Fourth Age Communiqué - Leadership for the rest of us

Saturday, May 29, 2004

The neuroanatomy of EI

Daniel Goleman contends that there are very good scientific explanations for humans’ ability to manage our emotions intelligently. Studies of the neuroanatomy of the brain reveal very compelling insights into how the higher and lower regions of the brain function, and how it affects our social interactions.

In simple terms, the brain stem controls our basic survival modalities, or our “fight or flight” mechanism. The higher level functions of feeling originate in the limbic region, while the highest level of thinking —abstract thought and reasoning— occurs in the neocortex.

Buried deep in the limbic region are two critical components of the neuroanatomy, the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which are central to EI. The hippocampus essentially stores memories, while the amygdala maintains the emotions associated with those memories. As Goleman relates their purpose in this analogy: “The hippocampus registers that your cousin just arrived; the amygdala reminds you that you don’t like her.”

This is not a hard and fast, 1:1 correlation, however, as memories can trip old feelings and emotions that, according to Goleman, may have been stored at too early of an age to recall (or have processed) the context in which they were experienced.An effect of this fluid association of memory and emotion is what Goleman calls an emotional hijacking. When a circumstance causes our emotions to overwhelm our rational thought processes, Goleman says, that is a hearkening back to a more instinctive physiological response to hostility—a fight or flight mechanism. The first key to EI is to recognize such triggers, or to be emotionally self-aware, and allow our rational mind to diffuse the emotion of a moment, referred to as emotional self-management. Taken together, these two actions comprise the personal competencies of Emotional Intelligence.

The next level of EI is known as the social competencies. That is, to have a social awareness (also known as empathy), or understanding of others’ feelings and emotions, followed by relationship management, or knowing how to respond to the aforementioned feelings in others. As a whole, these four disciplines represent the ability to manage one’s emotions and interaction with others (and their respective emotions) in healthy, productive ways.

Within the context of primal leadership, the ability to leverage one’s emotional self-awareness and respond empathically to others is key to motivating followers to respond in positive, self-affirming ways that resonate in their hearts and minds.

That is to say, EI leaders recognize what drives their people from within, and they connect with that emotional reservoir to provide value both to the follower and the organization at large. Because there is no externally motivating factor that taps a follower’s inner drive, EI leaders are only successful in leading when they identify with their people’s internal passion.


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