Leader identity construction and role modelling in nursing
: study of three cases

  • Rachel Heathershaw

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This study critically examined role modelling and leadership in nursing in the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom. Contemporary policy drivers call for inclusive, compassionate, collective and shared approaches to leadership in order to meet ongoing health service demands and reforms. Part of this could be achieved by harnessing and capitalising on the role modelling aspect of leadership, allowing all potential leaders to develop.

A constructivist case study methodology was used to explore this contemporary phenomenon in a naturalistic paradigm where there are multiple realities, shaped by individuals who in turn are influenced by their surroundings. This worldview corresponds to the intricacies in the concept of leadership. This translates epistemologically into undertaking research in the natural setting, directly exploring complexity, seeking understanding. A case study approach enabled role models and leaders to be identified, alongside individual perceptions, opinions, experiences and ideas associated with role modelling and leadership amid everyday practice. Data was collected across three acute nursing ward teams in a district general hospital through nonparticipant observation and semi structured interviews. Both inductive and deductive approaches were used in data analysis within and across the cases using a socially constructed lens. Rigour was assured through robust reflexive strategies and triangulation of methods, data sources and theory.

The two main findings which offer an original contribution to knowledge focus on leader location and co-construction of leader and role model identity. The fourfold leadership typology of Grint (2010), ‘position, person, process’ and results was utilised as a heuristic frame. The care context influenced how the Ward Managers enacted their roles and impacted on leader location: ‘I am in front of you’, ‘I am beside you’ and ‘I am behind you’. Leader location formed the backdrop for the modelled content whether originating from the Ward Manager or other staff. It encompassed the clinical climate within which leading and following occurred. Nurses were conversely viewed as role models regardless, and as a result, of their formal positions.

There are a number of implications for nursing and healthcare arising from this novel study which could contribute to personal and team development. It offers a means to explore a space in the leadership rhetoric, it exposes role modelling as a leadership behaviour and contributes to enhanced understanding of the interface between role modelling and leadership and the exchange of follower and leader roles. Essentially acting as a role model can be seen as leading in the sense of leading by example. This is the first connection to leadership. The second connection is when being a role model is expected as part of being a leader. In this study overarching factors have emerged: the act and impact of learning from a role model is evident in the nursing team; being seen as a role model is within the gift of anyone at any positional level, essentially constituting being ‘followed’; and at some point in their developmental trajectory an individual begins to recognise themselves as a role model and this can happen when they become formal leaders.
Date of AwardJun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorCharlotte Ramage (Supervisor), Kay DeVries (Supervisor) & Kathy Martyn (Supervisor)

Cite this