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Intellectual Cherries Jubilee
on May 26, 2002
"Primal Leadership" is the latest best-seller in the "emotional intelligence" business book series that has become a franchise for psychologist and former New York Times writer Daniel Goleman.
It might be accurately subtitled: "Three Ph.D.s Cite Tons of Research to Convince Business Executives (Yet Again) that Feelings Matter to People at Work."
The research underlying the authors' assertions about the importance of improving one's emotional control and quality of interpersonal relationships is chronicled in end notes that run 34 pages in relatively small point type.
If you aren't an end note reader, you may not notice that the otherwise credible trio of Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee often give no credit whatsoever in the book's very readable main narrative to the scientists whose work they unabashedly appropriate or reference only in passing. This is especially surprising and disappointing given Dr. Boyatzis's own substantial and distinguished history of contributions to the academic and practical literature.
The "Primal Leadership" authors' well-documented case boils down to this: 1) People respond to their leaders either positively or negatively. And therefore, 2) Leaders need to work on developing an effective leadership style by A. Knowing themselves, B. Controlling their emotional impulses, C. Relating better to others, D. Influencing others to further the organization's work.
Hard to argue with that, even without a truckload of citations.
Now the critical question: Will reading this book give you the tools to improve your own "emotional intelligence"?
In a word, an emphatic and disappointing, no.
You may find yourself jumping up and down screaming, "Yes! Yes! Yes!," to the book's persuasive demand for better leaders, but you're inevitably left whimpering, "Now what?"
For example, the authors tell us we need to "reconfigure" our brains but offer scant help in defining a useful process for accomplishing that. In fact, that is the recurring fatal flaw for this occasionally impressive work--calling for action but specifying little but tired, overly-familiar generalities.
Its recommendations should be familiar to anyone who has ever taken the most basic leadership course (or heard even a mediocre professional speaker at a conference in the past 30 years):
1. Picture your ideal self.
2. Assess your current self.
3. Develop a learning agenda.
4. Experiment with new practices.
5. Develop supportive relationships.
To flesh out these familiar themes, "Primal Leadership" offers vague approaches such as "stealth learning"--code, apparently, for accidental learning by, uh, living.
And it points to old standbys such as using mental rehearsal and actual practice to break old habits. On what should you focus your mental and physical rehearsals?
Well, the authors advise paying attention to your 360-degree feedback, and perhaps finding a mentor or hiring a coach to find out.
Hardly the stuff that one needs reams of doctorate-level research to conclude.
The same is true of the advice offered for "building emotionally intelligent organizations." The authors suggest creating "process norms" and ground rules for teams, and holding honest conversations about the culture that people work in.
Does any of that strike you as new or even particularly insightful? Okay, how about this one. The authors urge: Have a vision.
A busy executive simply won't find much here for undertaking the self-improvement for which Dr. Goleman and his colleagues incessantly lobby. In fact, you could capture all the book's useful advice in a one-page outline. But it will take you many hours to tease it out of the lengthy prose. And once you have, it won't impress you as new or novel.
In the final analysis, this sizeable and serious-sounding book is neither scholarly nor practical. It is a resounding success in making a compelling case for action but then fails just as miserably in offering nothing but the vaguest and most uninspired plan for action.
Strip away the research citations and Daniel Goleman and his erstwhile colleagues have delivered the same old plea for better leaders with the same old solutions for creating them--all dressed up in a new best-seller.
So, unfortunately, for the intended business manager reader this well-documented work amounts to intellectual cherries jubilee: tantalizing, sophisticated, carefully prepared, but devoid of useful nutrients.