What makes a great leader?

It is certainly different from what it was in the past. Today, hierarchies are flattening, employees are looking for flexibility and meaning as much as a paycheck, and they want to be engaged, challenged, have opportunities for creativity, and have a voice. In this context, leaders who can pause, ask questions, listen and attempt to understand their employees’ perspectives (particularly those with whom they disagree), and try to empower employees, should be most effective. These are sometimes called servant leaders.

The question, then, is how do we develop such leaders?

One surprising answer may be through leaders’ emotions, but perhaps not in the way that you think. Indeed a traditional perspective on leadership and emotions supports what might be called a cult of positivity, emphasizing that positive emotions are the key to effective leadership. However, focusing on positivity is problematic insofar as the conflicting requirements of the leadership role force leaders to experience complex emotions even in situations where they wish to display a positive front.

It is my belief that leaders who are able to harness such complex emotions, and in particular, harness the experience and expression of ambivalent emotions—defined as multiple conflicting emotions at the same time —may have a real advantage.

The experience of emotions is thought to provide individuals with information about their environment. As such, feeling ambivalent emotions should provide leaders with rich and varied information about their environment, as well as signal that the environment is atypical. In response, ambivalent leaders may be more likely (than purely happy or angry leaders, for instance) to pause, ask questions, listen and attempt to understand others’ perspectives. Such open-mindedness should facilitate better strategic decision making.

Interpersonally, leaders can also harness benefits from expressing emotional ambivalence, signaling that the leader is thinking in a nuanced way and is open and receptive to a full range of perspectives. Such signals empower employees to speak up and be more engaged.

In conclusion, we tend to laud leaders who act swiftly and decisively (i.e., “I will do x”) and who are full of certitude (i.e., “I am confident that”), and denigrate those who deliberate (i.e., “Hmm … I wonder if?”) and seem more indecisive (i.e., “I am not sure, but”). The irony of my research is that the qualities we commonly disdain in leaders—like ambivalence— may be qualities that would help them be more successful.