Let’s face it: leading a team is tough. Despite how many seminars or training sessions you have attended, leadership is an intimidating responsibility. You are meant to direct your team towards greatness in areas of production, communication, and everyday satisfaction and comfort in the workplace. When things get tough, your followers will look to you to guide them towards a solution, no matter how large the problem. Feeling intimidated yet? Yes? Good. We’d be surprised if you weren’t already a little hesitant towards taking on such responsibility. Some first-day jitters are a healthy reaction; it’s an acknowledgement that you understand the gravity of having people answer to you.
No matter if your team is five people or 500, the foundational skills of leadership does not change. What has changed, however, is the format in which our teams meet. You might currently be functioning in an entirely online office, sans in-person interactions. While this environment may present an entirely new host of difficulties, it also allows for a reconsideration of how leadership can be best carried out. We will be breaking down the three most effective leadership styles and frameworks that are conducive to an online office.
This article will be informed by theories of leadership from Peter Northouse’s book, “Leadership: Theory and Practice.” According to Sage Publications’s website, Northouse is a professor emeritus of communication in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University.
“The situational approach stresses that leadership is composed of both a directive and supportive dimension, and that each has to be applied appropriately in a given situation. To be an effective leader requires that a person adapts his or her style to the demands of different situations” (Northouse p. 93).
As the name may very well suggest, the situational approach to leadership demands that the actions of a leader be dictated in large part by consideration of the situation in which they are serving. Depending upon the situation, a leader may select one of four distinct methods depending on the commitment, behaviors, and experience of their followers in regards to the work that must be done: delegating, supporting, coaching, or directing.
Delegation is to be used when the followers are highly knowledgeable and self-sustaining. In this case, the best way for a leader to assist is to assign tasks to peers. This would suggest a relatively hands-off approach on the part of the leader.
Similarly, if more involvement on the part of the leader would help the workplace, the supporting method would be most beneficial. This method allows employees to still have a high degree of autonomy while also keeping the leader more actively involved.
The coaching method is quite self-explanatory: the leader serves the group as a coach. In this case, the leader will assist followers in getting them onto the right track, and from there, standby to help when they encounter roadblocks.
Finally, the directing method is most similar to the role of a professor. A leader following this method should take on a teaching role, detailing every step of the applicable process, and then see the results from their followers. Based on these results, the leader might choose to evolve how they teach.
For example, in the context of a virtual office, new software, programs, or processes might be introduced with very short notice. Should this be the case in your workplace, as a leader, it is your responsibility to acquaint yourself with such a program so that you can help guide your employees. However, the extent to which you directly teach your employees about the program can vary depending on their experience and applicable knowledge. It is key that you evaluate this beforehand so that you can generate a plan regarding how to introduce these changes in an effective way.
“Servant leadership emphasizes that leaders be attentive to the concerns of their followers, empathize with them, and nurture them. Servant leaders put followers first, empower them, and help them develop their full personal capacities” (Northouse p. 225).
Seems a bit backwards, doesn’t it? You are a leader, yet you are a servant? Despite the seemingly contradictory meaning of these terms, servant leaders generate some of the healthiest and most comfortable workplace environments.
As we consider the virtual workplace, the first and most important trait that you will need to show as a leader is empathy. Some days either the technology is going to be struggling, or your employees might be. Therefore, a leader who places emphasis on their duty to assist their followers with their knowledge, time, or guidance creates a space in which employees can feel secure despite the complications that can arise from working online. If you intend to be a servant leader, you will first need to make it clear that you welcome the input and questions of your employees. You cannot serve them if they do not make you aware of how you can help. Secondly, you must be prepared, mentally and schedule-wise, to accommodate their needs. Although you might not be able to offer an answer the second you see a message or Zoom call request flash across the screen, remember that that question is a priority and needs to be addressed as you would your own work.
“Adaptive leadership focuses on the adaptations required of people in response to changing environments. Simply stated, adaptive leaders prepare and encourage people to deal with change” (Northouse p. 257).
Would you like to take a wild guess at what the adaptive leadership approach emphasizes in a great leader? If you said, “adaptability,” give yourself a pat on the back. If there is one thing that the global society has had to do over the past two years, it is adapt. In large part, the duty of an adaptive leader manifests in their delicacy when combatting difficult change. If a leader approaches significant change, such as an online office setup, with grace and calm, their employees will follow suit. You must work to make change seem less scary to your employees despite the severity of the change. This is not to say that you should downplay the potential difficulties that you and your employees might be facing, but you need to make it clear that you are confident and assured in your team’s abilities to take them on.
If elements of a certain approach speak to you while others do not, create your own method! This is in no way a comprehensive list of all ways that a leader can do their job well in the virtual workplace, but a few ways for you to evaluate your own leadership. At the end of the day, no one knows your team the way you do, and no one knows what they need to succeed as well as you do. Trust your judgment, be open to personal growth, and always remember the responsibilities you have been entrusted with.