Goleman and Gladwell’s future of great leadership

The collapse of the financial system gave us pause for thought about how we choose our leaders. Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Goleman suggest an alternative way forward

The collapse of the financial system and impending ecological disaster should give us pause for thought about how we choose our leaders. Jon Card meets two great thinkers, Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Goleman, who might have the answers to our biggest problems.

Most of our leaders are tall, male, fairly good looking and white. If you look at the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, they predominantly fit this description, as they do in politics. Our most influential people are being drawn from one tiny pool in the population. “It’s like trying to create a world-beating sports team from the inhabitants of just one village,” says Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling author and respected social philosopher.

He is speaking at The Science of Success conference at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is lambasting traditional notions of leadership. We are still following the “big strong man”, he suggests, and this means we often pick lousy decision-makers to be our leaders.

As a writer at The New Yorker, Gladwell’s career was transformed when he penned an article about the causes of cultural crazes or social epidemics. The book that  followed, The Tipping Point, was a publishing phenomenon and his subsequent releases have also been bestsellers.

Alongside Gladwell on the bill is another influential author and thinker, Dr Daniel Goleman. The Harvard-trained psychologist is best known for Emotional Intelligence, in which he first advanced his theory that successful careers are more dependent on emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) rather than IQ. Gladwell is also critical of how we evaluate individuals at work, and is calling for a change in our approach to leadership.

How to be successful

Gladwell likes to come in from unexpected angles, and today he explains that in order to appreciate genius, we need to hear the story of the rock band Fleetwood Mac. His audience, comprised of private sector businesspeople and public sector officials in suits, looks on and listens patiently while Gladwell recounts the history of one of his favourite bands. Thankfully, there is a point.

In 1977, Fleetwood Mac recorded the critically acclaimed and multi-platinum-selling Rumours, still one of the top 10 selling albums of all time. Yet it took Fleetwood Mac 10 years to reach this high point. This required enormous amounts of hard work, numerous personnel changes, trial and error, periods of failure, tremendous dedication, and perhaps a little luck. This, Gladwell argues, is the norm for those who attain great success.

“History shows that people who have achieved greatness have put in about 10,000 hours of hard work. Or they spend about four hours a day over a period of 10 years before they achieve that genius level.”

He cites the careers of The Beatles, Alfred Hitchcock, Mark Twain and Mozart, and argues that they all point towards this ’10 years of hard work’ theory. The ability to be persistent is the most important quality of them all, Gladwell asserts.

Goleman offers some science to back this approach. He asks the audience members if they have heard the theory that we lose brain cells every day. Most have, but Goleman reassures us that this statement is misleading.

“Around 2,000 new neurons are generated every day and they gravitate to the area where you need them – where you are learning,” he says. By working hard on a project over a sustained period, you are changing the way your brain works. With enough time, you can make it the perfect organ for success.

The leaders we need

Goleman also has an explanation for humans’ apparent inability to grasp the impending climate calamity that could happen this century if pollution and carbon emissions aren’t significantly reduced. “Our brains are not designed to comprehend an event of this proportion happening at this speed,” he says. “They are designed to detect and deal with a sabre tooth tiger that has just entered our cave. We are moving in slow motion towards catastrophe and are unaware of it.”

He is heartened by Walmart’s decision to environmentally audit all of its products and hopes that this leads to a new surge in more ethical business practices. Nevertheless, there’s a mountain to climb. Goleman calls on business leaders to think beyond the recession, when the planet will be even closer to environmental disaster.

Central to Goleman’s world view is his contention that EI or EQ – the ability to be compassionate, to empathise and to express yourself in a way that endears you to others – is key to the way mankind must reform itself. You can’t fake this type of behaviour; you are either compassionate and empathetic or you’re not.

It’s a holistic approach to life and work, rather than the highly specialised approach, which can border on the myopic, that those with high IQs, but low EQs might possess. People with high EQs are not only better leaders and more successful, but are also the most ethically suitable people to lead and inspire the human race.

New style

Autocrats are out – on this point both men are clear. The alpha male who ‘looks like a leader’ is a threat to us all unless he possesses real qualities that truly recommend him to leadership. Sadly, history is full of these unworthy individuals, and our current leadership, in politics and the financial sector, hardly suggests that we’re learning. Gladwell believes that the current financial malaise was created by people who “were deemed to be experts”, and this belief in their brilliance led to enormous overconfidence. This phenomenon is not new, he argues, citing the World War II Battle of Gallipoli and key conflicts of the American Civil War as further examples where “expert failure” has led to catastrophic results.

Bullish commanders, be they on the battlefield or in the boardroom, can lead us into harm’s way and into situations where rational people would never stray. Goleman argues for a change in leadership style and identifies four key approaches (see above) that he maintains create a more positive impact on “the climate” and tend to require a higher level of EQ. He also points to two others that don’t, yet are frequently practised.

The newer styles perhaps take more effort and thought, but are more collaborative and have additional safety and stability built in. They also tend to value and reward the individuals involved and are a far cry from the militaristic approach, which is as old as the caves where we once dwelled.

Creating greatness

The most positive aspect of Goleman’s and Gladwell’s theories is that they both suggest that there’s an enormous amount of untapped and overlooked potential in businesses. It is worth pondering whether the managers you have promoted have been chosen as a result of their genuine leadership abilities, or just because you tend to think of them as leaders. Are they really bringing about results or are they just very good at convincing you? Similarly, it is worth reflecting on your own leadership style. Are you a pace-setting commander and if so, has this really taken you where you wanted to go?

The two theories converge when considering staff development and how you lead your team. An inspired, passionate and hardworking team will be adding their 2,000 neurons to the areas of their brain where your business needs them. Each day you should be getting a little better and this should impact upon the bottom line. In fact, if you take Goleman’s and Gladwell’s theories to the extreme – and your staff retention is good – in 10 years you could be the head of a company filled with great or even almost genius-level people.


Positive impact on climate
  • Visionary: Provides long-term direction and vision
  • Coaching: Develops employees for the long term
  • Affiliative: Creates harmony in work relationships
  • Democratic: Builds commitment through collaboration
Negative impact on climate
  • Pace-setting: Pushes people to accomplish tasks
  • Commanding: Demands compliance



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