Relational leadership is key to overcoming “grand challenges”

Female leaders won big points for collaboration and empathy during the pandemic — even if that wasn’t their style
Graphic of female business leader charting a new direction after climbing on on top of a COVID virus


  • Research shows that people prefer relational leaders, who demonstrate empathy and collaborative problem solving, in the face of grand challenges, like the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A new study citing survey data found that people rated hypothetical female leaders to be more relational than their similarly framed male counterparts.
  • UGA researchers believe gendered stereotypes led people to view female leaders as more relational, whether they truly were or not.

The global COVID-19 pandemic tested employees, managers, and workplaces, and as with any test, some people did better than others.

University of Georgia researchers hope some traits key to successful leadership during the pandemic might guide organizations and societies as they develop and select leaders to tackle the “grand challenges of the future.”

“What I’m hearing from executives and managers in Atlanta is that empathy is expected from leaders,” said Mike Pfarrer, associate dean for research and executive programs and the C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry Distinguished Chair of Business Administration.

“The feedback they got from the pandemic was that empathy, collaboration, resilience, and consistent communication were very helpful in getting through it. Employees wanted to see their leaders engaging, even if there were missteps along the way. We see that in what people wanted from their societal leaders as well.”

Pfarrer, who worked with lead author Abbie Oliver and co-author Francois Neville, found people want more relational leaders during grand challenges such as COVID-19. The team also found traditional stereotypes of women being more empathetic and relational led people to rate female leaders as more relational during the COVID-19 pandemic— whether they were truly relational or not. Consequently, these leaders were perceived as more effective.

In December 2022, Pfarrer, Oliver, who received her Ph.D. from the Terry College in 2018 and is now an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, and Neville, an associate professor at McMaster University, published their paper, Grand Challenges and Female Leaders: An Exploration of Relational Leadership During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Business & Society.

Pfarrer, Oliver, and Neville study crisis management strategies and leadership. They hoped the COVID-19 pandemic might yield insights into what skills and traits leaders can develop to better manage future grand challenges.

The term grand challenge refers to complex, society-wide crises — such as COVID, the mental health crisis, or climate change, Pfarrer said. These crises can’t be blamed on one individual, company, or community but impact everyone in the company or community.

To judge what characteristics people want to see in the face of grand challenges, the authors recruited test subjects through an online survey network.

They asked participants to read two media accounts of a governmental leader — Michael or Michelle — making a statement outlining their COVID-19 response. The statement was based on actual statements made by leaders during the pandemic. The articles were identical, only the leader’s gender changed.

Participants rated the leader in their news reports on their effectiveness and how relational they were. Participants judged the female leader, Michelle, was 12% more relational than Michael and consequently, perceived as more effective.

Historically and repeatedly, in studies where two identical news reports about leaders of different genders are presented to participants, men are rated as more competent leaders due to deep-seated stereotypes, Oliver said.

“There is still a traditional stereotype of think leader, think male,” she said.

But in the face of grand challenges, people want a relational leader. And when they “think female, they tend to think relational,” Oliver added.

Obviously, not all women are relational leaders, and many men lead with a relational style, Oliver said. But during times of large-scale crisis, the public’s gendered stereotypes give women more leadership points for being collaborative and empathetic whether they earned it or not.

“The key finding, which extends beyond the gender aspect, is people want to see relational leadership in the face of ‘grand challenges,’ ” Oliver said. “During these types of crises, leaders are expected to bring a diverse set of people together, whether it’s stakeholders or advisors. It’s a complex problem, and you — as the leader — are not going to be able to fix it by yourself.”

Pfarrer, who teaches professional and executive courses in the Terry College’s Atlanta-based MBA programs, said the findings reflect a discussion that frequently surfaces in class. Many managers and executives say their employees expect a different type of leadership after the pandemic.

“I think we will see more outlets for leaders in companies and government to develop these relational skills in male and female leaders,” Pfarrer said. “Leadership effectiveness is tied to what stakeholders want and need in that situation. If we’re going to tackle the challenges of the 21st century, this study, and the feedback I get from senior leaders in Atlanta show that those leaders who are collaborative and empathetic are also those who are successful.”