Mind-Blowing Leadership

Science shows the right kind of leadership can impact people's brain chemistry in a positive way, says emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Emotional intelligence remains a key ingredient in the development of corporate leaders. In this series, best-selling author and Korn Ferry columnist Daniel Goleman reveals the 12 key skills behind EI. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to Inspirational Leadership: A Primer.

The Inspirational Leadership competency is the ability to motivate and guide people to get the job done, and to bring out their best. With inspiration, you can articulate a shared mission in a way that motivates and offers a sense of common purpose beyond people’s day-to-day tasks.

Here’s what the data tells us about this competency. Inspiring leaders—those who articulate a shared vision that engages people—are seen as highly effective by the people they lead, according to research done at Case Western Reserve University’s business school. They’re praised by direct reports and by their peers alike. Brain research reveals that leaders whom employees rate as highly inspiring have greater harmony among key neural circuits for integrating thoughts and emotions, while leaders who are uninspiring lack that brain harmony.

Reminding people about the purpose of the organization or of their work together has a huge impact on their motivation, pride, and energy. I am thinking of Bill George when he was CEO of the medical device maker Medtronic. George had patients whose lives had been saved by Medtronic’s products visit with the factory workers who were making those very devices to thank them. This made the employees have extra pride and take special care in what they did. Medtronic grew in revenue enormously while George was CEO and was very successful under his leadership.

Leaders who don’t have this competency can have some unintended impacts on others. For example, a famous media company created an experimental division, but after trying it for a year, the firm’s senior executives decided the division wasn’t accomplishing what they wanted. So, they decided to close it down and sent an executive to tell the division’s employees. He began by telling them he had just come from a posh conference in Monte Carlo with heads of other media organizations, several of which had also tried the same type of division. Those rival divisions had done very well, he told the employees, but theirs had failed.

He was very arrogant, even rude, in how he told the people in that division the bad news. The workers were in an uproar, which became so intense security was called to get the executive out of the room. That executive lacked was the Inspirational Leadership competency.

Inspirational leadership can come in many forms, and context matters. Leaders who have developed other emotional intelligence competencies such as emotional self-awareness, empathy, positive outlook, and teamwork  are more likely to be equipped with the capacity to think creatively about the best ways to engage people. This is because they will have had discussions with their teams, listened to them, and responded to their input. Such a leader would have a better gut sense of what to invoke in terms of a powerful shared goal. And it is precisely such human connections that light the spark of inspiration.