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What is resonant leadership?

Hannah Price

Writer, Culture Amp

There are lots of ways to lead. You can push. You can pull. You can create incentive programs. But our CEO, Didier Elzinga, thinks leaders could achieve more by considering resonant leadership. Not sure what resonant leadership is or what’s so great about it? Keep reading – this article is for you.

What is resonant leadership?

Resonant leadership, an idea coined by Daniel Goleman, can be hard to define. Lots of articles talk about what resonant leaders do, but not what resonant leadership actually means.

Resonance can be defined as: (of a room, musical instrument, or hollow body) tending to reinforce or prolong sounds, especially by synchronous vibration.

For example, if you hit a glass that holds a certain amount of water, it will resonate with a certain frequency, which will cause other glasses to resonate too.

How does this apply to leadership? Leaders can either send out positive or negative wavelengths, which reverberate throughout their business and influence others. Resonant leaders are aware that their actions have the ability to impact others and use emotional intelligence to guide and help others. 

“It’s not me saying ‘Hey, come over here,’ or ‘Mate, go out in front of me’ military-style,” Didier says. “Instead it’s going, ‘This is who I am, this is what I care about,’ and you going, ‘Actually, that moves me because I also feel that way, and I’m willing to act because of it.’ ”

Why is resonant leadership important?

Before starting Culture Amp, Didier worked at Rising Sun Pictures, where he and his team developed the computer-generated imagery at the heart of movies such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Here, he noticed that the people promoted to leadership positions often made the same mistake – they assumed that now that they were in charge, plans would progress as long as everyone followed their directions. 

However, in reality, leaders actually have little ability to directly control people. That’s why, instead, they need to design environments where people believe in a mission and a set of values that compels them to operate in a certain way.  

Resonant leadership enables leaders to design and nurture that environment. By focusing on how and why they act, they send out their wavelength, which resonates throughout the company, strikes a chord with people, and unites them behind a common goal. 

For Didier, this quote attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures the spirit of resonant leadership:

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

4 types of resonant leadership

Now that we’ve addressed resonant leadership from a high level, let’s dig into some use-cases. In his book, Primal Leadership, Daniel discusses four types of resonant leadership. Each of these, Daniel states, “builds resonance, has a positive impact on a group’s climate, and, used appropriately, can produce results.” 

  1. Visionary: Visionary leaders see the big picture of where the company is headed and share this with their people, inspiring them to work collectively to achieve group goals. In this model, everyone understands the value and relevance of their work. If they appreciate the big-picture goal, they’ll stick around a work diligently towards achieving it. 
  2. Coaching. This focuses on the personal development of employees and requires leaders to show a genuine interest in individuals, which builds connections, grows trust, and leads to higher levels of motivation. “This style builds resonance by connecting what people want with the organization’s goals,” shares Daniel.
  3. Affiliative. This is about creating connections between employees, which strengthens relationships and boosts collaboration. Employees will feel valued if leaders demonstrate true empathy in these situations. Daniel recommends that you, “Choose the affiliative style to heal rifts in a team, motivate during stressful times, or strengthen connections.”
  4. Democratic. Leaders using this leadership style openly ask employees for their input or invite them into the decision-making process. “This style builds resonance through valuing people’s input and getting commitment through participation,” shares Daniel. 

So, you’re ready to be a resonant leader… now what?

It’s clear that resonant leadership requires a high level of emotional intelligence. It also requires self-awareness, empathy, authenticity, and great communication skills. 

None of this is stuff that you can fake. If you want the benefits of resonant leadership, you can’t simply act "like" a resonant leader. You have to be a resonant leader. This means working on yourself before working on anyone else. 

There are a handful of ways to gain more self-awareness, such as becoming more attuned to the behavior of others and practicing mindfulness

Alongside this introspective work, we recommend acquiring concrete feedback from others through a 360° feedback review process. This will give you insights from people throughout your organization so you can better understand how you’re viewed and what you need to work on. 

After that, it’s time to get to work on self-improvement. You can either do this through solo study or with the help of a coach. Ensure that you continue to measure your growth through regular 360° reviews. That way you’ll know where you’re succeeding and where you can still grow. 

Taking the next step

It can take a moment to wrap your head around resonant leadership, but those that do see big results. You can reach your people and motivate them in a powerful and scalable way. Here are Didier's final words on the topic: “I believe really strongly in a different way of engaging people in the process. In a different way of wanting to work on things. I believe that if I focus on that myself, that it will resonate with others.”

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