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Vol. LXV, No. 9
April 26, 2013

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‘Leaders are Senders’
Goleman Brings NIH’ers ‘Back to the Breath’

Dr. Daniel Goleman

Dr. Daniel Goleman

Dr. Daniel Goleman, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence, recently opened a talk at NIH by asking a rapt audience in Masur Auditorium to describe the best boss they ever had.

Audience members fired back one-by-one: Inspirational. Ethical. Flexible. Good listener. Has your back. Mission-centered. Trustworthy. Sincere. Intuitive.

“Good,” Goleman said. “Now describe the leader from hell.”

Someone called out: “Negate everything we just said!”

There followed a shock of recognition—we all know that leader right?—and universal laughter.

There was a lot of laughter throughout Goleman’s talk, “Leading with Emotional Intelligence,” the second lecture in the 2013 Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series.

The audience’s adjectives buttressed Goleman’s well-known thesis: the worst leaders have serious deficits in emotional intelligence (EI), or the so-called soft skills embodying four areas: self-awareness, relationship management, empathy and self-management.

Goleman first introduced the idea of EI to the public nearly two decades ago. Today it is an accepted concept in progressive, effective leadership. Goleman cited studies showing that effective leaders embody not only cognitive and technical skills, but more importantly social skills, how we manage ourselves and our relationships with others.

One major problem in organizations, Goleman said, is that the wrong people often rise to positions of leadership.

“Many leaders who end up failing are mistakenly promoted to their positions solely because of their technical abilities,” Goleman said. They perform tasks well, but lack the crucial social skills that translate into effective leadership.

“These leaders tend to manage others the way they manage themselves as high-level performers: by being excessively critical.” They tend to micro-manage and negatively impact the organization.

For example, giving feedback in an aloof manner, monitoring your staff’s emails, offering no praise or encouragement all have disastrous effects on morale, performance and retention.

These managers frequently lack one key trait of the best bosses: self-awareness.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence know their feelings, goals, drives, values, strengths and limits.

“The best leaders know what they are good at and when they have to rely on someone else,” Goleman said. They don’t operate in solitary confinement.

Goleman stresses the importance of emotional intelligence to NIH leadership.

Goleman stresses the importance of emotional intelligence to NIH leadership.

Photos: Ernie Branson

The emotional message that a leader sends can have enormous impact on staff’s ability to perform effectively and productively. Goleman said this gives leaders an extra responsibility.

“Leaders are senders, whether they know it or not.”

Goleman cited studies at the Yale School of Management in which a leader was put in a bad mood and sent in to do a group exercise. “The group caught the bad mood and the group’s performance suffered,” he said.

The studies also showed enhanced performance when leaders entered the group exercises in a positive mood.

Leaders’ mood can affect staff performance.

Self-management is crucial during times of organizational trauma. This is true even of perceived trauma or threats.

The amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, acts as radar for threat and can paralyze the brain’s executive center, or prefrontal cortex, during moments of stress when thinking, creativity and decision-making are impaired. Goleman calls these episodes “amygdala hijacks” that staff suffer when unfairly criticized or blamed by the boss or during periods of uncertainty.

What can leaders do to help their staffs during these times?

It is important today for leaders to pay full attention to their employees. “Electronics have ratcheted up the rate and intensity of distractedness,” he said. “It now takes a more intentional decision to pay attention to the other person.”

Goleman demonstrated a simple way to raise emotional intelligence. He asked the audience to participate in the “mindfulness exercise,” which enhances the ability to manage emotions and heightens self-awareness and focus. He asked audience members to close their eyes and focus on their breathing.

“When your mind wanders,” Goleman said, “just bring it back to the breath.”

Masur went silent for several minutes.

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