THE POWER OF
GREAT LEADERS move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions.
No matter what leaders set out to do—whether it’s creating strategy or mobilizing teams to action—their success depends on how they do it. Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should.
Consider, for example, a pivotal moment in a news division at the BBC, the British media giant. The division had been set up as an experiment, and while its 200 or so journalists and editors felt they had given their best, management had decided the division would have to close. 1
It didn’t help that the executive sent to deliver the decision to the assembled staff started off with a glowing account of how well rival operations were doing, and that he had just returned from a wonderful trip to Cannes. The news itself was bad enough, but the brusque, even contentious manner of the executive incited something beyond the expected frustration. People became enraged—not just at the management decision, but also at the bearer of the news himself. The atmosphere became so threatening, in fact, that it looked as though the executive might have to call security to usher him safely from the room.
The next day, another executive visited the same staff. He took a very different approach. He spoke from his heart about the crucial importance of journalism to the vibrancy of a society, and of the calling that had drawn them all to the field in the first place. He reminded them that no one goes into journalism to get rich—as a profession its finances have always been marginal, with job security ebbing and flowing with larger economic tides. And he invoked the passion, even the dedication, the journalists had for the service they offered. Finally, he wished them all well in getting on with their careers.
When this leader finished speaking, the staff cheered.
The difference between the leaders lay in the mood and tone with which they delivered their messages: One drove the group toward antagonism and hostility, the other toward optimism, even inspiration, in the face of difficulty. These two moments point to a hidden, but crucial, dimension in leadership—the emotional impact of what a leader says and does.
While most people recognize that a leader’s mood—and how he or she impacts the mood of others—plays a significant role in any organization, emotions are often seen as too personal or unquantifiable to talk about in a meaningful way. But research in the field of emotion has yielded keen insights into not only how to measure the impact of a leader’s emotions but also how the best leaders have found effective ways to understand and improve the way they handle their own and other people’s emotions. Understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace
sets the best leaders apart from the rest—not just in tangibles such as better business results and the retention of talent, but also in the all-important intangibles, such as higher morale, motivation, and commitment.
The Primal Dimension
This emotional task of the leader is primal—that is, first—in two senses: It is both the original and the most important act of leadership.
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.
In the modern organization, this primordial emotional task—though by now largely invisible—remains foremost among the many jobs of leadership: driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog created by toxic emotions. This task applies to leadership everywhere, from the boardroom to the shop floor.
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 another 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. When leaders drive emotions positively, as was the case with the second executive at the BBC, they bring out everyone’s best. We call this effect resonance
. When they drive
emotions negatively, as with the first executive, leaders spawn dissonance
, undermining the emotional foundations that let people shine. Whether an organization withers or flourishes depends to a remarkable extent on the leaders’ effectiveness in this primal emotional dimension.
The key, of course, to making primal leadership work to everyone’s advantage lies in the leadership competencies of emotional intelligence: how leaders handle themselves and their relationships. Leaders who maximize the benefits of primal leadership drive the emotions of those they lead in the right direction.
How does all of this work? Recent studies of the brain reveal the neurological mechanisms of primal leadership and make clear just why emotional intelligence abilities are so crucial.
The Open Loop
The reason a leader’s manner—not just what he does, but how he does it—matters so much lies in the design of the human brain: what scientists have begun to call the open-loop nature of the limbic system, our emotional centers. A closed-loop system such as the circulatory system is self-regulating; what’s happening in the circulatory system of others around us does not impact our own system. An open-loop system depends largely on external sources to manage itself.
In other words, we rely on connections with other people for our own emotional stability. The open-loop limbic system was a winning design in evolution, no doubt, because it allows people to come to one another’s emotional rescue—enabling, for example, a mother to soothe her crying infant, or a lookout in a primate band to signal an instant alarm when he perceives a threat.
Despite the veneer of our advanced civilization, the open-loop principle still holds. Research in intensive care units has shown that the comforting presence of another person not only lowers the patient’s blood pressure, but also slows the secretion of fatty acids that block arteries. 2
More dramatically, whereas three or more incidents of intense stress within a year (say, serious financial
trouble, being fired, or a divorce) triple the death rate in socially isolated middle-aged men, they have no impact
whatsoever on the death rate of men who cultivate many close relationships. 3
Scientists describe the open loop as “interpersonal limbic regulation,” whereby one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular function, sleep rhythms, and even immune function inside the body of another. 4
That’s how couples who are in love are able to trigger in one another’s brains surges of oxytocin, which creates a pleasant, affectionate feeling. But in all aspects of social life, not just love relationships, our physiologies intermingle, our emotions automatically shifting into the register of the person we’re with. The open-loop design of the limbic system means that other people can change our very physiology—and so our emotions.
Even though the open loop is so much a part of our lives, we usually don’t notice the process itself. Scientists have captured this attunement of emotions in the laboratory by measuring the physiology—such as heart rate—of two people as they have a good conversation. As the conversation begins, their bodies each operate at different rhythms. But by the end of a simple fifteen-minute conversation, their physiological profiles look remarkably similar—a phenomenon called mirroring
. This entrainment occurs strongly during the downward spiral of a conflict, when anger and hurt reverberate, but also goes on more subtly during pleasant interactions. 5
It happens hardly at all during an emotionally neutral discussion. Researchers have seen again and again how emotions spread irresistibly in this way whenever people are near one another, even when the contact is completely nonverbal. For example, when three strangers sit facing each other in silence for a minute or two, the one who is most emotionally expressive transmits his or her mood to the other two—without speaking a single word. 6
The same effect holds in the office, boardroom, or shop floor; people in groups at work inevitably “catch” feelings from one another, sharing everything from jealousy and envy to angst or euphoria. The more cohesive the group, the stronger the sharing of moods, emotional history, and even hot buttons. 7
In seventy work teams across diverse industries, for instance,
members who sat in meetings together ended up sharing moods—either good or bad—within two hours. 8
Nurses, and even accountants, who monitored their moods over weeks or every few hours as they worked together showed emotions that tracked together—and the group’s shared moods were largely independent of the hassles they shared. 9
Studies of professional sports teams reveal similar results: Quite apart from the ups and downs of a team’s standing, its players tend to synchronize their moods over a period of days and weeks. 10
Contagion and Leadership
The continual interplay of limbic open loops among members of a group creates a kind of emotional soup, with everyone adding his or her own flavor to the mix. But it is the leader who adds the strongest seasoning. Why? Because of that enduring reality of business: Everyone watches the boss. People take their emotional cues from the top. Even when the boss isn’t highly visible—for example, the CEO who works behind closed doors on an upper floor—his attitude affects the moods of his direct reports, and a domino effect ripples throughout the company’s emotional climate. 11
Careful observations of working groups in action revealed several ways the leader plays such a pivotal role in determining the shared emotions. 12
Leaders typically talked more than anyone else, and what they said was listened to more carefully. Leaders were also usually the first to speak out on a subject, and when others made comments, their remarks most often referred to what the leader had said than to anyone else’s comments. Because the leader’s way of seeing things has special weight, leaders “manage meaning” for a group, offering a way to interpret, and so react emotionally to, a given situation. 13
But the impact on emotions goes beyond what a leader says. In these studies, even when leaders were not talking, they were watched more carefully than anyone else in the group. When people raised a question for the group as a whole, they would keep
their eyes on the leader to see his or her response. Indeed, group members generally see the leader’s emotional reaction as the most valid response, and so model their own on it—particularly in an ambiguous situation, where various members react differently. In a sense, the leader sets the emotional standard.
Leaders give praise or withhold it, criticize well or destructively, offer support or turn a blind eye to people’s needs. They can frame the group’s mission in ways that give more meaning to each person’s contribution—or not. They can guide in ways that give people a sense of clarity and direction in their work and that encourage flexibility, setting people free to use their best sense of how to get the job done. All these acts help determine a leader’s primal emotional impact.
Still, not all “official” leaders in a group are necessarily the emotional leaders. When the designated leader lacks credibility for some reason, people may turn for emotional guidance to someone else who they trust and respect. This de facto leader then becomes the one who molds others’ emotional reactions. For instance, a well-known jazz group that was named for its formal leader and founder actually took its emotional cues from a different musician. The founder continued to manage bookings and logistics, but when it came time to decide what tune the group would play next or how the sound system should be adjusted, all eyes turned to the dominant member—the emotional leader. 14
Regardless of who the emotional leader might be, however, she’s likely to have a knack for acting as a limbic “attractor,” exerting a palpable force on the emotional brains of people around her. Watch a gifted actor at work, for example, and observe how easily she draws an audience into her emotional orbit. Whether she’s conveying the agony of a betrayal or a joyous triumph, the audience feels those things too.
LAUGHTER AND THE OPEN LOOP
EMOTIONS MAY SPREAD
like viruses, but not all emotions spread with the same ease. A study at the Yale University School of Management found that among working groups, cheerfulness and warmth spread most easily, while irritability is less contagious and depression spreads hardly at all. 15
This greater diffusion rate for good moods has direct implications for business results. Moods, the Yale study found, influence how effectively people work; upbeat moods boost cooperation, fairness, and business performance.