|Intellectual Cherries Jubilee
Reviewer: Don Blohowiak
"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
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
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
Hard to argue with that, even without a truckload of
Now the critical question: Will reading this book give
you the tools to improve your own "emotional
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
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
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
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.
Reviewed May 26, 2002