Daniel Goleman was formerly a journalist with the New York Times and is the author of Emotional Intelligence, one of the most influential books on organizational life. His latest book, Primal Leadership, co authored with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, was published in March by Harvard Business School Press.
Question: What is “primal leadership”?
Daniel Goleman: Primal leadership refers to the emotional dimension of leadership. We argue that a leader’s primal task is an emotional one—to articulate a message that resonates with their followers’ emotional reality, with their sense of purpose—and so to move people in a positive direction. Leadership, after all, is the art of getting work done through other people.
Is primal leadership particularly important in these uncertain times?
In a climate of uncertainty primal leadership becomes more important than ever, because people need a leader who lends an air of certainty, or at least conviction, a sense of “this is where we’re heading these days,” at a time when fears and anxieties can overtake them. All of this is particularly important because of the relationship—which is neurologically based—between emotions and attention and cognition. That is, the ability to get work done depends on our emotions not being out of control. A leader has to speak to those often- unstated fears along the way in order to help people keep them under control.
How does a leader build “resonance,” that “reservoir of positivity that unleashes the best in people,” as you refer to it in your book?
First, you have to reach within yourself to find out your own truth, because you can’t be resonant if you’re clueless, if you’re pretending, or if you’re just trying to manipulate people. You have to speak from your heart, and you have to do it in a way that speaks to other people’s hearts. So it takes authenticity. And if you can articulate a positive goal, that is, stay optimistic, enthusiastic and motivated in delivering that message, then what you’re doing is spreading that message and those moods and predisposition to the people you’re talking to. Emotions are contagious, and they are most contagious from the top down, from leader to followers.
Many leaders have historically regarded emotions as irrelevant to their business. Why should leaders suddenly start believing that emotions are important?
Because of the business case. The data that we review in the book suggest—and part of this is based on a study of 3,871 executives and their direct reports—that HOW a leader leads matters, and it matters both in an emotional way and in a very pragmatic bottom-line way. Those two things are tightly linked. The climate—what it’s like to work here, whether I’m proud to be here or don’t really care—depends to an extraordinarily large extent on how the leader makes me feel, and the tone of the workplace, the emotional tone. That, in turn, drives bottom-line results, that is, how much people give, how much people want to give, how much people care…those things show up on the balance sheets. And the rule of thumb that our research points to is that the leader’s style determines about 70 per cent of the emotional climate, which in turn drives around 20 per cent—and sometimes 30 per cent—of business performance.
What emotional resources does a leader need to be effective?
First of all, you need self-awareness, to know what’s happening with your own emotions. You also need to use your self-awareness to sense what’s right and what’s wrong in a situation, to use your deep values to guide you in what you do from moment to moment. You need to be able to manage your emotions—-and I don’t mean suppress—I mean keep your distressing emotions out of the way when you’re trying to get a job done, and to keep yourself in a positive state, to have a good time with people as well, along with getting the job done. Of course, you also need empathy. And then finally, you need to put that all into practice by acting as a leader in a way that primes positive emotions in people, because that’s the state in which they’re going to work best.
How have the best leaders today improved the way that they handle their own and other people’s emotions?
From my experiences during the last 5 years or so, I’ve seen leaders switch from a largely “command and control” style, or a “pace-setting” style (leaders who’ve become impatient with people who can’t do things as well as they would like), to a visionary style, where you’re able to articulate a shared mission in a way that inspires people. Good leaders today also see the need to be affiliative, to have a good time with people as well as being sure that the job gets done. That’s building emotional capital for when things really get tough and you need to call on people for a little extra. It’s also being a coach, taking a real interest in what a person wants for their job, their career and their life. We’re also seeing leaders who are being more consensual, more democratic, really listening to what people have to say and getting those inputs and using them well. So we see a general shift toward those styles. And those 4 styles I mentioned: the “visionary”, the “coach,” the “democrat,” the “affiliative,” they’re all resonance-building styles.
You identify what you call a “dissonant leader,” the type of leader who creates negativity. How does one deal with a dissonant leader?
Well, that’s the boss we hate to work for and it’s a question of whether you’re managing up or managing down. If you have such a boss now, the question is, are you able to keep doing what you need to do despite how your boss is making you feel. If you can manage your own emotions in a way where even though there’s a lot of static from the boss you can still do your own job well, then I think you’re winning. Then there’s the question of whether you are able to create a resonant reality for your direct reports despite what your own boss is like. If you can do that then I think you’re terrific.
A lot of leaders today are older and don’t have the sort of leadership skills you’re talking about. How can you teach “old leaders to learn new tricks,” as you describe it in your book?
Luckily, you can learn these abilities at any point in life. It’s not too late, if you’re motivated. The key is to get a leader interested in changing. If they’re not interested in changing—and by the way, this is a mistake many corporations and organizations make—if you just arbitrarily send someone off to be re-tooled, it’s doomed from the start, because this kind of change takes willingness and effort. It’s not going to happen just because someone went to a week-long session off-site. It requires that the person realize the downside of their leadership style and their abilities, and that they get a precise assessment. That’s best done through 360’s like the ECI (Emotional Competence Inventory) which evaluates the full spectrum of these abilities. Many companies have their own. It doesn’t matter which one you use in particular, but it should be one that speaks to this range of ability.
And the results need to be delivered in a way that a leader can hear them. That’s another place where programs sometimes go wrong—just dumping the data on someone, which could be very upsetting unless it’s done in a framework where you focus on strength as well as the downside. To improve, people need help in developing an action plan for themselves—a learning plan where they can use their on-the-job, day-to-day situations as a laboratory for learning. You need to create an atmosphere and a culture in a company where this is clearly valued by the top boss, by the organization itself, so that these are the attributes we’re looking for in leaders—we’re promoting for this, we’re hiring for it, and we want people to develop this. There’ll be bad days, there’ll be times when you do what you’re used to, though you wish you didn’t. Under pressure, the old habits may come back. But if you support people through those moments, keep them motivated and sustain the effort, then in 3 to 6 months people will change. We know this from the data collected by Richard Boyatzis (co-author), who’s been doing this now for more than a decade at the Case Western School of Management with both MBAs and Executive MBAs. He finds that the improvements not only occur after about 6 months, but that they are sustained for up to 7 years, which is the longest he’s been able to test it. So that’s learning that lasts.
It lasts because of two things: One, it begins with tapping into the person’s own ideals, what they really want for themselves, so that you have a motivation to sustain the change. The second is that practicing in on-the-job situations gives a person the chance to do something crucial neurologically, which is to inhibit the old habit and replace it with a new way of doing things. As with any new skill, the more you practice the easier it gets. Then you finally reach a point where you do the right thing in the right way with the right person for the right reason without even having to think about it. That means you’ve achieved mastery, you’ve changed the underlying neural circuitry. You have replaced the old set of circuits with a new one, which will stay. That’s why this kind of learning lasts.
In Primal Leadership, you discuss the 4 fundamentals of emotional intelligence, or “the building blocks of leadership that prime resonance.” What are those building blocks?
As I mentioned before, they are self-awareness, self-mastery or self-management of emotion, empathy or social awareness, and relationship management. There’s an interesting interaction between these 4 sets of abilities in that self-awareness is fundamental for self-management. It’s also fundamental for social awareness. And social awareness and self-management in tandem are the building blocks for relationship management. So self-awareness is actually the fundamental ability of emotional intelligence, and probably the most ignored in a business setting.
Thank you very much.