One of the great perplexing secrets in life — at least among those who recruit executives for a living — is what makes a good leader.  Why do some people rise and others remain where they started?

Researchers often look for complex explanations when the answer is, in reality, not that complicated.

One compelling answer was discovered in a research study started in 1930 when chain-store magnate William T. Grant provided Harvard with $60,000  to explore an issue, which until that time, had never been subjected to scientific study:  What predicts success.

Dr. Arlen Bock, a Harvard professor and physician,  culled the sophomore classes of 1939 through 1944.  There were some promising subjects.  He selected 268 men.  Their names were anonymous, according to Barbara Bradley Hagerty who wrote aboutLifeReimaginedBook this remarkable study in her new book, Life Reimagined, but several names slipped out:  John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, who later in life became the Executive Editor of The Washington Post, were chosen to join the study while, interestingly, Leonard Bernstein and Norman Mailer were excluded.

It seems as though Mr. Grant and Dr. Bock had different aims for this study. Mr. Grant was interested in what type of person would be a successful chain-store manager while Dr. Bock was more interested in unlocking the secrets of long-term health.  But then history intervened, World War II,  and the emphasis of the study changed:  everyone began to ask, what would make a good military officer, said Dr. George Vaillant , a Harvard professor and psychiatrist who actually ran the study until 2003.

The turmoil of war and the fear of being overrun by a brutal enemy begged for important answers:  what made a good leader?  If most men started their military service as privates, who would remain a private and who would rise to the rank of major?  Although scientific studies are supposed to avoid falling into the trap of assumptions, everyone associated with this investigation assumed that the “smart men, the athletic men, the privileged men the young men  who played on the fields of schools like Exeter and Choate would distinguish themselves,” Ms. Hagerty wrote.

But they were wrong.

“The men who rose to the top were those who had warm, loving childhoods with a strong parental relationship, typically with their mother.  Those who advanced in rank were those who understood love and knew how to bestow love,” Mr. Vaillant explained.

“To be a good leader, you have to love your men, and it’s a lot easier to love your men when people have taken pains to love you first.” Valiant added that colleagues at West Point agreed that love was central to good leadership.

That seems to run contrary to the lessons on leadership that some of this nation’s prestigious graduate management schools would like to teach;  love is not some hard and fast leadership strategy.  It seems much too touchy or soft to be a legitimate answer to this compelling question of what makes leaders great.

There are so many essays and lessons that should come from this finding, especially in healthcare where, with more than 220,000 preventable deaths in hospitals each year, we seem to be at war with what we do.

I know a hospital CEO who was fired by a prestigious southern health system because he “did not fit.”  One of the criticisms in his termination explanation:  this CEO, a former Marine, told his employees, after a trying week in which his management team stepped up and overcame a critical challenge, that he loved them.


Personal Note: My thanks to New York Times Columnist and author, David Brooks, for turning me on to this interesting book and the research.  He appeared on the Charlie Rose Show in March of 2016.  Mr. Brooks also teaches a course on leadership at Yale University.