How to be a leader in the new world of business

A business leader receives a mobile phone call

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

To be successful in a leadership role, it’s crucial to have relevant skills and training. This is where upskilling with RMIT Online’s Graduate Certificate in Leadership can help you advance. This future-focused qualification is designed to equip you with the necessary skills to thrive in today's dynamic landscape driven by technology and entrepreneurship. 

The online graduate certificate is delivered with one course every seven weeks, so you can master one subject at a time. In as little as eight months, you will have a validated and formal qualification substantiating your expertise and proficiency in the realm of leadership. RMIT Online’s Graduate Certificate of Leadership will serve as a tangible testament to your skills and knowledge, presenting you as an accomplished leader.

So, what will you learn in this leadership program? You’ll study a total of four courses:

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

These four courses are designed to cultivate effective leadership qualities by focusing on self-leadership, leading others, and leading in the era of digital disruption and digital entrepreneurship.

As a graduate, you will have the ability to pursue career paths as managers, supervisors, executives or directors in any business-related field.

After successfully completing the Graduate Certificate in Leadership, you will also have the opportunity to continue your studies by following a pathway to RMIT Online’s Master of Business Administration or credit into the Master of Human Resource Management. By completing an additional 8-12 courses, you can earn both the graduate certificate and master's qualifications, expanding your knowledge and skills in the field.

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 5.0 with RMIT Online’s Graduate Certificate in Leadership program. Learn more today.