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A review of "Resonant Leadership":

Written by Richard E. Boyatzis and Annie McKee, published by Harvard University Press ISBN 1591395631 (2005)


Resonant Leadership is a very practical book aimed at leaders in all types of organizations. The underlying thesis is that resonant leadership creates the right kind of environment not only for financial success, but also where individuals can be committed, work hard but also have fun. The co-authors cite extensively from multi-disciplinary research and bring personal experience from decades of consulting work. The main question raised is why do successful leaders become dysfunctional or in the book’s terms dissonant? The co-authors argue that today’s leaders face unprecedented challenges that result in a vicious cycle of stress and sacrifice and with little or no recovery time built in. If this continues then even the most successful resonant leader becomes dissonant. They therefore offer a practical framework for how leaders can create and sustain resonance in their relationships, their teams and their organizations. It is argued, that to counter “power stress” leaders must consciously manage the “Cycle of Sacrifice and Renewal” by stepping out of destructive patterns and renewing themselves physically, mentally and emotionally.

Many practical examples are used to illustrate how three key elements: mindfulness, hope and compassion, are essential to enabling renewal and sustaining resonance. The book offers many exercises and an Intentional Change Model, to guide leaders on their path to resonance and renewal.

The co-authors start by asserting that our world, which is undergoing profound transformation, needs a new kind of leadership. Political, economic, technological and social changes are also changing organizational models, significantly reducing predictability and stability, but also bringing tremendous opportunity. Resonant leaders, are those that can see the new patterns emerging and by articulating a hopeful but realistic future, can inspire and move people. They do so by giving a great deal of themselves and therefore need to engage in “renewal to ensure they can sustain resonance over time”. (p 2) Boyatzis and McKee use research from different fields, such as management, medicine, psychology and philosophy to inform and develop their framework. They describe resonant leaders, as being in tune with those around them; as being self and socially aware and knowing how to manage themselves and their relationships. Such leaders also understand that fear and anger may mobilise people in the short term, but that these emotions quickly leave people distracted, anxious and ineffective. They read people and organizational cultures accurately and build lasting relationships.

According to the co-authors’ research, true renewal relies on three key elements: mindfulness, hope and compassion. They define mindfulness as “living in a state of full, conscious awareness of one’s whole self, other people, and the context in which we live and work”. It “means being awake, aware and attending to ourselves and to the world around us”. Hope “enables us to believe that the future we envision is attainable, and to move toward our visions and goals while inspiring others towards those goals as well”. The third element for renewal, compassion means that “we understand people’s wants and needs and feel motivated to act on our feelings” (pp. 8-9). All three elements are discussed extensively and examples offered to illustrate each element. The point is, that by cultivating all three, leaders create and sustain resonance. But this does not happen by accident. For most of us it requires a process of Intentional Change, which means deliberate and focussed identification of our personal vision and current reality as well as continuous and conscious learning. If however a leader does not engage in renewal, then the challenges, stress and pressure they face may lead them to become dissonant. The book therefore attempts to help leaders identify their visions and needs and guides them on how to renew themselves.

Under great stress even good leaders can become dissonant. One of the problems is that they may not recognise the signs—particularly if they are repeating patterns of behavior that once were successful. The example given of Karl, who “had slipped from resonant leadership into a vicious cycle of power stress, sacrifice, dissonance and more stress” (p 38) is very powerful. Karl was baffled and unable to see what was happening, why previously successful behavior no longer had the desired effect. He then defaulted into dissonance. He slowly lost touch with reality, he became blind as to how others now perceived him and had created a self image that protected him from harsh reality but closed him to renewal.

Boyatzis and McKee give three reasons why people sink into dissonance and remain in that state: (a) Sacrifice Syndrome, in the sense that when effective, leaders give too much, and this may ultimately lead to them becoming ineffective; (b) developing defensive routines that keep them in denial about what is actually happening; and (c) organizations themselves encourage dissonant behaviors. All three are discussed, citing extensively from literature in neuroscience and psychology, followed by an exercise to identify if one has slipped into one of the above.

To overcome dissonance a leader needs constant renewal—but rest and relaxation are not enough. Renewal leads to a sense of wellbeing as it “invokes a brain pattern and hormones that change our mood, while returning our bodies to a healthy state. This sets into motion a chain reaction that evokes changes in perception and eventually in our behavior.” (p. 61) By practicing mindfulness, hope and compassion, leaders “provoke arousal of the PSNS (parasympathetic nervous system) and the condition of renewal” (p. 62). But this needs intentional change and personal transformation, based on awareness of what is actually happening. When we lose awareness we may experience one or more “wake-up calls” in the form of significant life events, such as promotion, divorce, death, birth, job change/loss, success or failure of a project, etc. (p 81). Again several examples are given to illustrate such “wake-up calls”. An important point made, is that a resonant leader needs to be aware not only of him/herself and his/her internal state but also to understand others and their messages, as well as the messages from the broader environment or (to use complexity language) the social ecosystem.

What resonant leaders are good at doing is exploring imaginative alternatives (exploring the space of possibilities), they may start small, but take advantage of opportunities to realize an ambitious dream. They in effect create an enabling environment, which people want to be part of, and which feels exciting and fun. However that does not mean that people are not challenged or that they feel happy all the time. But they are “more open-minded, creative, interested in their work and motivated to do whatever is needed to accomplish individual and group goals” (p. 150).

Resonant Leadership is a very practical book, clearly written for the practicing leader, with exercises to help readers identify and apply the lessons imparted. However my one criticism is that although the co-authors refer to complexity theory they do not really understand it. On page 87 they mention emergence, but most of the discussion on complexity is on pages 154-7 which in fact focuses on attractors and chaos theory, not complexity. The note on page 259 makes that clear. Yet a better understanding of complexity would have given us an even better understanding of the processes described. One example is that resonance may be seen as continuous efficacious coevolution within a constantly changing social ecosystem. However these are minor points. Overall the book is readable and wise and may well help leaders to become more resonant.

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