3 Core Leadership Tasks to Master

Emotional Intelligence expert Daniel Goleman writes how becoming a “resonant” leader can improve business results.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Leaders face similar basic responsibilities, whether they are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies or managers of small production teams. To lead a group of any size effectively, you must manage meaning, set the emotional tone, and put people in the right emotional range for their best performance. One key phrase to keep in mind when engaged in these tasks is "resonant leadership."

What is Resonant Leadership?

Resonance is a term in physics. Sounds resonate — becoming deeper and more meaningful — when they move on the same wavelength. The opposite of resonance, dissonance, occurs when sound waves come into conflict and don’t flow together. Leaders’ emotions resemble sound waves in how they impact the emotional states of those around them. Resonant leaders guide their colleagues onto a positive wavelength. In contrast, leaders who fail to manage their own disruptive emotions spread dissonance. In Primal Leadership, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee, and I describe four styles of leadership that can create resonance in a group: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, and Democratic. When used appropriately, each style can enhance the emotional climate of a group, and improve business results. These three core tasks are crucial to all four styles:

Managing Meaning

Leaders manage meaning all the time. Effective leaders clearly communicate the mission of their group or organization. By situating day-to-day events in the context of that mission, leaders help their group make sense of its activities and what they mean in terms of this larger mission. More importantly, by emphasizing the mission, resonant leaders help group members look ahead to the future so they know where they’re headed — and feel good about it.

Setting the Emotional Tone

For good or bad, all leaders set their group's emotional tone. Resonant leaders start the process of setting a positive tone for the group by first managing themselves. Positivity flows naturally from leaders who project calmness, clarity, and knowledge about where the group is going. In contrast, dissonant leaders spread their own tension and aimlessness. Even when events work against the group’s goals, resonant leaders can continue to steer the group in a positive direction.

Preparing for Positive Performance

How can leaders help group members perform at their best? Sigal Barsade at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has conducted research on the impact of emotions on work performance. Barsade and other researchers note that employees perform best when leaders convey enthusiasm, motivation, and a shared sense of meaning. Used carefully, negative emotions like anger and fear may improve performance briefly — but in the long term, they become toxic.

How Well Do You Handle These Tasks?

Here are some questions to ask yourself to evaluate your leadership style.

  • How clearly and concisely can I describe the mission of my team/organization?
  • How often do I frame requests or suggestions in relation to that mission?
  • Does everyone in my team/organization understand how his or her current work relates to the mission?
  • How emotionally self-aware am I? Can I describe my feelings right now?
  • How well do I manage my emotions?
  • What emotions do I display at work? On a good day? When I feel challenged or upset?
  • How would I describe the emotional atmosphere in my group?

To give yourself even more information about your handling of the leadership tasks, ask a trusted colleague to look over these questions and give you feedback on how he or she sees you in relation to each task. Consulting others, individually or in a full 360-degree assessment, can be extremely helpful as you work to identify potential areas for improvement.