Leadership during Change

All of us have either been a leader or followed a leader. We will have experienced good leaders and bad leaders. Whether a leader is effective or not usually becomes most clear during times when they are leading change. Indeed, leading change is reflected in one of the most frequently cited definitions of leadership:

“Leadership is seen in terms of unifying people around values and then constructing the social world for others around those values and helping people to get through change” (Stanley. 2009; p. 22).

Key factors shown to facilitate successful change include:

  • being prepared for resistance to change

  • harnessing teamwork

  • adopting the most appropriate leadership style

The most appropriate leadership style can depend on which theory supports your approach (Box 1).

Box 1: Theories of Leadership (Bolden, 2003)

  • Great man theories – leaders are born and not made; they will arise when needed

  • Trait theories – leaders are born with inherited personality and behavioural traits suitable for leadership

  • Situational-contingency theories – different situations require different leadership styles

  • Transactional theories – people are motivated by reward and punishment; leaders will be obeyed by reward seekers (e.g. pay rise, promotion)

  • Transformational theories – focuses on achieving change through teamwork

Transactional theories are reflective of many businesses – e.g. focus on the achievement of targets and performance management.

Transformational theories emphasise the importance of workplace relationships in achieving long-term goals.

In trait theories, a number of traits have been identified as important for successful leadership:

  • Assertiveness

  • Adaptability

  • Confidence

  • Intelligence

  • Social skills 

Situational-contingency theories are more concerned with the context in which leadership takes place.

There is also the idea of a ‘leadership continuum’ (Tannenbaum and Schmidt, 1958), where leadership ranges from:

  • Autocratic (telling) or Persuasive (selling) to

  • Consultative (consulting) or Democratic (joining)

It is important for leaders to remain mindful that whilst change can bring new opportunities, it can also be perceived as threatening.

Initially, change can be seen in terms of loss, which can result in feelings of anger, disbelief, and confusion.

Later, when the information has been fully processed, an individual can start to view change in terms of opportunities and benefits.

Good leadership during times of uncertainty can facilitate the change process.  In contrast, poor leadership is likely to promote resistance to change.

One way to prepare staff for change is to include them in decision-making.  By providing a sense of ownership and commitment to change, any challenges are likely to be dealt with more receptively.



  1. Bolden, R.G., 2003. A Review of Leadership Theory and Competency Frameworks. Dunsford Hill: University of Exeter
  2.  Stanley, D., 2006. In command of care: Clinical healthcare professional leadership explored. Journal of Research in Health Services, 11 (1), pp. 20-39.
  3. Tannenbaum, R. and Schmidt, K.H., 1958. How to choose a leadership style. Harvard Business Review, March-April.


Categories: Nursing

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