started!

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