In the last blog post I introduced the concept of resonant leadership, which defines two types of leaders: the effective, resonant leaders and the toxic, dissonant leaders. Today we’re going to discuss the difference between those two types and see what separates the leaders who are effective from those who are not.

Most of us have experience working with both types of leaders, but probably have never tried to articulate, conceptualize and categorize their behavior and its effects, so our first goal today is to define what kind of impact these different types have on the people they work with.

The resonant leaders are able to consistently connect with others in a way that makes those people more open, creative, engaged and committed to the shared vision of the organization or team.

In contrast, the dissonant leaders are toxic, they wear people down and make them defensive and disengaged.

Knowing this, what can we do to become better leaders?

According to Dr Boyatzis, there is one major factor that causes people to slip into being dissonant - chronic stress. On average people in leadership positions experience 8 - 12 stressful situations every day.

And just like with any other emotion, stress is contagious. When we stress, we make other people we interact with stress too, even if they’re not consciously aware of it. To make things worse, these people then interact with other people, and do the same thing. This “emotional contagion” effect can sometimes be detected even three relationships out.

Most of us know that chronic stress has been associated with many health issues, including bacterial and viral infections, type 2 diabetes, ulcer, at least 3 categories of cancer, heart attacks, sleep disorders and sexual dysfunction.

But what kind of effect does stress have on performance?

When we get stressed, our brains trigger what’s known as fight or flight response, which impedes our ability to be creative, open to ideas and make decisions. On a neurological level, our brain invokes the sympathetic nervous system using the system called hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, and epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and cortisol get secreted. Heart rate and blood pressure increases, the blood vessels get constricted and the blood moves to the large muscle groups, to prepare your body for a fight, or to prepare your legs for running.

Of course, most threats in modern life aren’t life threatening. But our bodies weren’t built that way. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that our body would always choose to err on the side of caution. As a result, a stressful event at work can deplete the levels of blood in our brain and turn off some neural networks as the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotional reactions, takes over the brain. We become extremely focused on the immediate danger, and we become less open to new ideas. Even our peripheral vision shrinks from 180 - 270 degrees to as low as 30 degrees.

In addition, cortisol suppresses the immune system and inhibits new neural tissue growth.

Since a lot of this behavior is a result of how our brains are hard-wired, is there anything we can do? Or are we completely stuck in this antiquated caveman body?

One thing we can do is practice what Dr Boyatzis calls renewal activities, which helps undo the damage caused by stress. It’s important to realize that renewal its not the same as rest. Renewal activities suppress sympathetic and activate parasympathetic nervous system. These include:

  • Mindfulness and meditation
  • Praying to a loving God (praying to a vengeful God has the opposite effect)
  • Stroking a pet
  • Volunteering and being compassionate (keep in mind that this can be overdone, especially by some people in helping professions because it may lead to compassion fatigue)
  • Being in a loving relationship
  • Laughter, joy, playfulness

If your job is very stressful, it may not be enough to practice these activities only on weekends. To offset the effects of stress before it accumulates, it’s recommended to do the renewal activities daily, or multiple times a day if possible.

Stress management isn’t the only factor that distinguishes effective leaders from the rest. We’ll discuss the leadership competency model in the next blog post.