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Leadership Theory

Leadership Theory

Being a leader can be tough. A leader is expected to help a group meet its goals, which involves taking risks and making unpopular decisions at times. A leader should be trustworthy, have integrity, possess strong communication skills, and be committed. A list like this brings up the aforementioned notion that leadership is an in-born “trait.”  From this perspective, classic approaches to leadership styles, mostly based on a person’s personality were developed. These included Authoritarian,  Democratic, and Laissez-Faire.

  • Authoritarian leaders are those who prefer telling or directing others to do something. The emphasis is on accomplishing the task. This style does not make use of what the followers have to offer. It is reminiscent of the “old school” style and can limit what the group is willing to do, but can be necessary in some crisis situations.
  • Democratic leaders allow for group discussion when choosing a course of action, looking for consensus, or majority rule. They seek input and form relationships with members of the group. The democratic approach can slow the decision-making process if it is not organized well. Subgroups within the group can be lost or become obstacles without good facilitation by the leader.
  • Laissez-Faire is a French term meaning “hands off.” It refers to a leadership style in which the group is allowed to manage itself. This strategy can be positive when the group is composed of highly independent professionals, but can create problems when it comes about because the leader is vacant in spirit.

Separating these three styles of leadership as such assumes a leader acts from the same starting point at all times; however, most theories of leadership recognize that different styles are needed based on situational context. Some scholars liken choosing a leadership style to a golfer choosing the right club; it all depends on the specific aspects of the situation. Hence, in the 1960s, ideas about leadership branched out into “situational theories,” including the work of Fiedler, as well as Hersey and Blanchard (Huber, 2006).

  • Fiedler’s Contingency Theory addresses the idea that leadership must match the needs of the situation, and is, in fact, contingent on such flexibility. There are three main variables that must be considered: 1) leader-member relationship, 2) task structure, and 3) position power. A better leader-member relationship creates a favorable situation and figures importantly into how well the leader’s ideas will be received. A clearly delineated task structure is favorable for the group’s function. It is also favorable if the leader of the group has adequate authority or position power in the broader organization. This theory states that leaders/managers can use either a task-oriented or relationship-oriented style,  depending on the degree of favorableness of the situation.
  • Hersey-Blanchard’s Tri-dimensional Model also makes use of the variable quality of the leader-member relationship and the task, but this model adds follower readiness. Based on where the group is in terms of these variables, leadership styles can range from authoritarian (leader directed) to democratic (follower directed). The original model proposed four styles: telling, selling,  participating, and delegating. The revised model adds variation in approach based on characteristics of the followers (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, n. d.).

New leadership approaches have continued to develop. Changing viewpoints are visible across disciplines. New ideas like transformational and quantum leadership hold the most promise for nurse leaders.

  • Transformational Leadership Theory was developed by Burns in the late 1970s (Huber, 2006). The theory posits two types of leadership behaviors: transactional and transformational.  Transactional leaders are focused on maintaining the status quo. They work on a system of exchanges or transactions with people in the group. Much of the day-to-day work of a nurse manager is transactional: scheduling (“you can have that day off in exchange for working this day”), budgeting (“we can buy this equipment in exchange for using this cheaper supply”), etc. This type of approach is necessary in some areas to keep the ship afloat, but it does not result in real change. Transformational leaders, however, seek a larger vision.  They change the culture of the organization by encouraging followers to set high expectations. They empower their group members to reach their optimal potential. They develop collegial relationships and promote positive self-esteem. Through this type of leadership, a group rises above and beyond.
  • Quantum or Chaos Leadership Theory recognizes the complexity and multidimensionality of the current health care system. It notes that very small changes in beginning conditions can result in major divergence in direction. This makes it next to impossible to predict what will happen, as systems and changes are non-linear. Leaders therefore need to have creativity and flexibility. They need to create connective relationships with people within the system that nurture and support all involved.
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