Leadership Styles in Health Care: Executive Leader Development

A smiling health care executive standing in an office.

It’s an all-too-common story in health care: after years of treating patients, a doctor or nurse is promoted into a leadership position, where they find, to their surprise, they need an entirely new set of skills. Besides their existing clinical abilities, they have to learn how to lead.

In health care institutions, leadership skills can be as important as clinical ones. Research has demonstrated a strong connection between effective leadership and the efficiency, quality and safety of medical teams.

An article in the International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, for example, found that different styles of leadership in nursing can improve leadership outcomes and quality-of-care measures, such as job satisfaction and nursing quality. A research review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also found that 88% of studies showed significant correlation between leadership style and job satisfaction among nursing professionals.

By gaining a deeper understanding of the wide variety of leadership styles in health care, professionals in this industry can develop new leadership abilities and sharpen their existing skills.

The Value of Knowing Multiple Leadership Styles

Not every leader is cut from the same cloth, and not every situation in a health care facility requires the same style of leadership. One circumstance might need a leader who gives orders and demands compliance, while another might benefit from democratic, shared decision-making.

Building on that insight, several experts in management and psychology have categorized basic leadership styles and tried to evaluate which work best in which situations. The more styles a leader has in their repertoire, researchers have found, the more flexible and successful they can be in addressing their organization’s particular needs.

Goleman’s Six Leadership Styles

In a seminal 2000 Harvard Business Review article, psychologist Daniel Goleman outlined one of the most widely used classifications describing six leadership styles: affiliative, authoritative, coaching, coercive, democratic and pacesetting. Each has particular strengths and weaknesses, depending on the challenges of the workplace and the needs of the people being led.


  • What it’s like: An affiliative leader focuses on relationships, creating emotional bonds among workers and harmony in the workplace. Such a leader is strong in empathy and adept at dealing with people’s feelings.
  • When it’s useful: This style can be used to heal a health care team that’s been split by conflict and distrust, and to motivate staffers in high-stress conditions such as an emergency department.
  •  Catchphrase: “People come first.”


  • What it’s like: Also called “transformational,” this leadership style lays out a vision and attracts others to it. Authoritative leaders set a common goal and empower workers to come up with their own ways of reaching it.
  • When it’s useful: This may be applied in circumstances that require a radical break from past practices, such as turning around an underperforming hospital department.
  • Catchphrase: “Come with me.”


  • What it’s like: Coaching aims to develop the individuals within a team. It offers employees encouragement and invites them to align their personal goals with the goals of the organization.
  • When it’s useful: When individual health care staffers need guidance, this style can help improve performance and aid employees to live up to their capabilities.
  • Catchphrase: “Try this.”


  • What it’s like: This is a top-down style that works by giving orders and expecting employees to follow them, with negative consequences for those who don’t.
  • When it’s useful: Short-term crises are typically right for this style, such as providing care during a natural disaster, when immediate action is needed and there’s no room for debate. Practiced long-term, however, coercive leadership can damage morale.
  • Catchphrase: “Do what I tell you.”


  • What it’s like: Democratic leadership stresses collaboration, treating team members as equals who can each contribute to solving problems. A leader asks questions and listens more than giving directions.
  • When it’s useful: This style plays well when a team of health care professionals needs consensus to move ahead and when a leader needs candid sharing of ideas.
  • Catchphrase: “What do you think?”


  • What it’s like: A pacesetting leader models high standards of performance, inspiring others to work up to the same level. They encourage individual initiative and drive to achieve.
  • When it’s useful: Leaders can use this style when rapid improvements are needed in a department and health care staffers have the necessary skill levels to meet high expectations.
  • Catchphrase: “Do as I do, now.”

Traits of Effective Leaders in Health Care

Besides being acquainted with a variety of leadership styles in health care, it can also help to develop certain attributes and skills which are particularly useful for the field’s challenges. A good leader may already exhibit some of these traits but need to cultivate others. Each trait can be valuable for several different styles of leadership.

Critical Thinking

A key part of health care decision-making is using reason to objectively evaluate ideas and information, both one’s own and those of others. Effective leaders should be able to explain why they reached a decision and the evidence supporting it.

Emotional Intelligence

Goleman also pioneered this concept. It involves the ability to manage one’s own emotions and respond appropriately to others’. In an emotionally charged setting such as health care, it requires high levels of awareness, both of oneself and of social situations and how to handle them.

Integrity and Professionalism

Health care leaders’ actions reflect on their organizations and affect staff motivation. Integrity in words and deeds builds trust and respect in a leader. Professionalism demonstrates that a leader upholds high standards, and it can inspire others to do the same.

Interpersonal Skills

These skills help medical teams function more smoothly. They include clear and appropriate communication, both in speaking and writing. They also encompass respectful behavior with other staff and the ability to work with a group.

Technical Proficiency

In a complex field such as health care, a leader needs to understand crucial technical elements, whether they involve treatment protocols, operating equipment or information technology. Knowing those elements helps both to communicate with staffers and win their confidence.

Learn More about Leadership Styles in Health Care

To be a health care leader, it’s not enough to be an excellent doctor or nurse. Leadership can be a specialty all its own. It combines people, management and business skills as well as medical ones.

Professionals who already have health care experience and want to develop their leadership skills without leaving their current jobs can explore an online graduate program such as Executive MHA.

With courses including Leading People and Health Care Organizations, Strategic Management and Operational Efficiency Processes in Health Care Organizations, the USC Executive MHA is designed to create the visionary health care leaders of the future. Join us in excellence today.


Recommended Readings

What Is an Executive Master of Health Administration Degree?

Female Leadership in Healthcare: Growth, and a Ways to Go

Health Care Administration: Lasting Impacts from COVID-19



Becker’s Hospital Review, “5 Nursing Styles to Know”

Children’s Hospital Association, “6 Leadership Styles and When to Use Them”

Harvard Business Review, “Leadership that Gets Results”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Leadership Styles and Nurses' Job Satisfaction: Results of a Systematic Review”

International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, “Leadership Styles’ Influence on the Quality of Nursing Care”

International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, “Leadership Styles for Healthcare”