In preparation for a course on leadership I will be conducting this autumn, I was reviewing a speech given by Dr. Daniel Goleman. Goleman is the former New York Times Science Editor and a columnist on brain science. Many of you will recognize his name as the modern day father of Emotional Intelligence and internationally best selling author on that topic.
I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Goleman’s work, especially as it relates to leaders, because of his empirical approach which forms the basis for his conclusions on Emotional Intelligence. So, it’s only natural that I would want to check out his recent work for items of interest. What I found, however, was far from what I expected but possibly more powerful than I could have anticipated. My discovery came not from his prepared remarks but from a question that was asked of him after he had concluded his talk.
Dr. Goleman had been asked to speak on social intelligence, which, at the risk of over simplifying, is the external manifestation of emotional intelligence. At the conclusion of his talk he asked for questions. A young man came to the microphone and asked Dr. Goleman to comment on the impact of emotional and social intelligence on people in love and closed by saying, “I’m trying to understand my girlfriend better.” The audience erupted in laughter and Dr. Goleman responded, “I don’t think I can help you understand your girlfriend.” More laughter. And then I was struck by what Dr. Goleman added, not only as it related to love, but how it related to successful careers.
He explained that there are three brain systems involved in love: the attachment system, which is triggered when you miss someone; the caring system, which triggers the desire to care for or nurture someone; then, there’s sex. Dr. Goleman went on to explain that being “in love” is when the thought of someone triggers all three of these brain systems simultaneously. However, he adds, studies have shown that the system that determines whether the relationship will last or not is caring.
Here’s the parallel as it relates to a career: the attraction system is that collection of things that we especially enjoy about our work, such as the status of our position or our company’s position, the value we place on what we do, the individual impact we have, and our feeling of relevance and competence. The sex part is made up of those emotional spikes that come from things like beating out a competitor to close a big deal, solving a complex and important problem, being recognized by those who are important to you, in a way that is especially meaningful to you, for something you’ve contributed.
The caring and nurturing system represents an emotional connection and long-term commitment to what we do. This is what we feel when we care about our reputation, when we care about doing things thoroughly and to the best of our ability and we care enough about what we do to embark upon a personal pursuit of excellence by continuous learning, by reflecting on what we do and how we do it and by continually asking ourselves how we could do it better.
So, when we are able to trigger all these elements with regard to our careers, we are truly “in love” with what we do. It’s not difficult to look around and identify people who do not have all three brain systems engaged in their current job or career. It’s also not difficult to look around and identify those who do have all three systems fully engaged. These are the people who excel at what they do, whether it’s sports, the arts, politics, education, medicine, or business, and it’s not solely dependant on cognitive intelligence (IQ) or raw talent. These are the people who leave an indelible mark on what they do that speaks to innovation, creativity, and their uniqueness. What’s troubling to me is that many people don’t realize just how close they are to engaging all three systems and becoming star performers.
Of the three systems, the one that is the most important to determining whether your “love” will endure and grow is the one you have the most control over—caring. This is the one that separates the merely competent from the truly great. This is the system that becomes the defining element of someone’s brand as a professional and a leader. This is what signals true commitment to excellence and instills confidence in others. And the odd thing about this system is that once you make the commitment to care, once you take that first step to demonstrate it, it begins to gather momentum, it becomes easier, and it enhances the benefit from the other two systems.
So, while the attraction thing and the sex thing are fun, it’s the phone call the morning after that can make it all worthwhile, unique and lasting.