Leaders have always played a primordial emotional role. No doubt humankind’s original leaders—whether tribal chieftains or shamanesses—earned their place in large part because their leadership was emotionally compelling. Throughout history and in cultures everywhere, the leader in any human group has been the one to whom others look for assurance and clarity when facing uncertainty or threat, or when there’s a job to be done. The leader acts as the group’s emotional guide.
Quite simply, in any human group the leader has maximal power to sway everyone’s emotions. If people’s emotions are pushed toward the range of enthusiasm, performance can soar; if people are driven toward rancor and anxiety, they will be thrown off stride. This indicates important aspect of primal leadership: Its effects extend beyond ensuring that a job is well done. Followers also look to a leader for supportive emotional connection—for empathy. All leadership includes this primal dimension, for better or for worse.
Resonance, the Oxford English Dictionary states, refers to “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection,” or, more specifically, “by synchronous vibration.” The human analog of synchronous vibration occurs when two people are on the same wavelength emotionally—when they feel “in synch.” And true to the original meaning of resonance, that synchrony “resounds,” prolonging the positive emotional pitch.
One sign of resonant leadership is a group of followers who vibrate with the leader’s upbeat and enthusiastic energy. A primal leadership dictum is that resonance amplifies and prolongs the emotional impact of leadership. The more resonant people are with each other, the less static are their interactions; resonance minimizes the noise in the system. “One team,” as a business mantra proclaims, means “more signal, less noise.” The glue that holds people together in a team, and that commits people to an organization, is the emotions they feel.
How well leaders manage and direct those feelings to help a group meet its goals depends on their level of emotional intelligence. Resonance comes naturally to emotionally intelligent (EI) leaders. Their passion and enthusiastic energy resounds throughout the group. Even so, such leaders might sometimes project a more serious mood, when appropriate, using empathy to attune to the emotional register of the people they lead.
Becoming A Resonant Leader
The crux of leadership development that works is self-directed learning: intentionally developing or strengthening an aspect of who you are or who you want to be, or both. This requires first getting a strong image of your ideal self, as well as an accurate picture of your real self—who you are now. Such self-directed learning is most effective and sustainable when you understand the process of change—and the steps to achieve it—as you go through it.
Self-directed learning involves five discoveries, each representing a discontinuity. The goal, of course, is to use each discovery as a tool for making the changes needed to become an emotionally intelligent leader.
The steps do not unfold in a smooth, orderly way, but rather follow a sequence, with each step demanding different amounts of time and effort. The results of practicing new habits over time are that they become part of your new real self. Often, with changes in your habits, EI, and leadership styles, come changes in your aspirations and dreams, your ideal self. And so the cycle continues—a lifelong process of growth and adaptation.
When you go through the discovery of uncovering an ideal vision of yourself, you feel motivated to develop your leadership abilities. That is, you see the person you want to be. Whether this vision actually comes to you in a dream, through getting in touch with the values and commitments that guide your life, or through simple reflection, the image is powerful enough to evoke your passion and hope. It becomes the fuel that maintains the drive you need to work at the difficult and often frustrating process of change.
The second discovery is akin to looking into a mirror to discover who you actually are now—how you act, how others view you, and what your deep beliefs comprise. Some of these observations will be consistent with your ideal self, and can be considered strengths; others will represent gaps between who you are and who you want to be. This realization of your strengths and gaps prepares the way for changing your leadership style.
But for that change to succeed, you’ll need to develop an agenda for improving your abilities, which is the third discovery. A plan of action needs to be constructed that provides detailed guidance on what new things to try each day, building on your strengths and moving you closer to your ideal. The plan should feel intrinsically satisfying, fitting your learning preferences as well as the realities of your life and work.
The fourth discovery comes in practicing new leadership skills.
The fifth discovery may occur at any point in the process. It is that you need others to identify your ideal self or find your real self, to discover your strengths and gaps, to develop an agenda for the future, and to experiment and practice. Leadership development can only occur in the tumult and possibilities of our relationships. Others help us see things we are missing, affirm whatever progress we have made, test our perceptions, and let us know how we are doing. They provide the context for experimentation and practice. Although the model is called a self-directed learning process, it actually cannot be done alone. Without others’ involvement, lasting change can’t occur
To summarize the process, people who successfully change in sustainable ways cycle through the following stages:
- The first discovery: My ideal self—Who do I want to be?
- The second discovery: My real self—Who am I? What are my strengths and gaps?
- The third discovery: My learning agenda—How can I build on my strengths while reducing my gaps?
- The fourth discovery: Experimenting with and practicing new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to the point of mastery.
- The fifth discovery: Developing supportive and trusting relationships that make change possible.
Ideally, the progression occurs through a discontinuity—a moment of discovery—that provokes not just awareness, but also a sense of urgency
Creating Sustainable Change
Increasingly, the best of breed lead not by virtue of power alone, but by excelling in the art of relationship, the singular expertise that the changing business climate renders indispensable. Leadership excellence is being redefined in interpersonal terms as companies strip out layers of managers, as corporations merge across national boundaries, and as customers and suppliers redefine the web of connection.
Resonant leaders know when to be collaborative and when to be visionary, when to listen and when to command. Such leaders have a knack for attuning to their own sense of what matters and articulating a mission that resonates with the values of those they lead. These leaders naturally nurture relationships, surface simmering issues, and create the human synergies of a group in harmony. They build a fierce loyalty by caring about the careers of those who work for them, and inspire people to give their best for a mission that speaks to shared values.
An emotionally intelligent leader does each of these at the right time, in the right way, with the right person. Such leadership creates a climate of enthusiasm and flexibility, one where people feel invited to be at their most innovative, where they give their best. And such a working climate, given today’s business realities, creates added value through the essential human ingredients for organizational performance.
Such leaders are more values-driven, more flexible and informal, and more open and frank than leaders of old. They are more connected to people and to networks. Most especially, they exude resonance: They have genuine passion for their mission, and that passion is contagious. Their enthusiasm and excitement spread spontaneously, invigorating those they lead. And resonance is the key to primal leadership.