Leadership styles in nursing: which is best for you?

If you’re a nurse who’s keen to lead a team one day, what will your leadership approach be? Here are six common leadership styles you might like to try on for size. 

Nurse leadership styles

As a leader in any context, how you communicate with and treat your team matters—a lot. Your behaviour and leadership style has a huge impact on their motivation and performance. 

Leadership in nursing is no different. As it can ultimately influence patient outcomes, it’s extra important to get it right. So, if you’re keen to take on a leadership role at some stage within your nursing career, how can you best prepare? 

Let’s look at some of the leadership approaches you might like to adopt—and consider which style could work best for you. 

How many different leadership styles are there in nursing?

Essentially, it depends who you ask. Some people define five distinct leadership styles in nursing, others point to as many as ten or even more. 

The most cited leadership styles are drawn from research done by psychologist Kurt Lewin all the way back in 1939. His team defined three core leadership styles: authoritarian (also known as autocratic); participative (or democratic); and delegative (or laissez-faire).

Other researchers have built on Lewin’s initial model and there are now numerous categories that you may come across in management literature or study, all with various pros and cons.  

In terms of those most relevant to nursing, the Australian College of Nursing highlights five leadership styles that you should be across if moving into a leadership position. Let’s take a look at those here. 

1. Democratic 

Often thought to be one of the most effective styles, democratic—or participative—leadership positions leaders as active members of the team. They offer guidance but also seek feedback and input from the people they are leading, to build a sense of unity and trust. 

When done well, this can create a sense of support and ownership within a team, which can be incredibly useful within nursing. In terms of disadvantages, however, it might lead to slower decision-making, if everyone in the team is given time to have a say. 

2. Autocratic 

On the other end of the spectrum is autocratic leadership, in which a leader gives very clear top-down instructions and calls most of the shots. This can mean quick action is taken in response to problems but can leave team members feeling disillusioned and like their voice doesn’t matter.

This style of leadership could be useful when a leader is much more experienced or more of an expert than the people they are leading. As the Australian College of Nurses explains, this style emphasises tasks over people, which can only work in certain contexts. 

3. Laissez-faire 

Laissez-faire or delegative leadership is a ‘hands-off’ approach that sees the leader leave a lot of the decision-making up to their team. When it works well, this can give people a sense of autonomy and ownership over their work. 

However, when it goes badly, this style can result in a lack of direction and poorly defined roles, which can prove incredibly frustrating for team members. 

4. Transactional 

A transactional leadership style implements clearly defined systems and roles within a team; it also tends to reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. 

These leaders focus on getting the task at hand done and are often found within highly bureaucratic organisations that prioritise efficiency and structure. While solid systems are of course necessary for effective nursing, being too rigid can feel stifling for team members, so it’s important to strike a good balance. 

5. Transformational 

Transformational leaders see the big picture—and bring people along for the ride. This style is considered a really effective way to help people align with an organisation’s long-term vision and motivate them to do their best work. 

In a nursing context, you might adopt this style if you work in a setting that needs significant change or much better patient outcomes. As a transformational leader, you’ll be emotionally intelligent and great at mentoring new nurses and inspiring your team. 

As the Australian College of Nurses mentions, a drawback of this approach might be that it takes a bit of time to implement as the leader has to build genuine trust with their team. It’s very much about the long game rather than short-term outcomes. 

How to improve your leadership skills in nursing

Very few people are born leaders—it often takes a bit of practice. You’ll find your own style by trying out a few different leadership approaches and reflecting on what’s working and what’s not. 

If you want to move into a leadership role, you can consider postgraduate nurse leadership courses that will help accelerate your skills. For example, a course like the Master of Advanced Nursing Practice with Griffith University, or a single subject—such as Emotional Intelligence, Interpersonal Communication or Management with the University of Notre Dame Australia—could all help sharpen your leadership chops. 

With a bit of support and some experience under your belt, you’ll find your leadership groove. Soon enough, you’ll have your team humming along and—most importantly—delivering great patient outcomes. 


Want to see more of your study options? Browse online nursing courses available through Open Universities Australia.