Master the Four Styles of Resonant Leadership


By Daniel Goleman

When champion golfer Rory McIlroy steps up to hit the ball down the fairway, he doesn’t use his putter. He chooses a club that will give the ball the power and distance he needs. If that shot goes astray into a sand trap, Rory’s wedge will punch the ball up onto the green. Then, he’ll pull the putter out of his bag to finesse the final shot into the hole.

What do golf clubs have to do with leadership? The mark of an effective professional in any field is that they know how to skillfully use the appropriate tool for each situation. In my Harvard Business Review article, “Leadership That Gets Results,” I used the analogy of a golf pro choosing clubs for different shots to describe the four styles of resonant leadership. Like a seasoned golfer selecting the correct club, an effective leader uses the style that will get the job done.

What is Resonant Leadership?

Resonance means reinforcing sound by moving on the same wavelength. Leaders have the power to impact the emotional states of people around them. They can have a positive effect, pulling everyone onto the same upbeat wavelength. Or, they can create dissonance, where their negativity bumps up against the emotions of others. Resonant leaders use their emotional intelligence to direct the feelings to help a group meet its goals.

The Four Styles of Resonant Leadership

In Primal Leadership, which I coauthored with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, we describe four styles of leadership that create resonance in a group: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, and Democratic. Each style builds resonance, has a positive impact on a group’s climate, and, used appropriately, can produce results.


Visionary leaders see the big picture of where they’re headed, share that perspective with the group, and inspire them to work together to reach their goals. While they articulate where the group is going, they don’t tell them how to get there. People who know the big picture, how their work fits in, and why it matters understand what’s expected of them. If they resonate with the company’s values, goals, and mission, they’ll stick around. This style builds resonance by moving people toward their dreams. It is appropriate when changes require a new vision, or when there is a need for clear direction.


The coaching style of leadership happens most often in one-on-one interactions. This style focuses on the personal development of staff members. By showing genuine interest in individuals, this style helps leaders build trust and rapport. The coaching style can lead to more motivated employees and better results. This style builds resonance by connecting what people want with the organization’s goals. Use it when you want to help an employee improve performance by building long-term capabilities.


The affiliative style of leadership is all about building relationships and collaboration. Using empathy, a core skill of emotional intelligence, affiliative leaders boost morale by valuing people and their feelings. This style builds resonance by creating harmony through connecting people to each other. Choose the affiliative style to heal rifts in a team, motivate during stressful times, or strengthen connections. The collaborative relationships this style builds can improve performance and productivity in the long-term.


The democratic style of leadership draws on the knowledge of the group either to give input or to actually collaborate in making decisions. Leaders using this style need several emotional intelligence skills, including: teamwork and collaboration, conflict management, and influence. Also, they communicate effectively and are superb listeners. Empathy is important, particularly for understanding the thoughts and feelings of a diverse group. This style builds resonance through valuing people’s input and getting commitment through participation. Savvy leaders use it to build buy-in or consensus and to get valuable input from team members.

Why Choose Resonant Leadership?

These styles do more than meet particular goals, they also serve a higher purpose. My friend and colleague Dan Siegel and I talked about resonant leadership as part of our conversation during the Brainpower webcast series. I mentioned my friendship with the Dalai Lama and, A Force for Good, the book I created as part of his 80th birthday celebration in 2015. I told Dr. Siegel about a conversation where the Dalai Lama said, “First, manage your inner world.” This is the self-management that is key to emotional intelligence. Mindfulness is a tool for managing oneself. He then said, “Turn toward others with empathy and compassion.” And, finally, he said, “Act for the greater good.” Using resonant styles of leadership involves all three levels.

How to Develop Resonant Leadership Styles

During a tournament, Rory McIlroy doesn’t pull a club from his golf bag unless he has practiced with it for many hours. Before you can choose to use a particular leadership style, you have to know yourself well, have self-awareness. Mindfulness is a tool for tuning in to yourself. Another friend and colleague, Mirabai Bush, has done a lot of work with mindfulness training in organizations. Her Working with Mindfulness audio program is full of practical exercises for learning mindfulness.

How do others see you and your current leadership style? Get feedback from people who you know and trust, and from all levels of your organization. A 360-degree instrument works well for this. The Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI) is an instrument I developed with Richard Boyatzis that can help you focus in on which emotional intelligence competencies you need to boost. Then, you can work with a coach or do self-study to build and practice those skills.

About the Author

Daniel Goleman lectures frequently to business audiences, professional groups and on college campuses. A psychologist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times, Dr. Goleman previously was a visiting faculty member at Harvard.

Among Dr. Goleman’s more recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters (

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