Book Review-Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

There are numerous books about leadership. A plethora of visionaries over the years have sought to improve leadership in organizations. So what makes Primal Leadership unique is that it talks about the emotional component of leadership. Speaking about emotions in business seems to have picked up a taboo. Those who do speak about emotions in business are in HR and they’re often seen as out of touch with the real issues of the organization (as the book points out.)

Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee lead you through some of their and others research about how emotional intelligence impacts the performance of individuals, leaders, teams, and organizations. While I’ve read some of Goleman’s other works (Emotional Intelligence, for instance) I’ve not seen all of the works assembled in a way that helps the reader understand how vitally important emotional intelligence can be to success of leaders.

Successful Attitude

Zig Ziglar said “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” This is a great summary statement for the thesis that IQ doesn’t matter nearly as much as emotional intelligence. The song “Accentuate the Positive” Has powerful lyrics. Consider this snippet “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in between.” This is a song has guidance that is useful in our real world.

The first half of emotional intelligence is self-awareness and self-management. This is the ability to monitor and manage your feelings and mood. Ultimately managing feelings and moods means that you can manage your attitudes about the things that come up in your day-to-day life. It’s attitude management, the ability to focus how you feel about things that can be immensely powerful. In Thinking in Systems we learned about how a paradigm shift is one of the most powerful ways to impact a system. Attitude shifts are paradigm shifts. It’s changing the way that you see the world around you. When I read Stumbling on Happiness, I mentioned that it was during an unusually long rescheduling at the airport – and it was fine. Compare that with the irate people you see as you’re walking to your next flight. It’s simply a different world.

The second half of emotional intelligence is social awareness – knowing how to see emotions in others – and relationship management. The finesse of emotional intelligence comes in when deciding how much of someone else’s mood or attitude to take in. While it’s natural for us to synchronize our emotional state with others – particularly when sharing an experience like watching a movie, we need to be able to define the boundaries between where our responsibility begins and where it ends.

Learning about how to set boundaries can be difficult work for those of us who didn’t have great examples of appropriate boundary setting as a child. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Learning to communicate your desires and to not take ownership of someone else’s feelings is tough stuff. At the heart of this is a simple understanding. When you communicate to someone else your needs and desires, you’re not taking anything from them. You’re allowing them the opportunity to give you what you need. The subtle change here is in attitude. It’s the attitude of taking verses the attitude of giving. That makes a world of difference. Taking depletes our emotional bank where giving makes a deposit.

The idea that we’re synchronizing our attitudes with those around us isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, leaders can use the fact that humans try to synchronize – or attune – their feelings to one another as a powerful motivator.

Discover the Truth

Attunement Instead of Alignment

Emotional synchronization may be at a micro level emotional attunement. However, at a broader – less episodic – perspective attuning emotions and moods can be a powerful tool for leaders. John Gottman talked extensively about attunement in The Science of Trust. The context there is for couples to have better relationships but as Primal Leadership points out, attunement may be a better paradigm for business as well. Attunement isn’t about lining up objectives. Rather, attunement is about bringing things in harmony with one another. Attunement in business means getting everyone bought into the same vision. There’s more to buying into a vision than just aligning objectives.

One of the challenges in the process of developing and executing a strategy is that often times the process assumes that people are replaceable cogs in the larger wheel of the organization. Fred Brooks famously spoke of the inability to replace developers in a project in his classic essay The Mythical Man-Month. People are not directly replaceable. Each person brings their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and dynamics to the organization and the strategy has to account for that. Attunement is that process of bringing all the individual strategies – for the lives of each of the employees in the organization – in harmony with the organization strategy.

I’ve spoken before about the model of the Rider, the Elephant, and the path from The Happiness Hypothesis and from Switch and the need to engage people emotionally. That’s what attunement is – an emotional engagement between two people. It’s a harmony between people – whether in a relationship or on a team. The fastest way to that attunement is laughter.

The Shortest Path between Two People Is Laughter

When I took my path into learning more about comedy (including the class which I detailed in my post “I am Comedian“, and the books Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy, and The New Comedy Writing Step by Step) I didn’t realize the power of laughter. One of the books that I started to read but haven’t finished, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse Engineer the Mind, talks about Duchenne laughter – the kind of laughter when we genuinely find something funny and social laughter – how we respond when other people are laughing. This is based on research about how the muscles in the face are engaged differently based on whether the person spontaneously smiled – or smiled because other people were smiling. We’re social creatures by nature but it seems one of the shortcuts to our social nature is how we laugh together.

You probably already know about mirror neurons – but they act much more slowly than the behavior observed with non-Duchenne laughter. Laughter is contagious – and fiercely so. Primal Leadership talks about how powerful laughter is. Including the fact that outstanding leaders tend to use humorous comments three times as often as the average leader and the fact that most laughter doesn’t come with a punch line. One of the great learnings of comedy for me is that sometimes it’s not the punch line that gets the big laugh – sometimes it’s the tag – the thing added to the joke to extend the laughter.

Learning to cultivate laughter is a difficult art. A few nights ago I sat in a comedy club listening to a show that was barely more than an open mic and watched a dozen comics try to hone their craft of working with an audience and to get them to laugh – when that’s what they wanted to do. Imagine the challenge of a leader trying to develop this skill in a town hall meeting where the employees aren’t expecting to be entertained. It’s a difficult – but powerful – skill for those leaders who can use it. Like at a comedy club there will be many “bombs” where you and the audience don’t connect. However, it’s those failures that make you better.

Great Failures

One of the hallmarks of great coaching and mentoring is accepting short term failure for the longer term purpose of helping an employee to grow. There’s a point of view that failure shouldn’t be allowed – but in truth we learn much better when we have the opportunity to fail. Primal Leadership makes the point that there’s a delicate tension between folks feeling safe to fail – and not feeling enough pressure to succeed. It turns out that humans are uniquely able to experience stress even when there’s not an immediate threat to our survival. We can become stressed based entirely on our own perception of longer term issues. With this stress we’re flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. The effect of these two chemicals aren’t conducive to learning.

The body’s response to these chemicals, the “fight or flight” response that we’re all familiar with, is a biological adaptation to allow us to focus all of our energies on escaping the life threatening situation. However, this system was never designed – from an evolutionary standpoint – to be left on for long periods of time. It reroutes the way that learning is done from our normal executive function to a way that can trigger the amygdala the next time there is a threat so the amygdala can more accurately trigger based on it. The result is that we’re not really learning from the situation in a meaningful way.

I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco where my friend works. Another friend described this museum as a love letter from a daughter to her father – which perfectly describes it. As you walk through the first few galleries of the museum you realize both the failures of Walt’s early life as well as his perseverance. Bankruptcies, accusations, and swindlers are all a part of the story. If you were to look at his life prior to moving to Hollywood it wouldn’t be at all remarkable. What’s remarkable is what he did after each setback. He pulled himself up and used that as a learning point on how to move forward. In fact, that may be one of his great legacies as the later galleries point out. He would work on smaller projects to learn the skills that were necessary to do larger projects.

Abraham Lincoln is another great leader who suffered failure after failure. He struggled with his first business. He lost a bid to become an Illinois state representative. He failed at another business. He had a nervous breakdown, three failed attempts at becoming a member of congress, and a failed bid for vice president by 1859. This is a man who had tried and failed and tried some more and failed some more. However, as the 16th president he had to lead the country through one of its darkest hours and is remembered universally as one of the best presidents that the United States has ever had.

The difference between those who don’t succeed and those who ultimately succeed wildly isn’t the number of failures – or even the percentage of failures. The difference it seems is the number of times at bat. It’s the number of times that they got up, dusted themselves off, and tried again. The strength to get back up comes from a great deal of inward focus – work on who they are as humans whether that work was intentional or not.

Inward Focus

One of the oddest things about leadership – and working with other people in general – is that to be better at having relationships with other people you have to have a better relationship with yourself. That means finding your true self. Finding out what is important to you. It means finding what makes you happy. (Or at least what you think what you think will make you happy. See The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness for that.) Loyola and the Jesuits found that self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism were key values that led them to be the longest corporation in existence. (See Heroic Leadership.) The trio of books from the Abinger Institute include the leadership book – Leadership and Self Deception. In this book we look at the “boxes” that we can put ourselves in where our reality is distorted – and where we seek to bring others into their own “box” and their own distortion.

What Primal Leadership knows is that much of the problems that are caused in leadership are actually poor self-management. (See Emotional Intelligence for details on the four components of emotional intelligence – one of which is self-management.) By learning to better manage ourselves, we learn how to leverage the knowledge we already have about how to manage well. What’s even better is that people who have done a great deal of inward work often find that they’re able to create a space around themselves where things work better. There’s a halo effect where their presence and influence through the clarity of who they are and their confidence drives other’s behaviors as well.

Halo Effect

Have you ever been in a place where people just behaved differently with a certain person in the room, in the meeting, or in the area? I’m not talking about the way that people behave differently when their boss or the CEO is in the room. I’m talking about a person that somehow quells arguments, calms people, and just seems to get them to get things done? It’s an eerie thing to see it happen. “Joe” walks into the room and all of the sudden the fighting stops. It’s not that anyone fears “Joe.” It’s just that they know that it’s not an acceptable thing with “Joe” there.

What “Joe” has is sometimes hard to quantify. Sometimes it’s that he’s set boundaries about what is and isn’t acceptable in his presence (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries) Maybe he’s developed a sense of calm that simply radiates from him the way that people describe their meetings with the Dali Lama (See Emotional Awareness). No matter what it is there’s an effect around “Joe.” There are people like this in your organization now. These people – who may or may not be in leadership positions – infect the people around them with a better sense and practice of leadership. This infection happens relatively outside of the leadership approaches that they use. It’s an outcome of their inward work.

Leadership Approaches (Skills or Styles)

Though Primal Leadership identifies six leadership styles, I see six approaches or sets of skills. The reason for the language change is one of the core messages of the book – that managers get better by learning more styles and learning when to use them. If you have a style you have a set way of doing things. You’ll tend to continue your style for long periods of time. However, the research suggests that having a full tool box of these approaches and learning when and how to switch between them makes leaders more effective. It’s much easier to switch from using one skill to another than it is to switch from one style to another. However, skills doesn’t quite match up to these because each of the styles in the book is really a set of skills – thus an approach toward a leadership event. So while I’m picking at the language the key messaging – the approaches – are quite solid.

These approaches are rooted in Daniel Goleman’s research and article for Harvard Business Review titled “Leadership That Gets Results” – however some of the names of the approaches have been changed between the writing of the article and the writing of Primal Leadership. Where possible I’ve tried to tie the two names together.

Visionary (Coercive)

Initially called coercive, the visionary style gets people to move towards shared dreams. The initial term – coercive – may have seemed negative but the visionary leader is a powerful leadership style. It helps rally everyone around a common objective. The visionary leadership style asks those who follow to give up – or attune – their goals to the goal of the leader. Like the pied piper the visionary style asks people to follow.

Goleman’s data indicates that this is the most effective leadership style perhaps because it can be used to shape even the most dull and mundane tasks into something else. If your vision is “delivering Christmas” how much more powerful a thought is that from a job sorting packages at a FedEx package sorting facility?

Coaching

We’ve all seen numerous sports coaches that are great examples of coaching – and numerous who are not. Or have we? Coaching isn’t about demanding performance or even rallying speeches. Coaching – particularly in the context of leadership – is about connecting a person’s goals and aspirations to the organization’s goals. The first step is understanding the person’s goals. However, from there the coach must draw lines between how the person’s individual goals line up with and support the organizational goals. Finally, the coach must identify ways to work towards both goals at the same time.

Affiliative (Connecting)

Taken to the extreme, the Affiliative style is peacemaking. That is never allowing conflict for fear that it might drive divisiveness into the group. However, used appropriately, an affiliative style works by connecting people to one another. Where coaching was about the one-on-one relationship between the coach and the coachee, affiliative leadership is about helping the team bond together better. (See more about the impact of this in Collaborative Intelligence.)

Democratic (Listening)

The democratic approach is about letting everyone have their say and get their buy in through the thought that they were heard and that their ideas were valued. This style can be very positive in that it can get everyone feeling like they had their say. However, this style requires more skill than it might at first appear because it’s important to not just let people have their say but also for them to feel heard. This is discussed in Dialogue Mapping and the Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices where the dialogue mapping process is discussed as a way to demonstrate that at topic was heard.

Conceptually the democratic approach is about the wisdom of crowds. However, often democratic approaches deteriorate into the tyranny of a mob. The skills of a leader are tested most when trying to manage all of the factors that can take the train off the tracks.

Pacesetting

Some people like a challenge. Sometimes leaders can put a stretch goal in front of a team for them to accomplish. These goals are useful for helping folks break out of a performance level they’ve been stuck at. However, the important part of this is that they’re not a sustainable pace. It’s not sustainable to always be working on stretch goals. Employees need time to recover and recharge. We’ve seen this with agile software development methodologies where high performance relies upon consistent delivery – not unsustainable paces.

Leaders who use pacesetting need to do so carefully to prevent overuse and fatigue. The challenge is to keep enough challenge for people to do their best but not so much they become burnt out and conversely that there’s enough pressure on them that they stay motivated.

Commanding (Authoritative)

There’s also a leadership approach that’s commanding. This can be appropriate in limited circumstances where there’s an urgent need or a great deal of disruption which has frozen people but long term is corrosive and leads employees to feel like they are not valued. Even organizations where commanding approaches are essential – like the military – balance the commanding approach with other more positive approaches.

Tools in a Toolbox

Primal Leadership makes the point that the more of these approaches that you can use well, the better you will be as a leader. The more of these skills that a leader is competent and comfortable with the greater the possibility that the leader will be able to select the right approach when necessary – and the greater the possibility that they’ll use it in the right amount. The answer isn’t that there’s one right – or wrong – way to approach things. Rather it’s about knowing which tool to select for different situations. Learning is a critical part of leadership not just because the market is changing around you but because there’s an opportunity to become a better person.

You can change

As was discussed in Mindset, there are two ways that people can see themselves and others. They can see them as either: fixed and unchanging or as an organism capable of change and growth. In order to accept that you can learn new leadership approaches – and to get better at the approaches that you use today – you have to accept that the way that you lead isn’t a fixed set but rather, it’s something that you can learn.

Adult Learning

When you’re trying to lead you’re trying to teach people how to get across the next goal line. We’ve talked about the factors that influence adult learning in the review of The Adult Learner and some of the techniques that can be used to teach in Efficiency in Learning. What’s interesting is that in Primal Learning there are discussions that the best way to change people isn’t to focus on the performance of the person – but rather on the learning that they needed to be successful. It was also clear that the employee needed to have a strong personal desire for learning – beyond work – for the best results. When employees are lifelong learners they’re able to better integrate learning and overall be better performers.

Tipping Point

One of the areas of research for Richard Boyatzis has been the impact of increasing the number of leadership approaches that are being used and how the ability to leverage four or more of the styles can make you much more powerful. Similarly, learning how to better use individual styles can make you more effective with them. There’s a tipping point with the individual styles where you’ll be more successful and also with the number of styles that you can use which can propel you to the next level of leadership

The Power of Norms

There’s power in the habits and the normal. I’ve discussed the rider-elephant-path model several times (see Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis). Primal Leadership speaks about how creating norms of conduct that are positive can influence everything. Everyone wants to be positive to others. If you don’t believe in the power of norms, consider that even during the LA Riots in 1992 people were looting stores after parking their cars inside the lines in the parking lot. They’re willing to openly loot from the store but parking outside the lines was so foreign that they didn’t even think to do it.

Leading With Style

Everyone has some approach to how they lead – even if their position isn’t that of a leader. Some of the best leaders may be introspective and focused on improving themselves and their awareness of themselves to be able to be more comfortable with stretching themselves out to learn new styles (See How Children Succeed for more.) Learning how to adapt your styles between the various approaches makes you a more versatile leader and thereby can make you more effective at leading. Pickup Primal Leadership to learn how you can be more effective.