The “people side” of leadership: How to become an effective leader

C. Allen Gorman, Ph.D., with the UAB Collat School of Business dives into how effective leadership has changed.

Allen Gorman 1 scrC. Allen Gorman, Ph.D.
Photography: Andrea Mabry
In a transformative era of rapid technological advancements and shifting employee expectations, the landscape of workplace leadership has undergone a profound change.

C. Allen Gorman, Ph.D., associate professor of management and the chair of the Department of Management, Information Systems and Quantitative Methods in the Collat School of Business at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, emphasizes that effective leaders today must possess not only people management skills but also the ability to motivate, communicate and incentivize their teams.

Gorman says analyzing the behaviors of effective leaders, and identifying what behaviors belong to ineffective leaders, is key.

“I think it helps to boil everything down to two sets of basic behaviors — initiating structure (task management and processes) and consideration of other people,” Gorman said. “Research indicates that you need to be able to do both of these things; but truly, consideration is essential to being a truly effective leader.”

Gorman says traits like emotional intelligence elevate leaders to greater heights. He emphasizes the significance of focusing on behaviors rather than specific characteristics when teaching leadership, urging students to identify the behaviors that yield effectiveness and to strive for continuous improvement.

“When I teach my classes on leadership, I focus a lot not on what are the characteristics of leaders, but the behaviors,” Gorman said. “What are the behaviors that are effective?”

“You have to be good at the task side, but even better at the people side.” – C. Allen Gorman, Ph.D.

He adds that many students think, if they are introverts by nature, that means they will not be effective leaders.

“That’s simply not the case,” Gorman said. “What are the behaviors you should do more of and what should you learn and try to improve on? You must be good at the task side, but even better at the people side.”

He notes that leaders must recognize when to provide autonomy and when to offer more guidance and support.

“There are people, for instance, who don’t need to be managed; they need to be left alone,” Gorman said. “But there are also some people who need a little bit more hand-holding. They need a little bit more consideration from me as the leader, and they need a little bit more help on the planning and the processes and the task side of things.”

Leadership InsideGorman says effective leaders possess task management skills and the ability to have consideration for people.Gorman says effective leaders have to know where your people are coming from and meet them where they are.

A generational effect

During the last five years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Gorman says leadership has shifted more to focus on wellness.

“We didn’t talk about it, and now all of a sudden it’s at the forefront of everything,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. If you look even at the ’50s to ’90s and early 2000s, we didn’t talk about emotions. There was no curriculum in a business school that even recognized emotions. Now, I talk about it a lot in my leadership classes.”

“The optimist in me would say that anyone could be an effective leader,” he said. “You have to have the ability to fail and look silly and be told you’re not a good leader and then rise above that. Not everyone can do that.”

While some individuals possess natural charisma and a relational approach that captivates others, Gorman says sustained effective leadership demands continuous effort and dedication.

“It tends to be easier for them,” he said. “But to do it well and for an extended period of time, it’s a lot of work. But, I think everyone has the capability to be an effective leader.”

Leadership fails

Gorman says around 40 percent of new executives fail within the first 18 months. He says some of the instances where leaders fail is not adapting to change or addressing weaknesses.

“Many of us think we don’t have any weaknesses,” he said. “Everybody, every leader, every human has weaknesses.”

He says many people treat leadership as a discipline similar to accounting or finance. He says it is not something you can read a book, take a test and know.

“If you don’t appreciate the position and the responsibility that comes with it, it’s easy to fall in the trap of just doing what everybody else is doing,” he said.

Gorman hopes his students grasp the concept that leadership is an ongoing developmental process. He emphasizes the importance of continuous preparation and personal growth, enabling aspiring leaders to enter positions of leadership fully equipped to meet the challenges they may encounter.

“You need to continuously prepare and put yourself in a good position so that, when you get into that position, you’re prepared and you’re ready because you’ve been developing yourself.”