Social Intelligence and the Biology of the Pack Leader

Man and Dog

You know, as the HR Whisperer, I’m really enamored with the whole idea of creating top performing organizations through positive behavior change. One of my favorite mentors, Cesar Millan, says, “A dog that doesn’t trust its human to be a good pack leader becomes unbalanced and often exhibits unwanted or antisocial behaviors.” It struck me that the same is true for people in organizations. We need to have strong leadership because in many cases our very business survival depends on a stable, organized and motivated team. Business survival instinct is perhaps one of our greatest natural motivators in the workplace and if a person is not guided well, it can not only result in unwanted behavior but total chaos in the long run.

So, I’m digging this concept and working it through in my brain as to how this relates to human capital and wouldn’t you know, I web-stumbled across an article recently published by Harvard Business Review (September 2008). Written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” discusses new studies of the brain that show that business leaders can improve team performance by understanding not the psychology, but the biology of social intelligence. How cool. It struck me that scientists have discovered a biological underpinning to what makes a good leader great, which could toss more fuel on the fire in the “leaders are born, not made” camp. (Which I don’t subscribe to, by the way. I believe that anyone, given time and effort can change their behavior – even interpersonally. That’s why I’m in the business I’m in. Oh, I feel another blog topic coming on! <huge grin>)

More on the biology of leadership from Harvard Business Review:

“The salient discovery is that certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Indeed, researchers have found that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two (or more) independent brains reacting consciously or unconsciously to each other. Rather, the individual minds become, in a sense, fused into a single system. We believe that great leaders are those whose behavior powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness…If we are correct, it follows that a potent way of becoming a better leader is to find authentic contexts in which to learn the kinds of social behavior that reinforce the brain’s social circuitry. Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations—or even mastering social skill sets—than about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need.”

Wow. The idea that leaders need good interpersonal as well as functional skills has certainly been around for quite some time. As a matter of fact, Goleman coined the phrase, “social intelligence” to discuss this very thing. But what he and Boyatzis are talking about here is different – they’re saying that we have these things in our brains called mirror neurons that mimic what another person does. As social beings, when we “consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our brain’s mirror neurons reproduce those emotions and allow us to instantly share that experience.” Ever notice when two people are deep in discussion they tend to hold their arms the same way or cross their legs at the same time? That’s the mirror neurons in action.

 So, how can leaders take advantage of this brain interconnectedness? If it stands to reason that followers will create a social connection with their leader, it also stands to reason that they will emotionally feel whatever it is the leader is feeling and behave accordingly. If leaders are emotionless, don’t smile or otherwise engage their followers, they will not activate the mirror neutrons in a positive way, leading to distressed and nonperforming followers, and thus the potential for business chaos. Body language plays a great part also. If a leader’s body language doesn’t jibe with what is being said, the follower will go with the body language. Bodies don’t tell lies, mouths do.

 The bottom line is that when people feel good about what they are doing, when they have a social connection with their leaders, when they feel part of something that is bigger than them, those mirror neurons come in handy. Reinforce the brain’s social circuitry — if you want to motivate those around you, create a positive atmosphere. If you want higher performance or enhanced creativity, be in a good mood and show you care.

If you truly want the best from your followers, kick those mirror neutrons into high gear and create an environment where sincere respect, fun, laughter and performance are a serious part of your business operations.



  1. Great post! I love positive reinforcement. 🙂 This seems like common sense, right? Unfortunately there are a lot of “bad dogs” out there that don’t understand the biology and think the way to fixing things is control.


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