Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance

An Excerpt
Tense or terrified employees can be very productive in the short term, their organizations may post good results, but they never last. Then a leader’s premier task—we would even say his primal task—is emotional leadership. A leader needs to make sure that not only is he regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that, through his chosen actions, his followers feel and act that way, too.
The Science of Moods

A growing body of research on the human brain proves that leaders’ moods affect the emotions of the people around them. The reason for that lies in what scientists call the open-loop nature of the brain’s limbic system, our emotional center. An open-loop system depends on external sources to manage itself; we rely on connections with other people to determine our moods. A study found that 3 or more incidents of intense stress within a year (for example, serious financial trouble, being fired, or a divorce) triples the death rate in socially-isolated middle-aged men, but it has no impact on the death rate of men with many close relationships. And even though the open loop is so much a part of our lives, we usually don’t notice the process. In the office, boardroom, or shop floor; group members inevitably “catch” feelings from one another. Groups, therefore, like individuals, ride emotional roller-coasters, sharing everything from jealousy to angst to euphoria.

Smile and the World Smiles with You

Mood contagion is a real neurological phenomenon, but not all emotions spread with the same ease. A 1999 study by Sigal Barsade, Yale School of Management, showed that, among working groups, cheerfulness and warmth spread easily, while irritability caught on less so, and depression least of all.

It should come as no surprise that laughter is the most contagious of all emotions. Hearing laughter, we find it almost impossible not to laugh or smile, too. But, smiles and laughter are only contagious when they’re genuine.

Get Happy, Carefully

Good moods galvanize good performance, but it doesn’t make sense for a leader to be as chipper as a blue jay at dawn if the business is going under. The most effective executives display moods and behaviors that match the situation at hand, with a healthy dose of optimism mixed in. They respect how other people are feeling—even if it is glum or defeated—but they also model what it looks like to move forward with hope and humor.

Self-awareness, perhaps the most essential of the emotional intelligence competencies, is the ability to read your own emotions. It allows people to know their strengths and limitations and feel confident about their self-worth. Resonant leaders use it to gauge their own moods accurately, and they intuitively know how they are affecting others.

Self-management is the ability to control your emotions and act with honesty and integrity in reliable and adaptable ways. Resonant leaders don’t let their occasional bad moods seize the day; they use self-management to leave it outside the office or to explain its source to people in a reasonable manner.

Social awareness includes the key capabilities of empathy and organizational intuition. Socially aware executives do more than sense other people’s emotions – they show that they care.

Relationship management, the last of the emotional intelligence competencies, includes the abilities to communicate clearly and convincingly, disarm conflicts, and build strong personal bonds. Resonant leaders use these skills to spread their enthusiasm and solve disagreements, often with humor and kindness.

Taking Stock

The process we recommend for self-discovery and personal reinvention is based on brain science. A person’s emotional skills—the attitude and abilities with which someone approaches life and work—are not genetically hardwired, like eye color and skin tone. Even though emotional skills are partly inborn, experience plays a major role in how the genes are expressed. Research suggests that our range of emotional skills is relatively set by our mid-20s and that our accompanying behaviors are, by that time, deep-seated habits. And therein lies the rub: The more we act a certain way—be it happy, depressed, or cranky—the more the behavior becomes ingrained in our brain circuitry, and the more we will continue to feel and act that way. That’s why emotional intelligence matters so much for a leader.

The following is a five-part process is designed to rewire the brain toward more emotionally intelligent behaviors:

1. “Who do I want to be?”
2. “Who am I now?”
3. “How do I get from here to there?”
4. “How do I make change stick?”
5. “Who can help me?”

Mood over Matter

However, mood is not all that matters. Your actions are critical. And mood and actions together must resonate with the organization and with reality. Similarly, we acknowledge all the other challenges leaders must conquer—from strategy to hiring to new product development. It’s all in a long day’s work.


Daniel Goleman is cochairman of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Richard Boyatzis is chair of the department of organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management. Annie McKee is on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. They are the authors of Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.

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