20 July 2016

Which leadership style best suits you?

By Dr Voon Mung Ling

Managers of a modern-day workforce have a tough but strategically important job. Workplaces are diverse, ever-changing landscapes, filled with individuals who respond in different ways to managerial requests and human resources programs. Managing and motivating staff so that they achieve organisational objectives is a major challenge for managers and leaders. Today, people remain active in the workforce longer than ever before so that an office may now include up to four generations – traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X and millennials – and multiple races and nationalities, all under one roof. Each is different, in terms of background, culture and experience.

Effective communication between a leader and staff is crucial to maintaining a cohesive intergenerational workforce. Leadership is often defined as a process of influencing, through motivation and communication, a group of people to achieve a common goal in an organisation. Successful leaders realise they need to employ different leadership styles to manage their organisations, and diverse workforce, effectively.

To understand the effectiveness of leadership styles, researchers have defined three leadership categories—transformational, transactional and laissez-faire. Transformational leaders motivate and inspire staff to accomplish more than what is usually expected of them. They focus on the needs and motivations of their followers, helping them to reach their full potential. Whereas, transactional leaders influence process and provide rewards to manage the performance of their subordinates. This approach focuses on the exchanges that occur between leaders and their followers. Apart from transformational and transactional leadership, another type of leadership is laissez-faire. Also known as “hands-off” leadership, laissez-faire leaders do not intervene in the affairs of their followers; they provide little guidance and try not to be involved in group and individual decisions. In most organisations, which have a diverse, multi-generational workforce, leaders need to adopt multiple leadership styles.

A recent study of leadership style in Malaysian public higher education institutions supports this view. All three leadership styles were required to evoke academician commitment-to-change and generate successful outcomes for the universities. The key requirement of university leaders, who want organisational improvement and academicians’ commitment-to-change, was to understand the behaviours of their followers and to apply the appropriate leadership style to generate the desired behavioural, psychological, and physiological changes. The findings of the study revealed that all three types of leadership styles – transformational, transactional and laissez-faire – influence the commitment-to-change of academicians; however, transformational leadership is more effective in institutions of higher education. Policy makers and university leaders, such as the head of a school or dean of a faculty, may adopt any leadership style. But it is the values and behaviours of transformational leaders that positively affect the level of academicians’ commitment-to-change, especially for early-career academicians who have just begun their career and need strong guidance from their leaders. They benefit most from a leadership style that focuses on mentoring, provides constructive feedback, and addresses employee needs and concerns.

But which leadership style best suits you? It depends. Different approaches are required when leading a diverse workforce in any organisation. Employees at different phases of their careers and cultural backgrounds have different expectations of their leaders. A successful leader must not only understand the behaviour of his/her subordinates, but also skilled in applying the appropriate leadership style in various work settings.

Another common question is, “Are leaders born or made”? This topic has been hotly debated for decades. Behavioural theories of leadership suggest that great leaders are made, not born. People can learn to become effective leaders through teaching and observation. Therefore, universities have an important role to play in educating future leaders. Courses are designed to equip students with leadership skills that enhance academic learning. For example, students are trained to lead teams in completing their assigned projects in a professional manner and have the opportunity to exhibit their leadership skills through participating in extracurricular activities.

Dr Voon Mung Ling is a lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at mvoon@swinburne.edu.my