How to be a leader in the new world of business

Learning how to be a leader is a skill like any other — it takes practice, experience and continual growth.

Today, we regard influential leaders as collaborative, competent and thoughtful. And leadership skills that were previously considered effective have drastically evolved in today’s modern landscape. With many different leadership approaches to observe and adopt, the path towards becoming a great leader is ever-changing.

This article explores the evolution of what it means to be a leader and the importance of ongoing education and growth for those in leadership positions.

The evolution of leadership skills

As the business world has evolved, so has our idea of what an effective leader needs to be. Authoritarian leadership styles of the past are slowly transforming into more inclusive and collaborative ones, and learning how to be a leader now means being able to swiftly embrace change.

Kevin Argus, a senior lecturer in Design Thinking and Marketing at RMIT, spoke with us about leadership styles from the past and how they’ve re-emerged in more modern times.

“In the past, autocratic leadership was often seen as an effective way to maintain control, achieve results and ensure compliance,” he explains. “But really, the people being controlled usually had more skills or capabilities around aspects of their roles than the person in the leadership position.

“Today, we know how to get the most out of our staff. We need leadership skills to develop internal networks, collaborate, empower and build trust with colleagues.”

Effective leadership is vital for organisational success, employee engagement, innovation and creativity, as well as decision-making. But sound leadership — and the adopted styles of managers — looks different within every organisation.

Leadership styles and their effectiveness

One of the key learnings of how to be an effective leader is understanding the different leadership styles and, importantly, when they’re most effective. Consider the pros and cons of these leadership approaches and when they might be helpful.

Autocratic leadership

This command-and-control approach comes from the top down. Leaders make the calls while staff follow orders without question. 

Although effective in emergencies or when businesses need to make fast-paced decisions, this form of governance is no longer a popular approach. Moreover, when led by this style, staff can feel fear or resentment towards their superiors.

Coercive leadership

These leaders use force or fear to achieve results, make decisions and exercise control over their staff. 

While it might work in crises or hierarchical organisations that require speedy acts of decision-making, it can create negative work environments and stifle creativity and innovation.

Affiliative leadership

An affiliative leader builds positive relationships, creates a harmonious work environment and promotes reliable teamwork. 

Although this leadership style promotes positive work cultures in which staff can maintain high levels of emotional wellbeing, it doesn’t always work when strong direction is needed or managers are required to make tough decisions.

Democratic leadership

As with democracy, this gentle leadership style allows the wider team to make decisions, collaborate and provide input. 

Staff feel a sense of ownership and accountability, but the democratic approach can be time-consuming and cause decision paralysis if the group is unable to reach a consensus.

Transformational leadership

This leadership style inspires and motivates team members to achieve their full potential and create a shared vision. 

While effective in fostering creativity and innovation, transformational leadership is more demanding on the individual at the helm and requires high emotional intelligence.

Situational leadership

These leaders consider each situation’s context and adapt their styles accordingly. While effective in creating positive and productive work environments, situational leaders require flexibility and the time and space to implement their strategies consistently.

Learning how to be a leader at work is less about choosing a particular style and more about considering the factors at play. For example, your organisational culture, the needs of your team and your strengths and weaknesses as a leader must all come into play when determining a leadership style that will work best.

How to be a leader today

The business world is changing, and along with it is the concept of how to be a leader at work. While there are many leadership styles to adopt, the most important consideration is possessing the attitudes and skill sets that matter.

So, what does it take to be a leader? An Australian survey from McCrindle Research found that 38 per cent of respondents said leadership and management were the most crucial determiners of whether a business thrived or failed. Likewise, the leadership values that respondents valued most were:

  • Competency. A competent leader has the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to perform their role. They’re also more able to adapt to new challenges and opportunities, provide direction and inspire trust in their team.
  • Ambition. Ambition drives someone towards achieving outcomes and objectives, which is critical when leading a team. In addition, an ambitious leader inspires and motivates others to strive for excellence and sets a high standard for those around them.
  • Broad-mindedness. An open-minded manager can understand different perspectives and viewpoints, which aids them in making informed and inclusive decisions. These leaders are open to new ideas and willing to listen to feedback. “An important part of the role of leader is guiding and mentoring people flexibly,” says Argus. “This means being clear about suggested ways of working, not necessarily mandated ones.”
  • Compassion. A caring leader helps build a supportive team culture, resulting in increased engagement and a feeling of safety and trust. Leading and guiding staff is also easier when team members feel respected, supported and valued. “An effective leader has much greater empathy towards the people they’re leading and how they can empower them as individuals,” says Argus.
  • Cooperation. Working collaboratively with a team, rather than dictating, is essential for all modern leaders. Being cooperative means valuing the input of others, finding mutually beneficial solutions to problems and fostering open communication between members of a group.

On par with these attributes is an understanding of the importance of continued learning and growth. Undertaking studies and leadership training is one way leaders can ensure their skills and knowledge bases remain relevant in the rapidly changing world of business.

Relevant education for today’s leaders

Looking to make the leap from management to leadership? RMIT Online’s Master of Business Administration (Online) (MBA) will give you the tools and perspectives to thrive in various leadership roles, now and in the future of work. 

“Our MBA program provides that diversity of capability for people moving into management roles and ultimately growing into leaders,” says Argus.

The online degree is delivered with one course every seven weeks, so students can master one subject at a time. You’ll study a combination of core courses and electives in areas to meet particular interests, professional goals and industry demands.

So, what does an MBA teach you about leadership? Those with an interest in improving their skills might choose the Leadership pathway, with courses including:

  • People and Organisations
  • Personal Brand and Authentic Leadership
  • Leading in the Age of Digital Disruption
  • Digital Entrepreneurship

The program focuses on becoming an effective leader, looking at the three leadership triads of focusing on self, others and the wider world.

“By using self-evaluative tools, people can look inwards at their own ways of working to assess their own particular leadership styles,” says Argus. “This helps to reflect on that, relative to the styles they’re learning about.”

Ultimately, RMIT Online’s MBA helps unleash your professional potential, allowing you to unlock a vast array of opportunities. Upon completion of the program, graduates are able to explore the pathways to becoming finance managers, management and organisational analysts, general managers and human resources managers.

Progress your leadership career

Today’s leaders must be adaptable and constantly evolving, regardless of their adopted leadership styles. Ensure your leadership skills remain relevant in the changing world of Industry 4.0 with RMIT Online’s MBA program. Learn more today.