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7 Leadership Styles in Nursing — Which Is Yours?

Nurse management is a profession requiring special training, skills, and characteristics. A great nurse is not automatically a great nurse leader. But effective nurse management is critical for hospitals and health systems because it is a primary driver of a nursing team’s motivation, performance, and job satisfaction. Nurse managers who understand the benefits and limitations of different nursing leadership styles will be more successful in managing their team or unit and will ultimately drive better patient care.

The success of a unit relies heavily on the ability of the nursing leader to employ varying nurse leadership styles that best fit their organizational structure, work environment, and those who report to them. Most nursing leadership styles operate on the premise that both nursing staff and patients benefit from the unit working well as a team — but how a leader achieves that team cohesiveness can vary.

With working knowledge of different leadership styles, nurse leaders can take a personal inventory of how they lead while also assessing which styles might be more successful for them in the future. The American Nurses Association (ANA) recognizes the following seven nursing leadership styles:

  1. Laissez-faire
  2. Autocratic
  3. Servant
  4. Democratic
  5. Situational
  6. Transactional
  7. Transformational

Laissez-faire leadership in nursing

Laissez-faire leadership comes from the French phrase meaning “allow to do.” Inexperienced nurse leaders often use this style because they believe it will prevent mistakes. Typically referred to as a “hands-off” approach, laissez-faire nursing leaders provide minimal direction and feedback to their team. They allow the team to function as it prefers without much supervision. Observers may not view these types of leaders as strong decision makers.


  • Because laissez-faire nurse leaders do not micromanage or dictate how their teams should function, highly experienced teams that are already effective may work well with this type of leadership.
  • Laissez-faire philosophy supports the theory that if something’s not broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed (or changed).
  • Laissez-faire nurse leaders rely more on independent activity than individual initiative. If individuals prefer to work on their own, the lack of an involved leader may not matter.


  • Laissez-faire nursing isn’t necessarily a good fit for the healthcare industry due to the constant change and need for quick decision-making.
  • With large numbers of experienced nurses retiring and new nurses constantly onboarding, laissez-faire nursing leadership is unlikely to adequately help new teams that need critical guidance to provide high-quality care and be proactive with patient safety.

Autocratic leadership in nursing

In contrast to the laissez-faire leadership style, autocratic leadership in nursing is extremely “hands-on” and includes a great deal of decision-making. Nursing leaders using the autocratic leadership style are comfortable making decisions without input and may withhold information from their teams.


  • Autocratic nurse leaders are effective in making decisions quickly and delegating when necessary.
  • This top-down leadership style may serve teams well in emergency situations or when implementing and enforcing “zero occurrence” policies (e.g., driving for zero pressure ulcers, etc.).


  • Autocratic nurse leadership does not tend to promote trust or communication among a team. It may also create a culture that does not capitalize on all team members’ valuable insights and knowledge.
  • Autocratic leaders can stifle collaborative decision-making and transparency or hinder an organization’s journey to high reliability by suppressing staff input.

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Servant leadership in nursing

Servant leadership refers to leaders who influence and motivate others by building relationships and developing the skills of individual team members. Originated by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, the term refers to leaders who are primarily drawn to serve, which then inspires them to lead. Servant leadership in nursing implies that a leader will strive to provide team members with the resources and tools they need to succeed and grow.


  • Servant leadership in nursing can be extremely beneficial when leading a multidisciplinary, diverse team because leaders concentrate on meeting each team member’s individual needs.
  • Servant leaders can adapt their approaches to different roles, specialties, and resource requirements.


  • A poorly performing team may continue to struggle under the servant leadership style when collective direction and guidance for the whole team would otherwise create a more unified process and approach.
  • Servant leadership in nursing is not recommended when top-down decisions must be made to quickly align an entire team or organization.

Democratic leadership in nursing

The democratic leadership style welcomes and encourages input and communication from the team when making decisions. Relationships are highly valued by democratic leaders, and it’s important to them that their teams feel comfortable and willing to voice concerns, opinions, and ideas. Democratic leaders also see value in providing feedback to their teams and often view communication as a two-way street.


  • Democratic leadership in nursing can help ensure that the whole team feels valued and able to speak up.
  • Highly reliable organizations value transparency and input from team members with the most expertise — not necessarily seniority or highest rank — making this type of leader instrumental for creating a culture that promotes good ideas from all levels.


  • A democratic leadership style can be detrimental when a rapid response is required, especially in a care setting where adverse events and emergencies occur frequently.
  • Democratic leaders who always depend on the group may struggle when needing to make decisions independently.

Situational leadership in nursing

Situational leadership requires analysis of a situation to determine the best approach to achieve the desired results. This style is very adaptable and may incorporate aspects of other leadership styles. In some instances, situational leaders may choose to be more directive, and at other times, they may be more supportive.


  • Situational leadership allows for flexibility. Leaders can modify their approaches to best fit the staff and resources of a given scenario.
  • Discoveries can happen when leaders look for different ways to approach a task. This leadership style leaves room for both leaders and staff members to take initiative or suggest ideas.


  • Situational leadership lets leaders “go with the flow” when needed but could derail organizational goals if teams get off track.
  • Performance quality could vary widely among individuals and teams due to inconsistencies in approach and potentially unpredictable decision-making.

Transactional leadership in nursing

In a transactional leadership model, organizational hierarchy is important. Nurses must follow rules and procedures, fulfill clearly defined roles, and complete assigned duties. Those who succeed receive rewards, and those who do not may face penalties. Focusing on efficiency and performance, transactional leaders often excel at reaching short-term goals, reducing errors, and meeting deadlines.


  • Transactional leadership is easy to understand. Staff members know what they must do, how leaders want it done, and what will happen when they do it (or if they do not). Leaders use a task-and-reward process with limited communication or opportunities for creative thinking.
  • Staff members tend to meet their work objectives because they are under close supervision. Transactional leadership helps inexperienced supervisors and teams because they have procedures to follow.


  • The transactional leadership model does not generally encourage creativity or problem-solving. Getting things done quickly or easily may take precedence over doing them better. This style can be difficult to maintain in times of constant or rapid change due to shifting values, priorities, and goals.
  • Leaders make most of the decisions, explicitly dictate the work, and determine criteria for success, providing little opportunity for innovation from non-supervisory staff members.

Transformational leadership in nursing

Transformational leadership is a style that motivates employees to take ownership of their roles and perform beyond expectations. Developed by sociologist James MacGregor Burns, the transformational leadership model defines four areas: idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. These characteristics work together to contribute to the goal of creating a high-performing organization.

Instead of assigning tasks from the top, transformational leaders coach people to think critically about their work — and not just do what they are told. Sometimes called quiet leaders, they lead by example. These leaders also excel at conflict resolution.


  • Transformational nurse leaders inspire and motivate their staff to find better ways of achieving a goal.
  • Transformational leaders mobilize groups to get work done, improving morale, motivation, and well-being by establishing an excellent rapport.


  • Transformational leadership can be ineffective in the beginning stages of initiatives, brand-new organizations, or ad-hoc situations where goals and processes are unclear.
  • This type of leadership style requires an existing structure so that improvement, further development, growth, or transformation can occur.

Transformational leadership works well in dynamic, changing environments because every employee has the power to make decisions and act when appropriate. Leaders support their teams as they move through change by working to optimize their capabilities, maximize strengths, and communicate in meaningful ways.

One of the components of the American Nurse Credentialing Center’s (ANCC) Magnet Model® designation, the transformational style creates leaders who develop a vision of the future for their teams and organizations, regardless of their level. The primary goal of being a transformational leader is not to be a better boss, but to empower, inspire, engage, and lead teams to deliver highly reliable, safe, and effective patient care, every time.


Transformational Leadership: Developing Leaders, Inspiring Employees, and Driving Change

Today’s healthcare leaders face the challenge of continuously meeting high expectations while adapting to constant change. Transformational leadership, the preferred management style of Magnet®-recognized hospitals, has been shown to transform entire teams to a higher level of practice.

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