Primal Leadership: Summary & Review

primal leadership

In Primal Leadership (2001) Daniel Goleman argues that the number one trait of any good leader is his emotional intelligence, and his ability to connect and engage with his followers. 
The book is also famous for Goleman’s six types of leaders, whom he describes in detail. 

Bullet Summary

  • We can recognize 6 different types of leadership
  • Each style has its place, but you must limit the commanding (bossy) and pacesetting (only accepting high performance) ones
  • You can learn leadership and leadership styles, and you should strive to master several of them

Full Summary

About the Author: Daniel Goleman is not a psychologist himself, but a journalist and a best-selling author.
He is most famous for the concept of Emotional Intelligence that he detailed in his best-selling books “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ“. The concept of Emotional Intelligence has had more success among the general population than among scientists and psychologists, who struggled to measure it (and even debated whether or not it even exists as a separate construct).
Daniel Goleman also wrote “Working With Emotional Intelligence” and “Social Intelligence“.

The 6 Leadership Styles

According to Daniel Goleman, we can identify six styles of leadership:

  • Visionary: the leader who rallies the troop behind is grand vision and dreams
  • Coaching: helps develop people over the long term 
  • Affiliative: focused on harmony and human connections
  • Democratic: hears everyone and builds consensus 
  • Pacesetting: demands and expects excellence and results 
  • Commanding: bellows order and demand immediate compliance

The Best Leadership Style

I can almost hear you asking: so, what’s the best leadership style?

Well, each one is “best” depending on the situation, but Goleman says that pacesetting and commanding should be limited in time and space or they will poison the environment and lead to poorer results.

However, the author also clearly says that the best leaders are the ones who can switch from one to the other depending on the situation.
This is a concept I fully agree with and which I also apply to the submissive-dominance scale in Power University.

The best mixes of leadership styles are the following: authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching.

When to Use Which Leadership Style

Here is an overview of the pros and cons:

  • Commanding / coercive

While it’s poisonous in the long run, it can be effective during disasters where a quick and energetic response is needed, during turnarounds or with difficult employees.

It’s very bad in keeping great employees though.
As Daniel Goleman says:

Who wants to work for an SOB?

  • Visionary 

It can work well when the business is adrift.

It’s not effective when working with a team of experts who know more about the leader. 
In this case, they can become disillusioned and cynical about the leader.

  • Affiliative

The strong focus on encouragement and praise helps the team’s mood, but it can allow for poor performance to go unnoticed. 

When the affiliative style does not provide for corrective feedback or criticism, it can leave employees wondering.

  • Democratic

It makes people feel heard and understood. But when it’s too much democracy and less decision making, people can feel like they are in a leaderless organization.

And when decisions take too long, it can result in many meetings and little decisions.

  • Pacesetting

A leader who sets high standards and shows he meets and exceeds them is highly motivating for those employees who are equally competent and self-motivated.

Other employees who are not as good can feel overwhelmed and they can end up resenting him.

  • Coaching

It works great when the leader is competent and well learned and employees want to learn from him and want to improve.

It doesn’t work nearly as good with unmotivated employees or with employees who don’t want to change and improve (and with employees with a fixed mindset, such as employees who don’t even believe they can even improve).

Examples of Leadership Styles

The author talks a bit about Al Dunlap.

Al Dunlap is a self-styled psychopath, who was “good” at turning around businesses by slashing the workforce, but who could not manage to run one well to save his life.

Goleman also talks about Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE and author of the management book “Winning“.
While most people think that Welch was a domineering boss, Goleman says that most people misunderstand him.
Welch got famous for being a commanding boss, but few realize that he delivered with a different style. Welch was only commanding in the beginning of his tenure. And once he turned around GE, he later settled into a more emotionally intelligent leader.

Resonant Leaders Embrace Emotions

Daniel Goleman uses the term “resonant leaders” to describe leaders who understand human nature and leverage their emotional intelligence to connect with people and get the most out of them.

Resonant leaders embrace emotions and humanity.

Of the four leadership styles we saw earlier, resonant leaders are:

  • visionary
  • coaching
  • affiliative
  • democratic

Dissonant leaders instead don’t understand or actively try to cut out the human side of business.

Of the four leadership styles that we saw earlier, dissonant leaders are:

  • pacesetting
  • command / authoritative

Learning Leadership

Can we learn leadership skills?

Absolutely we can, says Daniel Goleman.
It will take time and dedication, but you can learn it.

Learning Leadership Styles

We can also change leadership style, but we are not going to change that just by sitting in a classroom.

Competencies part of emotional intelligence like empathy and self-regulation are linked to the limbic system, which is not the rational part of our brain.
To change the limbic system, we need to unlearn old habits, develop new habits and repeat them over time until a new neural pathway is formed (neurons that fire together wire together, says Doidge in The Brain That Changes Itself).

primal leadership

Real-Life Applications

  • Stay Upbeat and Positive Under Stressful Situations

Leaders who can stay positive and upbeat during stressful and difficult situations radiate positive resonance.

  • Stronger Self-Management Wins The Frame

Goleman says that when two people with different emotional states meet there is a tug of war at an amygdala level. 
He says that when a confrontational person meets an unflappable one, if the unflappable one keeps his cool, he ends up changing the confrontational persons’ attitude.

Goleman is basically talking about frames and about frame control.


  • Some important questions are left unanswered

The author is a big promoter of emotional intelligence -and so am I-. However, Travis Bradberry notes, while EI rises along management lines, it drops in CEOs.
See the results of his study on this chart:

chart plotting EQ results by job titles

Why is that so? 
What does it tell us?

Does it say maybe that when action and directions need to be set EI is less important?
Those are the important questions I wanted to see tackled. So I did it myself. See: does emotional intelligence truly help you reach leadership positions?

  • One research backing most of the book

Personally, I’m skeptical of generalizations “based on research” when it comes to identifying human behavior.

What research? What did it measure? How many people participated? And how many studies to you base your conclusions on?
Those are the questions I always ask myself.

And most of “Primal Leadership” reference one single research.


Primal Leadership, for me, has been a seminal text in classifying the different styles of leadership.


The first part of Primal Leadership is wonderful.
Worth a 5/5.

And it gets a thumbs up by the Harvard Business School as well.

The second part starts getting duller, verbose, and fluffy.
It lost me on several occasions.
I had to listen to it twice and still I didn’t get much out of it.
In that sense, it reminded of Social Intelligence from the same author: lots of talk, little substance.

Do I recommend it? Yes, get the most out of the 6 styles of leadership and if the rest doesn’t speak to you, skim through.

Check the:

or get the book on Amazon

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