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It’s not alchemy—it’s Resonant Leadership


resonant leadershipWhen we think of effective leadership, the kind that yields results, many of us immediately conjure up the image of a sort of alchemist—or as the authors of Resonant Leadership put it, a “lone star,” that goes around sprinkling “magical pixie dust” and producing miracles. Real leadership, however, has little to do with alchemy. And if you buy Richard Boyatzis’s and Annie McKee’s argument about leadership—or what they would call resonant leadership—it also has less to do with managing others than it does with learning how to manage oneself. 

Boyatzis and McKee describe resonant leaders as those who:

  • Have emotional intelligence and are in tune with those around them
  • Share several self-competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management
  • Manage others’ emotions and know how to build strong, trusting relationships
  • Act with mental clarity—not impulse
  • Know that emotions are contagious
  • Know that leading by fear is myopic: it works in the short run, but always backfires down the road
  • Inspire others around them to adopt a unified vision and move towards it

Now that we’ve defined it, how in the world do aspiring leaders learn to become resonant leaders?

Manage power stress
Being a leader can be a lonely business. Decisions are not only high stakes, but rarely clear cut, communication is complicated and relationships…even more complicated. Managing this stress, or what Boyatzis and McKee call power stress, day in and day out is a challenge. Sadly, many of us become its fatal victims.

To avoid dissonance, leaders must make a conscious effort to look inward, which means that they should set aside time every day to write, reflect and attend to the body. Remember, resonance is “holistic.”

Remember what the body knows
You may be familiar with the classic Dr. Albert Mehabrian study that suggests humans can intuitively read—with nearly 100 percent accuracy—each other’s underlying emotions and motives simply by observing body language.

We’re not always conscious of the emotions we convey, but you can guarantee that the receivers are. Our colleagues and teachers watch us; they know when we are frustrated, discouraged, and defensive; they feel it—and it can quickly become contagious. Similarly, when we’re excited, motivated and energetic, our colleagues can’t help but feel it and want to be around it.

Resonance is a way of life, not just an abstract goal
Walk around your school. What do you see? What do you feel? Now ask yourself whether or not what you saw and felt reflects the values and mission of the school. Are people demonstrating obvious, tangible care and concern for one another? Boyatzis and McKee put it aptly: “Resonance is a way of life, not just an abstract goal.” If you buy this, you should see evidence of a shared vision in hundreds of ways, both small and large, all beautifully scattered around your school.

Take time to reflect and write every day
Making time to turn inward seems challenging, but try carving out a space (start with a half hour at the least) in your schedule every day so that you can reflect. To get you started, we thought we’d share a short exercise we came across in another book by Boyatzis and McKee.

Part I: Begin by thinking of the people who have helped you most in your life and career, the people about whom you’d say, “Without this person, I could not have accomplished or achieved as much as I have. Without this person, I would not be the person I am today.”

  • Now write their names. Next to each name, describe moments you remember with them that had a lasting impact on you. What did they say or do? How did you feel at the time? What did you learn from them and from these experiences?
  • Avoid the temptation to just think about it; the exercise will be much more effective if you write down your answers.

Part II: Now think of the people who tried to help, manage, or coach you to better performance over the last two years. Recall your performance reviews; what kind of feedback did you receive—and how was the feedback conveyed?

  • Write their names and what each person said or did with you. What did you learn from them?

Part III: Answer the following questions:

  • What feelings did Part 1 of the exercise evoke in you?
  • What feelings did Part 2 evoke?
  • Once you’ve finished, compare and contrast the people and situations in each part
  • What do these memories make you want to do today?

If you completed the exercise, we have a strong suspicion that it was more pleasant to complete Part I than it was to complete Part II. Why? Because you are remembering the people who inspired you, who believed in you and showed compassion when others didn’t.

On the other hand, in Part II, you were asked to write about the people who (most likely) focused on your weaknesses, who may have put you on the defense.

It’s our hope that these two exercises helped create an understanding of how others have helped you learn and grow. We thought this might provide insights into how you developed important changes, and how you might help others do the same.

Image: The Alchemist by Signiert Öl auf Holz
(This work is in the public domain in the European Union and non-EU countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years or less).