Improve workplace performance with effective leadership
06 December 2018 by Paul McElvaney

Styles of Leadership feature a lot in management textbooks.  It can make for a fun exercise or teaser to discover what kind of leader you are.  But is it just a question of styles over substance? How can leadership truly improve performance and engagement in the workplace?

A style guide

With many stages in between, Styles of Leadership run the gamut from the ‘autocratic’, where the leader takes the decisions alone, to the ‘laissez-faire’, where decision-making is devolved to the collective and leadership parcelled out.  As a theoretical concept, Leadership Styles can be brutally either/or. They also tend to be descriptive, rather than a guide to action.

The real challenge for potential leaders is not so much how to identify themselves on a Leadership style chart, but to practice effective leadership – Leadership that is measured by the performance and engagement of the people they’re asked to lead.

What kind of Leader am I?

The problem of identifying with a style of Leadership is that it suggests that leaders come ready-made, ready-programmed.  That points to an in-built inflexibility: you’re either this or that. But Leadership Styles can be mixed and matched. Some are more effective than others – both in general and also in specific circumstances.  

More than that, styles and approaches to Leadership can be learned.  Leadership training can identify strategies and approaches that work and are more effective in some contexts than in others.  

So, the question really is not what kind of leader am I, but what kind of leader can I become, and more critically, what kind of leader do I need to be right here, right now.

The challenge for Leaders

Leadership is a role, not a badge.  As a role it needs to be defined and have a clear purpose.  You’re only really leading if you are bringing people together and engaging them.  

The modern leader faces some key challenges.  Firstly, in this more democratic and individualistic environment, employees will not follow blindly.  They are concerned to play their part and have it formally recognised. If not, they’ll move on. One of the most important indicators of effective leadership is how you retain and develop talent.

The second main challenge concerns the modern working environment and particularly the effect of technology upon it.  ICT has revolutionised the way people access information.  In the workplace, this is helping create a better-informed workforce, but also one that expects that information and opinions are shared.  In this world, collaboration and inclusion are the watch words, and Leadership Styles that ignore them are likely to prove ineffective. If you’re to make the most of talent, and not squander it, you need to recognise and accept these challenges.

The influence of technology

The influence of Information Technology on the modern workplace, particularly with the arrival of AI, has been much debated.  At the very least it seems clear that the way we use technology in a social or leisure setting is transferring over into a working environment.  Employees expect that they have access to their devices at work and that encourages them to bring the practices of social media and mobile technology into the workplace.  It makes sense to them to use the sources of information and ease of access offered outside into the workplace.

This trend has consequences for leaders.  If you have an independently-informed and technologically-aware employee, the autocratic style of leadership is not going to work.  You need to adopt a more democratic approach in keeping with the increased access to resources, views and opinions that characterise the modern employee.  It’s conceivable that members of the team are better informed than the person leading it. Failure to recognise this is not only inefficient, it can affect performance and motivation and result, in the worst case, in the loss of valuable team members.  

Leadership styles that promote collaboration and teamwork are more likely to be effective in these changed circumstances.  The decision-making process, while not becoming completely laissez-faire, has been democratised. If technology empowers your employees, you need to recognise this by allowing them greater responsibility to be involved in driving performance.  Leadership here becomes a support mechanism. But leaders also need support in acquiring the skills to fulfil that function.

Context matters

Recognising the increased role of personal, or personalised, use of ICT in the workplace (i.e. use not mandated or controlled by the organisation) is an example of the critical role context plays in making an effective leader.  It’s enabled a more informal way of developing skills and aptitude. And it’s something leaders need to acknowledge and make use of.

Talking about Leadership Styles in an abstract, purely descriptive way doesn’t prepare a leader for the specifics of being a leader faced with a set of circumstances within a particular organisation.  To be an effective leader you need to be flexible and adapt to the context. Remember it’s about effective and performance within the workplace.  Leadership requires substance.

Training for Leadership

It’s important too to recognise that Leadership can be learned and that Leaders can be trained.  If you consider the range and breadth of what leaders are required to do, you begin to realise the support they require.  

Let’s consider some of the titles of training courses offered in Leadership Skills.  There are modules on ‘Managing and Developing Teams’, ‘Managing Stress and Conflict’, ‘Driving Change and Innovation, ‘Managing for Efficiency and Effectiveness’ and so on.   And that’s not to mention core skills such Communications Skills, Giving Presentations, Managing Budgets, and HR Issues.

These are skills that are needed to make informed decisions.  E-Learning modules provide a fail-safe environment to practise leadership styles and strategies and measure their effectiveness.

Modern e-Learning uses story-led, scenario-based training and simulations to demonstrate how you can apply what you’ve learned in the real world. Activities simulate and mimic the working environment enabling learners to hone their techniques.  It’s learning by doing, with the facility to learn from mistakes without the pressure and consequences that you find in the real workplace.

Multimedia features make learning more memorable and deliver more impact. Gamification increases engagement setting learners goals and challenges and offering them rewards for performance.

E-Learning modules can also be customised, not just superficially with logos and branding, but materially in terms of content that reflects your organisation’s way of working and its processes and procedures.

In short, we need the kind of training prioritises the practice of Leadership over the theory.

Resources for Leaders

But training, even if it’s e-Learning, can be disconnected from the working environment.  Most Leadership training happens informally, on the job, not in the classroom or the LMS. To make leaders more effective you need to embed Leadership Training in the workflow, so that leaders can access it at the point of need when they need to take decisions.  It’s about providing resources, not courses.

Making leadership resources digital means they can be accessed across a range of devices and platforms.  Add the feature of mobile connectivity and you can have leaders accessing information where and when they need it.

Leadership training is additional to work and leaders in training are often key members of an organisation and so especially time-limited.  Bite-sized learning allows them to make efficient use of their time to learn and update their knowledge just in time, without needing to attend a formal training session or follow online modules.  Instead of taking people away from their work you’ve a training programme that has them learning while they work. The result is better performance and greater efficiency.

The substance of Leadership

There can be substance behind Leadership Styles.  The key is to pick the correct one for the right situation and adapt when necessary.  Leadership styles can be learned, but not by trying to emulate an eminent leader, but rather through training and experience.  

Leadership needn’t be an isolating or lonely pursuit.  Instead it can be a collaborative and transformational endeavour shared with your fellow workers.  Effective Leadership means engaging with them and getting the best out of them. The approach or style you adopt is determined by its effectiveness – the best way of doing it.

No one leadership style may be appropriate for all purposes.  Training allows you to immerse yourself in a role and explore the best ways of handling a variety of situations.  You needn’t be typecast by one style. Instead you can find an approach that matches the working environment we increasingly inhabit: democratic, well-informed, flexible, mobile, and driven by efficiency and performance.  

Paul McElvaney
Chief Executive Officer
Paul is Learning Pool’s founder and CEO. Since 2006, he has grown the business from a modest team of 5, to the success story it is today, with 7 sites and almost 200 employees. Paul’s ambitions centre on providing world-class customer care to our 750+ global clients, driving continuous innovation through Learning Pool’s product set and nurturing the talent within his team.
Paul was awarded ‘Director of the Year’, from the Institute of Directors in 2016.
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