The ideal leader has always been described as someone who can balance the technical and emotional demands of the job.
This is the leader who has all of the hard competencies – intelligence, confidence, toughness, determination and vision – to be a true subject matter expert in their field.
However, there are also the softer, emotional competencies – empathy, motivation, self-restraint and self-awareness – that allow leaders to connect with, engage and inspire the people they lead.
There certainly are leaders who have demonstrated the ability to maintain these two, seemingly conflicting identities. The problem has always been that there are too few leaders that have the ability to toggle between the technical and emotional competencies.
The result is that there are entire generations of leaders who are brilliant technicians, but who cannot inspire their employees. Or, leaders who connect on a deep level with employees, but don’t have the technical knowledge or fortitude to drive success.
To complicate matters, there is a huge divergence of opinion about whether the ideal leader can actually be built. In other words, can you develop a leader who demonstrates both strong technical expertise and emotional intelligence?
In the search for truth on this matter, it is perhaps not surprising that neuroscience has begun to unearth certain new and promising theories.
It is through study of the brain and the close examination of brain activity associated with the competencies most needed in great leaders, that we’ve obtained new perspective and understanding that great leaders are not only born, but they can be nurtured and cultivated as well.
Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor of Organizational Behavior at Case Western Reserve University outside Cleveland, and a graduate of MIT and Harvard, has committed many years of his life to identifying the triggers for the emotional competencies that are essential to great leadership.
Many forms of leadership training, including coaching, involve goal-oriented methods and detailed feedback, Boyatzis said. Although this approach is not bad in and of itself, turning to these methods right off the top provokes a physiological response that works against the cultivation of emotional competencies.
Boyatzis believes goal or feedback oriented training triggers the “task positive mode,” that part of the brain that engages whenever we are asked to focus on a specific task. When the task positive mode is engaged, we become defensive and closed off to new ideas. That makes our ability to demonstrate certain emotional competencies – empathy and self-awareness – nearly impossible.
This is the typical physiological reaction when someone tries to “teach” emotional competencies. According to Boyatzis, telling a leader they must be more empathetic only serves to make someone feel guilty or defensive. They believe they are being instructed in empathy because they cannot be empathetic, or that they are failing as leaders.
To really get in touch with the emotional side of the leadership equation, Boyatzis said leaders need to engage the brain’s “default mode network,” that part of the brain that activates when we are engaged in things like daydreaming, thinking about the future and nostalgia.
What, you may ask, could possibly be accomplished by triggering a part of a leader’s brain that is associated with daydreaming? According to Boyatzis, activities that trigger the default mode help excite the brain, which in turn makes us open to the discussion and helps us access our natural emotional competencies.
“The default mode network is the part of the brain we use when we’re open to new ideas,” Boyatzis said. “That allows us to empathize more. It makes us more aware of our effect on others. However, when we get people into analytical processes, the task positive mode, we actually limit our ability to be open to new ideas. We become totally defensive. It makes us closed to other people, defensive, and less open to higher moral concepts.”
Putting these theories into practice, Boyatzis said he takes MBA students through a process where all analytical tasks, including hard performance assessments, are pushed back in favor of a process to get leaders more in touch with their ideal vision for the future.
Boyatzis asks his MBA students “if your life was ideal, what would it look like in 10 to 15 years?” They are told not to focus on money by imagining that they have the wealth to engage in any activity or calling. Boyatzis said it is a process by which the students become more hopeful and in touch with their dreams, those things in life that really excite their brains and trigger positive emotions.
“This state of excitement creates a physiological reaction,” Boyatzis said. “It releases energy. This allows you to open up to new ideas, to see possibilities that you’ve never seen before. You begin to focus on solutions, rather than dwelling on problems.”
Boyatzis’ work has demonstrated that leaders who fully embrace their default mode network, and get more in touch with themselves and their emotional competencies, can have a profound impact on their organizations. An emotionally competent leader can trigger the same release of energy and excitement in the people they lead by engaging them in hopeful, future-focused conversations, releasing new reservoirs of effort and innovation.
Can all leaders benefit from this approach? Boyatzis believes technically oriented leaders actually are quite open to the default mode theories, and can show among the greatest levels of change after going through the journey of self-awareness.
That having been said, there is a small constituency of leaders who are just too rooted in the task positive mode to make any kind of transition. That does not mean, however, that business should not try to get all of its leaders to embrace both the technical and emotional competencies.
“Let’s face it, over time as we go through our working lives, we get to a point where we lose some of our juice,” Boyatzis said. “How do regain that enthusiasm and excitement? How can we make the people who work for us just as excited? Excited leaders make excited employees. And that means better overall performance.”