Primal Leadership: Emotional Intelligence and the Leadership Repertoire

Following his international bestseller Emotional Intelligence (1995), Daniel Goleman collaborated with researchers Richard Boyatzis (Case Western Reserve University) and Annie McKee (University of Pennsylvania) to co-author Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2002), in which they explore the role of emotional intelligence―how we manage ourselves and our relationships―in “primal leadership” and how it links to organizational success or failure.
As we reflect on what great leaders do, how do they move us? How do they inspire the best in us and ignite our passions? The authors invite us to consider how we define what great leaders do to suggest that there is a primal element in effect (i.e., how leadership works through the emotions). They note that followers look for “supportive emotional connection—for empathy” in a leader, which builds team resonance. There’s a flip side to this, when a leader’s lack of empathy can create less than optimal working conditions and drive away bright talent.
Emotional intelligence competencies revolve around our learned abilities as we leverage from key domains of personal competence and social competence. Distilling this even further, there are associated strengths within each of these domains: 

PERSONAL COMPETENCE – How we manage ourselves
  • Self-Awareness: Emotional self-awareness, self-assessment, self-confidence
  • Self-Management: Emotional self-control, transparency, adaptability, achievement, initiative, optimism 

SOCIAL COMPETENCE – How we manage relationships 
  • Social Awareness: Empathy, organizational awareness, service
  • Relationship Management: Inspirational leadership, influence, developing others, change catalyst, conflict management, teamwork, collaboration

Typically, “the best, most effective leaders act according to one or more of the six distinct approaches to leadership” by skillfully customizing their leadership repertoire as the situation demands. Imagine for a moment what acting as a high-impact leader would look and feel like if you were to operationalize any one of these six styles:

  • Visionary: Moving people toward shared goals when changes require a new vision. 

  • Coaching: Improving each employee’s performance by connecting their aspirations with your organization’s goals. 

  • Affiliative: Creating connections within teams as well as team to team, thus forming harmony within the organization. 

  • Democratic: Building buy-in and commitment from each team member by valuing their input. 

  • Pacesetting: Setting challenging and exciting goals for yourself and the team to attain higher quality results. 

  • Commanding: Giving clear direction from a firm stance and expecting full compliance.

According to Goleman, an inspirational leadership approach requires our ability to effectively frame or reframe the collective task at hand to "drive emotional (team) climate upward and transform the spirit of the organization at many levels … (as we) set people free to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks."

A leader taps into three emotional intelligence competencies when executing the pacesetting and commanding styles: influence, achievement, and initiative for pacesetting, and self-awareness, emotional self-control, and empathy for commanding; yet these two styles must be used with caution as they can backfire by creating internal dissonance when used recklessly. Dissonant leaders can reform and better utilize the “right approach, in the right moment, and flip from one (of the six leadership styles) to another as needed” only by knowing how to effectively draw from their emotional intelligence strengths.

The heated debates and protests and controversial policy making and enforcement that have recently occurred across the U.S. provide a grand view of the cause and effect when the pacesetting and commanding styles collide. This perfect storm of dissonance leadership in action has prompted a higher number and frequency of coordinated grassroots, social justice, and quality of life movements—many of which have a strong direct or indirect effect on our campuses—that demand administrators and legislators be more inclusive, collaborative, and democratic.

Over the years I have faced many challenging situations that required my capacity to constructively and creatively utilize the pacesetting and commanding styles while also tapping into the other four styles to create and sustain the positive turnarounds necessary to drive important changes with my teams. For instance, when I left Wake Forest University to move to East Carolina University, I was given the formidable task of building a new Student Involvement Team (SIT) among six different units who, while collegial to one another, had not necessarily worked together as a team. I also did not have a dedicated operational budget for our SIT initiatives. While my team highly regarded my previous work at WFU, there were certain to be skeptics unsure about how they and I would operate as a newly configured team.

Visionary and Coaching: Upon arrival, my primary goal quickly became clear: to scan and assess the strengths of the individuals within my team and allow them to do the same with me and their coworkers via one-to-ones, weekly meetings with the directors, and monthly meetings with our larger group of 30-plus. After building ample team resonance, we could collectively begin to build a vision for ourselves and our new SIT initiatives in order to brand our distinctive work differently than before.  

Affiliative and Democratic: I had to establish a certain level of transparency where all levels of our department shared information and knowledge in a more inclusive, proactive way. Being open to constructive feedback from my team (and vice versa) gave team members freedom to perform necessary course corrections and created a healthy check and balance system not heavily weighted on a "do as I say" model. I also added ongoing, symbolic occasions to celebrate individual and team goals achieved.

Pacesetting and Commanding: Although used sparingly since I was fortunate to have inherited such a highly competent, professional staff, my pacesetting—exemplifying higher standards for performance, setting clear guidelines to achieve our goals, and delegating duties—worked wonders. Timing and good intentions were critical as we co-created realistic goals, benchmarks, and deliverables for our work.

By the end of our first semester together, we met and exceeded the expectations we set for ourselves and from others at ECU. Other teams on campus consulted us on our best practices. The fact that we saw our results in real time further built team commitment and enthusiasm. 

During this time, we worked together to conceive a five-year strategic plan for SIT, all of which we accomplished in less than three years. Our campus outreach was galvanized by the tragedies of 9/11. Each of our directors voluntarily committed a percentage of their budget to build our SIT budget, which by the second year grew well beyond our base of $30,000. Within our second year, another $30,000 was added by our Student Government who committed $1.00 per student to our work together, which was unprecedented for them. We also continued development of SIT initiatives through co-sponsorships with other departments that put us on the university map in strategic ways, enabling us to host a series of nationally renowned speakers and artists, create a sustainable World Peace Series, and disburse small grants to help support other student organizations and academic departments.

How do we know when to apply which leadership style? Goleman states that the most resonant leaders "go beyond a mechanical process of matching their styles to fit a checklist of situation; they are far more fluid." In part II, we will explore other primal leadership concepts and what it requires to operate as a resonant leader in turbulent times through a five-step discovery process.

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