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Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership (HBR)

Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis are back in the Harvard Business Review (Sept. 2008) with another interesting and useful article about leadership: Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership. (executive summary; full article – subscription required; purchase) The article lead in states that “new studies of the brain show that leaders can improve group performance by understanding the biology of empathy.”

In 2006 Goleman wrote Social Intelligence – The New Science of Human Relationships in which he extended his study of emotional intelligence out to interpersonal relations. One of the great things about Goleman’s writing in the book and in his collaboration with Boyatzis in the HBR article is the effective use of storytelling to illustrate his theories. For example:

The firing of social neurons is evident all around us. We once analyzed a video of Herb Kelleher, a cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, strolling down the corridors of Love Field in Dallas, the airline’s hub. We could practically see him activate the mirror neurons, oscillators, and other social circuitry in each person he encountered. He offered beaming smiles, shook hands with customers as he told them how much he appreciated their business, hugged employees as he thanked them for their good work. And he got back exactly what he gave. Typical was the flight attendant whose face lit up when she unexpectedly encountered her boss. “Oh, my honey!” she blurted, brimming with warmth, and gave him a big hug. She later explained, “Everyone just feels like family with him.”

We’ve always felt that positive emotions are contagious with leaders potentially having profound impact on followers. Now through the work of the authors and other neuroscience researchers, hard evidence is being produced that allows the development of a better understanding of how the brain functions during interpersonal exchanges. We can now use this new knowledge to become more effective leaders and managers.

The authors also discuss the recent discovery in behavioral neuroscience of mirror neurons and their particular importance in emotional contagion and leadership. They validate the importance of young aspiring leaders in identifying mentors to assist them in their leadership journey.

Spending time with a living, breathing model of effective behavior provides the perfect stimulation for our mirror neurons, which allow us to directly experience, internalize, and ultimately emulate what we observe.

As usual with Goleman and Boyatzis, there’s lots of great information, so we recommend you buy the article if you’re not all ready a Harvard Business Review subscriber.  Here’s a link to a special offer to subscribe.

There’s an HBR video interview with Goleman that’s worth watching here.

Goleman is the co-chair and Boyatzis is a member of the Consortium for Research of Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, whose mission is “to advance research and practice of emotional and social intelligence in organizations through the generation and exchange of knowledge.”

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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