Primal Leadership (By Daniel Goleman, Annie McKee and Richard E. Boyatzis)

Emotional Intelligence And Primal Leadership

Primal leadership is an emotionally compelling management style between “resonant leaders” and the people they lead. This book harnesses the principles of Emotional Intelligence (as described in Goleman’s previous book) in the service of improving leadership skills…At least, that’s what it purports to do!

An Emotional Open-Loop

I enjoyed the “brain as an open-loop” metaphor. Open in the sense that my emotions influence your emotions (and other physiological indices - like cardiovascular function and hormone levels) and vice versa.

A study at Yale has shown that laughter is particularly demonstrative of this “open loop” principle. (As a motivational speaker, one of my roles is to bond an audience through humor and so I see open-loops in action on a regular basis.)

The open-loop is equally important in other leadership situations because people will pick up on and respond in kind to the emotional tone of their leaders. Given all the research on “mirror neurons” that apparently read and directly mimic the emotions of those around us…this argument makes sense.

Emotional Intelligence Competencies

The book continues with the dimensions and competencies of the emotionally resonant leader…19 emotional intelligence competencies in four domains.

First off, I was struck by the fact that many of these competencies require far more than the ability to manage your emotions. (Given how hard Goleman et al beat the primary-importance-of-emotional-intelligence drum, I found this classification to be rather disingenuous.)

For example, “initiative—readiness to act and seize opportunities” necessitates a sophisticated neural dance between the highly connected emotional and thinking parts of the brain. Thinking skills to identify a golden opportunity and make the decision to act, coupled with the ability to manage anxiety and other toxic emotions en route. To define this as an emotional intelligence competency is absurd!

Frankly, I the whole intelligence quotient or emotional intelligence debate is utterly spurious! If you learn how to flex your Perspective PowerTM you can sharpen your thinking and manage toxic emotions at the same time.

Secondly, I find the “shopping list” approach to leadership training akin to hitting an audience with a densely written PowerPoint slide…Everyone in the room switches off and the trainer is pretty much talking to him- or herself.

In my experience, books which provide a simple framework to build on are far more effective at improving performance. My suspicion (an, in fairness, it is just a suspicion, is that listing “19 emotional intelligence competencies in four domains” produces a flurry of “box-ticking” but very little in the way of actual results!

Developing Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

After a discussion of the six leadership styles (Another – albeit much shorter – list and a call for emotional flexibility) the authors provide a vague action plan for developing emotionally intelligent leaders. This boiled down to little more than a bog standard “envision your ideal future” goal-setting exercise.

Here is my biggest “beef” with Goleman’s book: He and his colleagues draw a distinction between neocortical learning and limbic learning…No problem so far. Then they argue that focusing exclusively on strategies that teach the neocortex (and omit the limbic system) are likely to fail…No argument here.

But, and here’s the big one…the strategies they suggest for “reconfiguring” the limbic system (like mental rehearsal) are extremely limp! Where are the powerful meditation concepts like “catch and release,” and deep relaxation techniques?


Does “Primal Intelligence” provide the tools to enhance your own leadership emotional intelligence? Unfortunately, the answer is no. As with the Goleman’s original book “Emotional Intelligence,” the reader is left all the more frustrated because of the compelling case for needing emotional intelligence!

When I chat with attendees after my motivational speeches and workshops, I'm always struck by how hard executives work. It seems untenable to expect them to read work-related books that don’t provide a substantial and immediate payoff.

Presenting an extensive list of 19 emotional intelligence competencies without a concrete, step-by-step, actionable plan for attaining them is a sure-fire recipe for the anxiety ridden leader.

Bottom line: A great book for summarizing the research into emotional intelligence and highlighting what’s wrong with your EQ, but, sadly, not for telling you how to put it right.

"Committed to your success" -Steve

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