Corporate carnivores once strode the earth. They were tough bosses with sobriquets like “Chainsaw Al” (Dunlap), “Neutron Jack” (Welch), and “Irv the Liquidator” (Irwin Jacobs). Though not extinct, the predatory chief executive has been tamed somewhat in the last few years. Even the hardest-edged managers must typically submit to 360-degree appraisals, based on interviews with their colleagues and direct reports, that quantify their emotional competence and assess their skill at dealing with people. More significantly, leaders associated with successful companies these days are known for their ability to be inclusive, responsive, unflappable, and — frankly — mature. In short, in the executive suite, mean and aggressive behavior is no longer seen as a personality trait that pays off.
If anyone deserves credit for bringing about this change in corporate culture, it’s Daniel Goleman. A former Harvard psychologist turned science reporter for the New York Times and then best-selling author, Goleman popularized the concept of “emotional intelligence” in the mid-1990s. He has been working with corporate leaders ever since to show how a steady heart and level head can lead to better performance.
“Being a ‘tough guy’ is no longer a winning strategy in organizations,” says Goleman. “It works in the early days of a startup or when people don’t have other choices. But even then it doesn’t work all that well, and the reason is neurological. Aggressiveness is not the optimal physical state for performance. Because emotional states are contagious and emanate from the boss outward, behavior that pitches people into a state of fear or anger also pushes them out of the zone for optimal cognitive efficacy. There may be some sort of narcissist hit to be had in being a bully or a tyrant, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Goleman first made this point in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which was published in 1995 (by Bantam Books) and immediately attracted global press coverage. It went on to sell more than 5 million copies in 33 languages and 50 countries. Perhaps it was the subtitle, which evoked the widespread belief that being “book smart” alone doesn’t guarantee wealth, fame, authority, influence, or any other form of career success; people also need emotional control to rise to the top. Goleman’s elegant prose helped make his book popular. So did the book’s implicit sensitivity to the struggle facing many individuals in their middle years: to overcome their own narcissist impulses and take on the twin challenges of raising families and mastering demanding jobs.
More specifically, and to Goleman’s initial surprise (or so he claims), Emotional Intelligence rapidly acquired a following among managers and executives. Anyone who had to oversee a complex project with team members from multiple countries knew firsthand that, in moments of crisis, sheer intelligence was not nearly as valuable as the ability to be level-headed, free of anxiety, self-aware, and empathetic. By 2008, there were 27 books available on Amazon.com with the phrase “emotional intelligence” in the title or subtitle, at least 14 of them aimed directly at businesspeople.
“When Emotional Intelligence first came out, I felt I would know it was a success if I overheard two people talking about it,” Goleman says. “Now, if you Google ‘emotional intelligence,’ you get more than 2 million hits.”
Goleman himself published three follow-up books: Working with Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1998); Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Harvard Business School Press, 2002); and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2006). The first two applied his concepts to the workplace; the third looked more closely at the ways in which social interactions — communications with people, especially those with whom there is an emotional connection — produce automatic neural responses in the human brain. Goleman compared these social interactions to thermostats that regulate not just emotions but many other things, including susceptibility to disease (through immune systems) and the kinds of jokes people find funny. As with emotional intelligence, an individual’s social capabilities are far more important to success than many people recognize, and social sophistication and influence can be measured, tested, and improved.