Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman

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It’s almost a cliche at this point, but the world is changing faster than any of us could have predicted.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical for leaders to be self-aware, composed, focused and high energy, empathic and motivating, collaborative and compelling. In a word, the authors say, it’s critical for leaders to be resonant.

And as it turns out, the “soft” stuff produces hard results. Study after study shows that emotionally intelligent leaders get better results than their emotionally stunted counterparts.

We are about to explore how you can use emotional intelligence to create better results yourself, and how to cultivate it in others.

Let’s get started.

Primal Leadership

Throughout history, the leaders in any group have been the ones that people look to for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or when there’s a job to be done. The leader, in essence, acts as the group’s emotional guide.

The reason that emotions play such a large role in the success or failure of organizations is that our brain operates on an open-loop system – which means that it largely relies on external sources to manage itself. In plain English, your own emotional system is greatly impacted by what’s going on around you, including the emotional state of other people.

For instance, one study showed that group members who sat in meetings with one another ended up sharing moods – either good or bad – within two hours.

Of course, the one person in a group that has the largest impact on the emotions of others is the leader. They are watched more closely than anybody else in the group, even when they aren’t talking. And so, the leader almost always sets the emotional standard in a group of people.

When leaders drive emotions positively, they bring out the best in everyone. The authors call this effect resonance. When leaders drive emotions negatively, they undermine the emotional foundations that let people shine. The authors call this effect dissonance. There’s plenty of research to back this up.

On the negative side, when negative emotions reach levels of distress, it erodes mental abilities and leads people to make poor decisions. It also impairs their social skills, which creates an emotional downward spiral in any group.

On the positive side, optimistic and enthusiastic leaders more easily retain their people. When their teams feel good, they understand information better and are more flexible in their thinking. Which leads to better business results.

By the way, emotionally intelligent leaders don’t ignore the realities of generating business results, nor is their goal to make their teams feel as good as possible. Their goal is to get them to perform at their best, helping them reach their goals in a challenging but supportive environment.

Let’s move on to take a look at how they do it.

Resonant Leadership

As the authors point out, how well leaders manage and direct the feelings of their group to meet their goals depends on their level of emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has four competencies, which we’ll explore here in turn. But before we get to that, there are three important points to make:

  1. These competencies are not innate talents, but learned abilities. Which means you can nurture them in yourself, and in the people around you.
  2. The authors point out that they have encountered exactly ZERO leaders who had strengths across the board in the EI competencies you’ll learn below. Highly effective leaders will be strong in about 6 or so EI competencies.
  3. That being said, effective leaders will exhibit strengths in at least one competent from each of the four fundamental areas of emotional intelligence.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s start with personal competence, which determines how we manage ourselves.

Personal Competence #1 – Self Awareness

The first competency is the foundation for the rest: self-awareness.

First, there’s emotional self-awareness. Without recognizing our own emotions, we’ll be poor at managing them, and less able to understand them in others.

Second, there’s accurate self-assessment, which is knowing one’s strengths and limits.

Third, there is self-confidence, which is a sense on one’s self-worth and capabilities.

Personal Competence #2 – Self Management

The second competency is self management. There are number of capabilities under this competence.

First there’s emotional self-control – which is the ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control.

Second, there’s transparency – displaying honesty and integrity.

Third, there’s adaptability – flexibility in adapting to changing situations or overcoming obstacles.

Fourth, there’s achievement – the drive to improve performance to meet inner standards of excellence.

Fifth, there’s initiative – readiness to act and seize opportunities.

And finally, there’s optimism – seeing the upside in events.

Next we’ll move on to social competence, which determines how we manage relationships.

Social Competency #1 – Social Awareness

First, there’s empathy – sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective, and taking active interest in their concerns.

Second, there’s organizational awareness – reading the currents, decision networks, and the politics at the organizational level.

Third is service – recognizing and meeting follower, client or customer needs.

Social Competency #2 – Relationship Management

First there’s inspirational leadership – guiding and motivating with a compelling vision.

Second, there’s influence – wielding a range of tactics for persuasion.

Third, there’s developing others – bolstering others’ abilities through feedback and guidance.

Fourth is being a change catalyst – initiating, managing and leading in a new direction.

Fifth is conflict management – resolving disagreements.

And finally there’s teamwork and collaboration – cooperation and team building.

We don’t have the time to go into all of the EI competencies in detail in this summary, but they are covered in more detail in our summary of Emotional Intelligence.

The Leadership Repertoire

Now that we know the potential ingredients in the emotional intelligence playbook, let’s look at the most effective recipes – how the most effective leaders act to create resonance.

The Visionary Leader

The visionary leader is one that moves people toward shared dreams. They usually don’t articulate how the team will get there, which sets people free to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks.

The emotional intelligence competence most strongly employed by these leaders is inspirational leadership, along with self-confidence, self-awareness and empathy. Empathy here is critical – in order to inspire the troops, you need to understand their perspectives and how they are feeling.

This style can be particularly effective when a business is adrift – during a turnaround situation for instance. But this style can backfire in situations where the leader is working with a team of experts or peers more experienced than them.

The Coaching Style

Coaches help people identify their unique strengths and weaknesses, tying those to their personal and career aspirations. They are good at delegating and giving employees challenging assignments that stretch them to do their best.

The emotional intelligence competence most directly linked to this style is developing others. Their impact is driven largely by the empathy and rapport that they create with their teams. Their tacit message to the team is “I believe in you, I’m investing in you, and I expect your best efforts.”

This style will work in almost any business situation, and while the style doesn’t scream bottom-line results, it delivers them consistently.

Relationship Builders

Relationship builders tend to value people and their feelings, putting less emphasis on accomplishing tasks and goals, and more on their emotional needs. They strive to keep people happy, create harmony, and to build team resonance.

The emotional intelligence competence most directly linked to this style is teamwork and collaboration. And, just like all of the successful leadership styles, empathy is critical. If you don’t have the ability to sense the feelings, needs and perspectives of others, you won’t be able to build relationships with them.

This style works well when you need to heighten team harmony, increase morale, improve communication, or repair broken trust in an organization. However, you need to be careful not to use it on it’s own, or all the time. You need to ensure you also offer advice on how your team can improve, and ensure that mediocrity is not tolerated.

The Democratic Style

The democratic leader keeps morale high by spending time in one-on-one meetings, listening to the concerns and ideas of their team.

This style builds on three emotional intelligence abilities: (1) teamwork and collaboration, (2) conflict management, and (3) influence. They create the sense that they truly want to hear employees’ thoughts and concerns, and are available to listen.

The democratic approach works best when the leader is uncertain about which direction to take and need ideas from able employees. An example here is when a leader has a strong vision of the future, but needs help in carving the path to get there.

The Dissonant Styles

There are two styles that work in limited circumstances, if you use them for a limited time.

The first dissonant style is Pacesetting. The leaders who use this style have high standards for performance, are obsessive about doing things better and faster, and pinpoint people who aren’t up to the task. When a leader relies on this style too much it poisons the climate, leads to a drop in morale, and long-term results suffer.

The second dissonant style is leading by command. These leaders expect their team to “do it because I say so.” If their orders aren’t followed, they’ll resort to threats. Performance feedback – if it’s given at all – will focus on what people do wrong. This type of style might be appropriate in turnaround situations where there’s a need to shock people into new ways of doing things. However, according to the authors, this is the leadership style that is least effective in most situations. Surprise, surprise – right?

Being flexible produces the best results

Because the most successful leaders have 6 or more emotional intelligence competencies, they have the ability to employ more than one leadership style.

The key, obviously, is matching the right style with the right situation, and applying it in the right amount. There is no checklist to follow, but the best leaders are able to scan their environment, and intuitively know what style is called for.

Making Leaders

As we’ve already mentioned, emotionally intelligent leadership is something that can be learned and nurtured.

The authors suggest that the best way to become a more emotionally intelligent leader is to employ a technique called self-directed learning – intentionally developing or strengthening an aspect of who you are or who you want to be, or both.

A model for this type of learning was created by Richard Boyatzis though three decades of work in leadership development both as a consultant and as an academic researcher.

There are five “discoveries” in this process.

The first discovery: My ideal self

The first thing you need to do is determine the type of person and leader you want to be. The process is going to require change, and the only way you’ll make it through that process is to constantly remind yourself of the goal.

A good start to this step is to think about what your ideal life would look like fifteen years from now. Ask yourself what your typical day or week looks like, what your surroundings look like, and how you are feeling. Remember not to focus on what you think your life should be, but what you want it to be.

Write it down or record it so you can come to back to it often.


The second discovery: My real self

The next step is to determine where you are today – taking stock of the type of leader you are. It requires a great deal of self-awareness, and most likely a lot of feedback from the people around you. Which is more difficult than it seems, especially if you are already a leader.

One of the hallmarks of an emotionally intelligent leader is the seeking of negative feedback. So, when you are reaching out to others for feedback, make sure to ask for the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s the only way you’ll get a true picture of your current self.

By the end of this stage you should now have metaphorical balance sheet of your strengths and weaknesses, which allows you to move forward to build the path to your ideal self.

The third discovery: My learning agenda

This step is focussed on how you can build on your strengths while reducing your gaps. You’ll accomplish this through setting learning goals.

As you go through this step, remember these important points about the learning goals you set for yourself. You can file these under common sense, but not common practice.

Your goals should:

  • build on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  • be your own, not imposed by somebody or something else.
  • be broken down into feasible, manageable steps.
  • suit your learning style.

The fourth discovery: Experimenting

In this stage you take your learning goals and you start working on them.

For the most part, the brain masters the competencies of leadership through implicit learning – which means it happens in the primitive part of the brain. Which ultimately means that you need to learn this through repeated practice.

Your goal here is to take every opportunity you can to consciously practice a better way of doing things – until it becomes automatic.

This will take time – sometimes months, or even years – to master. Which is why we said earlier that you need to have a clear picture of the future you want to create – you won’t stick with it otherwise.

The fifth discovery: Developing Relationships

You’ll need to develop supportive and trusting relationships in order to make the change you are looking to make.

One of the best relationships you can cultivate on your journey is with mentors and coaches. They come in many forms – but the ability to talk freely with them is usually easiest if it’s somebody outside your organization.

These relationships will give you the support you need to stay on the path, and the insight to course correct when necessary.


Being a leader is hard. You can make it a lot easier and much more rewarding if you nurture emotional intelligence in both yourself and your team.

As our economy chugs along towards a future with artificial intelligence and robots doing much of the information work at our companies, all that will be left is the ability to work with and through others.

Being an emotionally intelligent – and thus resonant – leader, is the only way forward.


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