“Dan Goleman gave social intelligence a name, he codified it, and he broke out the elements in a usable way,” says Suzy Welch, former editor of the Harvard Business Review and coauthor, with her husband, Jack Welch, of Winning (Collins, 2005). “The best business executives know that what he’s talking about is just a killer app.”
Goleman’s most recent line of inquiry, for a book due from Doubleday in 2009, is on the crisis of accountability that he believes corporations are facing. He argues that as biomedical research explores the health impact of chemicals on a microscopic level, manufacturers will be faced with increasing levels of scrutiny over the long-term health effects of the toxicity of the products they sell. If he is correct, then simply staying in business will require all the emotional intelligence that leaders can muster. It will also require a new calculus for risk: a more in-depth way of judging the potential harm of new endeavors, and a willingness to change those practices rapidly when environmental, social, or health risks appear.
Goleman’s preoccupations — transparency, social and emotional learning, leadership, and workplace culture — all show up regularly in the Weblog he started in 2006, which now averages about 750 hits per day. Though his topics vary from business to psychology to education, the basic underlying theme is awareness. People can change, not by controlling or suppressing their emotions, but by becoming more aware of them. (This might mean, for example, regularly asking oneself, “What do I feel, and what do others feel, when I express rage or anxiety?”) Companies can change by fostering awareness of the world at large. And his current inquiry on risk fits right in; if he’s right, corporations and organizations will become more powerful and successful only when people working within them can collectively become more sensitive to the impact of their actions.
And if he’s wrong, he’s still the guy who introduced the world to the “amygdala hijack.” The amygdalae are two almond-shaped clusters of neurons within the frontal lobes that receive signals directly from the senses and can flush the body with hormones. Goleman compares the amygdala to a primitive sentinel, “telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain,” and triggering sudden eruptions of anger or fear that people later regret. Those who understand the amygdala’s potency and learn to recognize the feeling of a hijack as it is happening are much less likely to be carried away by those emotions, and are thus much less likely to explode in rage. Goleman’s version of neuroscience tends to be popular precisely because it helps people learn to modulate their emotions. Is it a natural step, or an overreach, for him to suggest that companies, too, can train themselves to leave behind their own worst impulses?
Aristotle, Darwin, and Harvard
Like many regulars on the global lecture circuit, Goleman is both an exuberant public speaker and an intensely private individual. He makes his home with his wife, Tara Bennett-Goleman, in a remote, woodsy corner of western Massachusetts. In person, he is slender and personable; an avid listener and a graceful conversationalist. Though some people think of his work as promoting artifice, by teaching people to suppress their genuine feelings, Goleman argues that emotional and social intelligence cannot be counterfeited. “If you consciously try to imitate what your body does naturally, you use circuitry that is slower and less skilled,” he says. “Better to trust that your brain knows what it’s doing than to manipulate the process. The key is to relax and pay attention, and let the circuitry do its job.”