Contemporary Leadership Styles - 3 CEs
Author: Kristi Hudson RN BSN CCRN
This course is designed to give an overview of past and present leadership
styles. Traditional vs. contemporary leadership definitions will be discussed.
Trait theory, behavioral theories, situational as well as transformational and
transactional theories of leadership will be presented. Helping the student
determine and understand their own leadership style will also be a key focus
of this course.
Upon completion of this course the student will be able to:
Define traditional vs. contemporary leadership roles.
Describe the basic concepts of the autocratic, democratic and laissez-
faire leadership styles.
Differentiate between trait, behavioral and situational leadership styles.
Describe the benefits of applying different behavioral leadership styles
to specific situations.
Compare and contrast transformational vs. transactional leadership
List the expected benefits of transformational leadership.
Throughout history there have been as many of “leadership” as there have
been commentators on the subject. The following two examples (one being
traditional and the other more contemporary) will show how the definition of
leadership has evolved from 20th to 21st century.
A traditional definition – “Leadership is an interpersonal influence directed
toward the achievement of a goal or goals”. When broken down there are three
key principles to this traditional definition which are:
Interpersonal – meaning dealing with more then one person (thus a
leader works with a group of people).
Influence – the power to affect others.
Goals – the end that one strives to attain.
This traditional definition of leadership can be re-worded to simply state “a
leader influences more then one person towards a goal”.
A more contemporary definition – “Leadership is a dynamic relationship
(based on mutual influence and common purpose) between leaders and
collaborators which leads both parties to higher levels of motivation and moral
development as they evoke “real” change. When this definition is broken down
there are also three key principles which are:
Relationship – the connection between people.
Mutual –sharing something in common.
Collaborators – working together.
This more contemporary definition of leadership can be re-worded to simply
state “the leader is influenced by the collaborators while they work together to
achieve real change”.
The Trait Theory – The trait theory of leadership (which was popular in the
1940’s and 1950’s), attached leadership ability to specific traits. This theory of
leadership attempted to state that if someone had “true leadership traits” they
could lead regardless of the situation. The trait theory focused on “what a
person is” and not on what they could accomplish. The following are
assumptions of the trait theory:
People are born with inherited traits.
Some traits are particularly suited to leadership.
People who make good leaders have the right (or sufficient)
combination of traits.
The trait theory postulates the following as important leadership traits:
Physical attractiveness (neat, well groomed, tall, healthy, usually male).
Social and personal characteristics that are inherent to leaders (well
bred, intelligent, educated, and well mannered).
Adaptable to situations /Alert to social environment
Ambitious and achievement-orientated
Dominant (desire to influence others)
Energetic (high activity level)/Self-confident/Tolerant of stress
Willing to assume responsibility
The Behavioral Theory
Overall dissatisfaction with the trait theory lead to a new theory of leadership
(1950’s and 1960’s) that focused more on the actual “behavior” of the leader.
The behavior theory focuses more on “what a leader does” rather then “what a
person is”. The three leadership styles that emerged from this new belief were
the Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire styles of leadership. It was
originally thought that a persons personality lead them to fall into an either or
behavioral pattern, but today mastering all of these behaviors and applying
the appropriate behavior to the appropriate situation is thought to be a better
approach. The following quiz will help to individualize and define these
Quiz to determine which Leadership Style fits you!
Using the following point system, answer the following 12 questions.
0 - Never, 1 – Sometimes, 2 – Usually, 3 – Always
1. When a procedure has failed, I fix it myself, and then explain what
2. I believe my staff shows self-direction when they are motivated/encouraged.
3. My leadership helps my subordinates to grow.
4. I usually tell my staff how and why something needs to be done.
5. I ask for ideas, and encourage contributions by my staff.
6. My employees decide what needs to be done, and how it is done.
7. I like power and control.
8. I ask advice when change is needed.
9. My workers know more about their jobs then I do.
10. When my staff does something wrong, I tell them not to do it again, and
document the event.
11. When differences arise my staff and I work together to resolve them.
12. A vote is always taken and the majority rules.
1_____ 2_____ 3_____ 4_____ 5_____ 6_____
7_____ 8_____ 9_____ 10_____ 11_____ 12_____
Autocratic_____ Democratic_____ Laissez-Faire_____
Add scores from questions 1, 4, 7 and 10 and place score in Autocratic section.
Add scores from questions 2, 5, 8 and 11 and place score in Democratic
Add scores from questions 3, 6, 9 and 12 and place in Laissez-Faire section.
(The area with the highest score is most likely your leadership style).
The Autocratic Leader
The Autocratic leader is someone who usually needs to dominate others. The
autocratic approach is often a unilateral one and they are most likely
attempting to achieve a single goal or objective. This approach to leadership
generally results in passive resistance from team-members and in order to get
things done, requires continual pressure and direction from the leader.
Generally an authoritarian approach is not a good way to get the best
performance from the team. The Autocratic approach is sometimes confused
with the yelling and demeaning approach that an “abusive” leader would
There is however some instances where an autocratic style of leadership may
not only be necessary but actually the most appropriate style of leadership for
a given situation. These situations are ones that call for urgent or quick action.
Because most people are familiar with autocratic leadership, they have less
trouble adapting to this style. In stressful situations (such as an impromptu
survey), staff may prefer an autocratic approach.
A good use of autocratic leadership is when JCAHO or the Department of
Health is in the hospital and nobody knows why. Staff members appreciate
and autocratic approach in these situations.
The Democratic Leader
The Democratic leader uses a team approach to make decisions. Although the
Democratic leader makes the final decision; they will usually involve one or
more team members in the decision making process. A good Democratic
leader is one who encourages staff participation, is empowering and
supportive, and is careful not to lose site of the fact that he/she is still
ultimately responsible for the final outcome. The Democratic leader is happy
to see staff members collaborate and is willing to accept that outcomes may
turn out different then originally planned (it is all about the process).
One draw back to the Democratic leadership style is that the leader is
sometimes viewed as someone who cannot make a decision on his/her own.
Though most team members will have respect for this type of leader; not
everyone will view them as a "true" leader. Another draw back to this
leadership style is that many discussions, emails and meetings are usually
required before a decision that has group consensus is made (this can be time
A good use of democratic leadership is when a practice change (maybe a new
JCAHO safety regulation for example) needs to occur and the leader includes
staff ideas and suggestions to help with the smooth implementation and
transition of the change.
The Laissez-Faire Leader
The Laissez-Faire leader exercises very little control over his/her staff
members. This type of leadership essentially leaves all of the decision making
to those who will be affected most. The Laissez-Faire leadership style works
very well when dealing with staff members who are committed, motivated and
able to analyze a situation properly. Once the Laissez-Faire leader has
established that staff members are high functioning; it is often best for this
leader to step back and let staff members get busy with the task at hand. This
type of leadership also allows for delegation of tasks that empowers staff
members to achieve their goals.
Although independence and decision making is relinquished to staff members;
using this style of leadership makes jumping back into a failing process very
difficult. Interfering in the middle of a task or ongoing project can cause
resentment and an overall lack of trust on the part of staff members.
A good use of Laissez-Faire leadership would be identifying a problem and
allowing staff to come up with and implement a solution. When staff develops
“anything” on their own, there is a much greater chance that they will be
accountable for the change or improvement.
The Situational or Contingency Theory of Leadership
In 1967 Fred Fielder ( a leading scientist in the area of organizational and
industrial psychology) developed “The Contingency Theory of Leadership”
based on his belief that in addition to specific behavioral traits; leaders also
need to assure that there actions were in sync with the situation (known as
situational favorableness). The Contingency Theory of Leadership postulates
that leaders must match their leadership style (either task or relationship
oriented) to the situation and then assess the situation for its degree of
favorableness or unfavorableness to the leader’s style of influence. In order to
determine ones leadership style; Fielder developed an index called the “Least
Preferred Co-Worker” (LPC) scale.
The LPC scale asks the leader to think of the person (past or present) who they
have not worked well with and score the person using the following 1-8
ranking scale (this is a modified scale, the original having 16 questions):
Unfriendly 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Friendly
Uncooperative 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Cooperative
Hostile 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Supportive
Guarded 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Open
When complete add up the total score and divide by 4 to get an average score.
For this modified scale, scores of 4 or below = A task motivated/oriented
Scores of 5 or above = A relationship oriented leader (This is shortened
version of the actual scale so results may vary).
Once leadership style has been established, favorableness of the situation (or
the degree that the leader can influence the group) is the second component to
the Contingency Leadership Theory. The following situational factors must be
Leader-Member relationships (the degree in which the members accept
Task Structure (the degree that the members understand the task and
what they need to do)
Position of Power (the amount of authority the leader has within the
If the leader-member relations are good, the leader has the power to
promote, demote or fire, and the task is well spelled out; then the
situation is favorable to proceed.
If the leader-member relationship is poor, the leader has no authority
over the members and the task is nebulous or described with
uncertainty then the situation can be thought of unfavorable. Overall the
situational approach to leadership has been a valuable model and
contribution to leadership styles, by taking some of the focus of
successful leadership off of the “leader” and placing it on the situation at
Note: Task oriented leaders are thought to work well in extreme situations
(favorable or unfavorable), while relationship oriented leaders are thought
to work in more moderate (only slightly favorable or unfavorable)
Transformational vs. Transactional Leadership Theory (21st
Great leaders come from great team members. Coaching and mentoring are
often words associated with the transformational leader. The ultimate goal is
to create a clinical staff leader who will head off in a different direction, and
carve out new ideas and pathways. The transformational leader sets the
standard by their actions, and not their words. The following statements
describe the Transformational Leadership Theory:
The Transformational theory focuses on the leader and employee
working together for the greater good.
It is a theory that places strong emphasis on one individual engaging
others and creating a connection that elevates the level of motivation
and morality in both the leader and the follower.
Transformational leadership merges ideals and focuses to unite both the
employee and the nurse manager.
Transformational leadership promotes change.
The key to transformational leadership is to actively listen and institute
pertinent suggestions that not only promote client outcomes, but also
help to build a base of leadership with the new nurse.
Expected Outcomes of Transformational Leadership
Changing the mental models of employees
Linking desired outcomes to values held by employees
Creating employee ownership in outcomes so that positive outcomes
validate the self concept of employees.
Building strong employee identification with the group or organization.
Transactional Leadership Theory
Transactional leaders view the leader-follower relationship as a process of
exchange. The transactional leader uses his/her position in order to encourage
desired behaviors and tends to gain compliance by offering rewards for
performance and compliance or threatening punishment for non performance
and non compliance.
The transactional leader does not focus on the individual needs of the
follower, nor does the transactional leader focus on the personal development
of the follower. Transactional leaders are usually influential because it is in the
best interest of the follower to do what the leader asks.
There are times when transactional leadership is appropriate and
appreciated by staff members. For example; stating that a successful JCAHO
audit equals a big “pizza party” is usually favorable to staff members.
Basic Differences in Transformational and Transactional Styles
The transformational leader:
Raises staff member’s level of awareness and level
of consciousness about the significance and value of
Gets staff members to transcend their own self-
interest for the sake of the team, department and
Alters the need level (after Maslow) and expands
the range of wants and needs of staff member’s.
The transactional leader:
Recognizes what it is that staff members want to
get from work and tries to ensure that they get it
(if their performance merits it).
Exchanges rewards and promises for staff
Is responsive to staff member’s immediate self
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