Great leaders ignite our passion, motivate us and inspire the best in us. We usually think vision, dreams, targets and performance are the drivers, but the reality is much more primal: great leadership works through emotion. Such is the idea that journalist and psychologist Daniel Goleman and his colleagues posit in their book Primal Leadership.
A leader’s primal task
From strategy to hiring to new product development, no matter what leaders set out to do, their success depends on how they do it. When they drive emotions positively they spark an organization’s performance and create a bonfire of success, and when they drive emotions negatively they spawn dissonance and undermine group collaboration. As a result, the manner in which leaders act is a fundamental key to effective leadership.
While most people recognize the importance of mood and its impact on work results, the emotional impact of a leader is almost never discussed in the workplace, let alone in the literature on leadership and performance, as it is often seen considered as too personal or unquantifiable. However, after two years’ research, Goleman and his colleagues contend that it is possible to measure the impact of a leader’s emotions both in terms of tangibles such as business results and retention of talent, and in terms of intangibles such as morale, motivation and commitment. They also give insights into how effective leaders understand and improve the way they handle their own and other people’s emotions.
This emotional task of the leader is primal in two senses: it is both the original and the most important act of leadership. Leaders therefore need to make sure that not only are they regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that through their chosen actions, their followers feel and act that way too.
It is to note that although managing one’s own mood and the moods of followers is the task of primal leadership, the authors don’t suggest that mood is all that matters and acknowledge all the other challenges leaders must conquer.
What, why and how
In order to study the mechanism through which the leader’s emotional intelligence travels through the organization to bottom-line results, Goleman and his colleagues turned to the latest neurological and psychological research, and also drew on their work with business leaders, conclusions gathered from the observation of hundreds of leaders and Hay Group data on the leadership styles of thousands of executives.
Their main finding is that effective leadership occurs where heart and head meet. Intellect alone won’t make a leader, the reason lies in what scientists call the open-loop nature of the brain’s limbic system, our emotional center. As a matter of fact, we rely on connections with other people to determine our moods, and various researchers have repeatedly proved that one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular functions, sleep rhythms, even immune functions, inside the body of another.
As moods that start at the top tend to move faster because everyone watches the leader and takes their emotional cues from him or her, good leaders need to stay attuned to people’s emotions, drive the collective emotions in a positive direction and clear the smog created by toxic emotions. They also need to be guarded not to fall into the “CEO disease” pitfall, meaning the ignorance about how their mood and actions appear to others. This implies that primal leadership requires being in tune with those around the leaders and creating resonance within the entire team.
As a transition between the neuroanatomy of leadership and the practical application of effective leadership, the book recalls two theories stated in their previous publications, namely the four dimensions of emotional intelligence and its 18 competencies, as well as the six approaches to leadership.
These competencies are the vehicles of primal leadership. Although even the most outstanding leader does not have all these qualities, effective leaders exhibit at least one competency from each of the categories:
Teamwork and collaboration
The most effective leaders act according to one or more of six distinct approaches to leadership. While the authors encourage the use of the four resonant styles which are visionary, coaching, affiliative and democratic, they don’t deny the situational effectiveness of the two dissonant styles – pacesetting and commanding – and prescribe their application with caution.
Then comes the most important question: how can we become emotionally intelligent leaders? The authors introduce a five-stage self-directed learning process based on brain science to rewire leaders toward more emotionally intelligent behaviors.
The first discovery: my ideal self – Who do I want to be?
The second discovery: my real self – Who am I? What are my strengths and gaps?
The third discovery: my learning agenda – How do I get from here to there? How can I build on my strengths while reducing my gaps?
The fourth discovery: experimenting with and practicing new thoughts, behaviors and feelings to the point of mastery – How do I make change stick?
The fifth discovery: developing supportive and trusting relationships that make change possible – Who can help me?
Working through this process will help leaders determine how their emotional leadership is driving the moods and actions of their organizations, and how to adjust their behavior accordingly. At first glance it may seem too theoretical and abstract to put into practice, but the authors further discuss each step in detail by giving concrete case studies and explaining two complementary factors to guide deep change: the motivation to change and how to sustain leadership change.
Changing oneself is only the beginning. A leader’s more important task lies in expanding the change in a broader sense by building an emotional intelligent organization and transforming how people work together. Groups can make better decisions than individuals when (and only when) they exhibit the ability to cooperate harmoniously, so it is important to maximize the group’s emotional intelligence.
The process for the group, the authors argue, is similar to the change process of an individual, only in an amplified and intermingled way: assessing the culture, examining the reality and ideal vision, creating resonance around the idea of change, identifying key people and designing a process for sustainable change.
Groundbreaking and still timely
Throughout history, the leader in any human group in any culture has always acted as their group’s emotional guide, to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat or when a task needs to be fulfilled. In the modern society, this primordial task still remains foremost among the many aspects of leadership.
The influence of this book is fundamental. Since Goleman popularized the term “emotional intelligence” (EI) in 1995, its importance has been widely recognized. However, it was not until the publication of this book six years later that this notion became well established in the business lexicon and beyond, and that people across the globe have considered it a necessary skill for leaders.
A decade since the book’s original publication, today’s world is even more economically integrated and volatile, politically divided and unstable, technologically competitive and complex, and leaders face ever-increasing pressures. This whirlwind of change requires a leader to be self-aware, empathic, motivating and collaborative: in short, resonant.