What Harvard research tells us about what makes great leaders

And highlights the problems with our commonly held assumptions.

Great leaders quality that drives outcomes: empathy according to Harvard research

Great leaders are few and far in between.

A new study from Harvard University suggests that commonly held notions of what makes great leadership might be based on a skewed data set. Conclusions drawn from skewed data sets are often off base and don’t accurately depict the full story.

We often think of leaders as confident, assertive, decisive, and strong. Not coincidentally, these qualities are also commonly associated with masculinity.

It makes sense: After all, historically, leaders have been predominantly male.

But researchers at Harvard found that leaders who are most effective in bringing about positive change registered high levels of emotional empathy and self-consciousness — qualities often associated with femininity.

Even more interestingly, even within the study, most of the leaders surveyed were men.

In other words, male leaders who exhibited ‘feminine’ qualities were more successful.

These findings raise some interesting points. Perhaps our ideas of what makes someone ‘leadership material’ are actually shaped by the fact that leaders have for the most part been a homogenous population. That makes it difficult to assess whether or not other traits — like traditionally ‘feminine’ ones — make someone a better or worse leader.

Unfortunately, empathy can be a disadvantage when it comes to getting into positions of leadership. The high up the social/business ladder you go, the higher the concentration of psychopaths, as exemplified by Reddit’s r/antiwork horror stories

As women climb the ranks, they often feel pressure to mimic the standards that have been set before them. They may feel that they need to be bolder, more aggressive, and ‘show no weakness.’ After all, those are the qualities they see demonstrated by the people in the positions they aspire toward.

But this mentality could be setting them up for failure. They might be more successful in their position if they embrace the diversity they bring to the table as a strength.

A fellow at one of the most prestigious medical universities in the world feared telling her female boss — the first woman who had ever been in the program — that she was expecting. The boss, a mother herself, had mentioned several times that she was back to work in a matter of days after giving birth. Understandably, this was likely meant to demonstrate that she was not ‘weaker’ then her all-male peers after they had their children.

But it was a missed opportunity. Objectively, she is different then her all-male peers, especially when it comes to having children. The organization, unsurprisingly, had no maternity leave policy — they had never needed one. A truly bold leadership power move would have been to begin those discussions now that she was in a position to influence them.

That being said, it’s unlikely that she would have achieved her position without ‘playing the game.’ However, once she got there, she had the opportunity to pioneer change.

Had they set up a maternity leave policy, the organization might have stood to gain at large. Very few medical universities offer maternity leave. Had the university led the way, they would have likely attracted an even larger and more competitive talent pool as that benefit would be a selling point for that institution. Add paternity leave in the mix would only increase their appeal to potential candidates. 

Likewise for males — developing their ‘feminine’ qualities could actually better position them to lead successfully. And the Harvard study does seem to suggest just that.

Consider Barack Obama’s responses to the Sandy Hook tragedy. While the current standards of strong leadership would advise him to ‘be strong,’ his tears at the press conference showed the nation his empathetic side and made him come across more human.

In the weeks that followed, his approval rating, which had been in decline, shot up to highs that were only matched in the months that immediately followed his initial election.

Exhibiting the right qualities at the right time is what makes a leader great. Sometimes, that might mean going against the grain. It takes true leadership to have the courage to be different, but study after study has shown that diversity is businesses’ greatest strength.

To know for sure, we have to be willing to try.


  • Tanja Fijalkowski

    Tanja Fijalkowski is an award-winning writer, editor, and designer. A North Bay Area native, she has written for various financial, business, history, and science publications. She's a deep-dive researcher with a strong command of data analysis and simplifying complex concepts.

Leave a Reply