Skip Navigation



5 Tips for Defining Your Nurse Leadership Style

Published on: April 18, 2022

Leadership is a critical component of nursing practice. If you work in healthcare, you understand just how essential nurse leaders are to the delivery of quality care — whether they deliver that care directly or not. 

Download our guide on nurse leadership>>

Our patients may not understand the nuances of how a nursing team works together, but they will feel if that care is disjointed. And disjointed care can result in needless errors or poor health outcomes. 

As a nurse leader, you should understand the different styles of leadership that work well in a healthcare environment, the contexts in which they should be used, and most importantly, what leadership style suits you.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss some tips for identifying your nurse leadership style and overcoming the challenges you may face as a leader in nursing.

Understanding the types of leadership styles in nursing

In school, we learn about management theories in nursing to help us understand how nurse leaders work with nursing staff and the healthcare teams they lead. These theories also “help us understand why people practice certain behaviors and provide insight into how individuals work together.”

Leading and managing in nursing has undergone a dramatic evolution over time. In the early days of nursing, nurses were not typically involved in decision-making or other forms of leadership. However, as the education of nurses broadened and their scope of nursing practice increased, they began to take on more responsibility for patient care, including leadership roles. Today, nurses are critical members of the health care team, occupying various leadership positions.

One of the most significant leadership challenges in nursing practice today is the need to provide leadership in a rapidly changing healthcare environment. With advances in medical technology and an increasingly complex health care system, nurses are being called upon to take on more responsibility than ever before. 

In addition, the nursing profession is being asked to adopt a business-like approach to health care delivery. As a result, nurses must be prepared to provide high-quality patient care, manage resources, and effectively lead teams of health care professionals.

Democratic leadership in nursing

Leaders who use a democratic leadership style in nursing empower staff to make decisions and value team input. However, there are some drawbacks to this approach. Not everyone wants to speak up or take on more responsibility. Democratic leaders must be able to elicit and value all team members' input. If team members cannot agree, this leadership style can lead to indecision. 

However, this nurse leadership style can be very effective when used properly, such as when team ownership, responsibility, increased creativity, and innovation are encouraged. Similarly, the nurse leader must balance involving team members in decision-making while maintaining control over the team's direction.

Using a democratic leadership style, a nurse leader might ask team members to brainstorm solutions to a problem and then vote on the best option, or they may let team members decide how to complete their assigned tasks.

Laissez-faire leadership in nursing

Laissez-faire leadership can be defined as a hands-off approach to leading, in which the leader provides direction and guidance but allows subordinates to take the lead in executing tasks. This style of leadership has advantages, allowing nurses to use their creativity and initiative to solve problems and complete tasks. However, a laissez-faire work environment can also lead to a lack of clarity and coordination, in addition to accountability issues. 

A nurse leader with this leadership style would delegate tasks to subordinates and give them the freedom to complete the tasks as they see fit. Or, they might allow nurses to take the lead in developing new policies and procedures. 

Ultimately, laissez-faire leadership in nursing requires trust and confidence in your subordinates. When used effectively, it can increase nurses' satisfaction and motivation. However, when misused, it can result in chaos and confusion.

Situational leadership in nursing

Situational leadership is a nursing leadership style that adapts to changing patient and staff needs. This style of leadership is adaptable and effective in a fast-paced environment. Situational leadership allows nurses to tailor their approach depending on the circumstances and needs at the moment. This approach can help ensure that patient and staff needs are met while still considering the fluctuations of staff and varying levels of patient acuity. It can also build strong teams of nurses by effectively sharing the workload and delegating tasks.

Nevertheless, situational leadership has some drawbacks. One major issue is that it’s difficult to maintain control over a team when the approach constantly changes. In addition, this type of leadership can also be stressful for nurse leaders because they must continuously adapt their perspective to current circumstances.

Using this style of leadership, a nurse might assess a patient's needs and then delegate tasks to appropriate staff members, or they may develop new policies and procedures to meet changing patient and staff needs.

Servant leadership in nursing

Leaders who employ this approach focus on helping others. Servant leadership in nursing works to build trust, cooperation, and confidence among team members. This empowers a nurse team to problem solve on their own, improving patient outcomes without leadership’s oversight. Servant leadership can also foster an open and respectful culture.  

However, there exists some disadvantages of servant leadership, too. For example, maintaining a clear chain of command can be difficult, and nurses may feel underutilized. When used correctly, though, servant leadership can help improve patient care. 

Using this nurse leadership style, a leader may mentor and support new nurses while encouraging their staff to do the same, promoting a team culture of respect and cooperation. 

Transformational leadership in nursing

Transformational leadership is focused on inspiring employees to do their best. Often motivating and visionary, transformational leaders see the potential in their staff to improve patient care and health care processes. They have high standards and a strong sense of values. 

However, the downside of transformational leadership is that nurse leaders and their staff have the potential to burn out as they work tirelessly to pursue long-range goals and ideals.

A nurse manager with this leadership style might encourage their team to develop new ideas to manage short-staffing or high patient acuity. Similarly, a nurse educator who can inspire students to succeed and work towards higher levels of achievement would be using a transformational leadership style.

Female nurse leader in blue scrubs holds clipboard with male nurse in blue scrubs, teaching him how to properly log medical records.

Autocratic leadership in nursing

Autocratic leadership in nursing is a single-authority management style where the leader controls all decisions and actions. This leadership style can be effective in times of crisis, but it can also lead to a lack of innovation and low morale among team members. 

A nurse leader using this leadership style makes all decisions without consulting others and expects team members to follow directions without question. This style of leadership can work in some instances, but it’s crucial to evaluate the effects on team dynamics. 

 Using autocratic leadership, a nurse leader may need to make a quick decision about a patient's care, and in this case, the style can be helpful. Similarly, a nurse manager using this form of leadership may budget for new equipment and purchase it without asking nursing staff for their input, resulting in staff frustration and resentment.

Defining your nursing leadership style

As you can see, there are many different leadership styles in nursing, with advantages and disadvantages to each one. Combining your unique personality with the following suggestions will help you discover which of the nursing leadership styles suits you best.

  1. Play to your strengths — This allows you to use your inherent leadership abilities and attributes. Are you a good listener? Incredibly organized? Take account of your soft skills, make a list, and circle your strongest three. With those in mind, cross-reference the leadership styles mentioned above.
  2. Recognize your flaws — Know your flaws and embrace them. Becoming a nurse leader is all about continuous improvement, and while some of your flaws can probably be improved upon in the long term, there are times when you’ll need to delegate. Be proactive; identify those areas of improvement and see how they stack up against the leadership styles. If you have a hard time navigating change and being adaptable, you’ll want to have set guidelines, rather than a situational approach. There’s no shame in avoiding a leadership style that doesn’t work for you.
  3. Incorporate your values — As a leader, you’ll adapt easier to an approach that aligns with your personal beliefs. Ask yourself these questions: what’s your ideal workplace culture? What does leadership mean to you? Who are some leaders that you admire and why? Answering prompts like these can help you identify where your values lie. You’ll be more passionate about leading your team when your actions reflect how you think and not how “others want it to be done.”
  4. Adapt to your surroundings — Some approaches require context. Your personal nursing leadership style might change depending upon the facility you work in, your superiors, the number of patients your team sees per day, etc. This also means that your leadership style should…
  5. Consider your team — Great nurse leaders try to incorporate their team’s motivations, personalities, perspectives, and abilities into their leadership style. You have to get to know your team beyond the surface and what they do at work. When you highlight someone’s clinical prowess by asking for help with a specific patient; when you communicate over text with a nurse rather than email (their personal preference); when you give feedback in a way that motivates them, you are building respect. And respect is the backbone of a cohesive, productive unit.

When you take the time to define your nursing leadership style, you set yourself up for success in virtually any leadership role. And while there is no one right way to lead, reflecting on your approach will help you become a better leader.

Become a Nurse Leader

An executive nurse leader (ENL) is a nurse who has been specifically trained to manage and oversee the delivery of health care services. ENLs provide strategic leadership and guidance to ensure that the health care system runs smoothly and efficiently. 

At the University of San Diego School of Nursing, our Master of Science in Nursing with an executive nurse leader (ENL) focus prepares nurse leaders to guide and oversee the successful delivery of health care services and strategic leadership — now and into the future.

There are plenty of career opportunities available as an ENL, even for those who are looking for nursing jobs away from the bedside.  An MSN — online or on-campus — can help you break into the field successfully. 

If you’re looking to take the next step in your nursing career and make a difference as a healthcare leader, becoming an ENL may be the right path for you.

Explore the ENL Path

A Guide to the University of San Diego's Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

The University of San Diego's nursing program ranks among the best in the nation. But that's not the only reason future students walk through our doors to pursue one of our graduate degrees. Download our guide for an in-depth look at the Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program and learn how our rich heritage of excellence in nursing education can help you achieve your academic and professional goals.

USD SON - MSN Brochure Revamp COVER

A Guide to Achieving the Master of Science in Nursing at USD

For future Executive Nurse Leaders, Nursing Informaticists, or Adult-Gerontology CNSs.

Get the Guide

Explore Our Programs

Learn about your program of interest by visiting the programs page on our website. Review information on admissions, financial aid, and much more. 

View Programs