Philosophical Leadership: A Call for Action

Leadership is a multi-faceted endeavor. In recent years, emotional intelligence has been advancing in research and application within the realm of leadership. In fact, Goleman points out that his own research and the studies of others clearly indicate that “emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership”(On Leadership, 2011, p. 1). What does this mean exactly?

Put simply, it means that one of the most essential characteristics of an effective leader is being able to understand and appropriately respond to their own emotions as well as those they lead. In contrast with the emotionally intelligent leader is what will be referred to as the philosophical leader. Understanding emotional intelligence, the scope and challenge of using this powerful leadership aspect, and the nature of philosophical leadership can assist in making sense of the current leadership climate in which we live. Specific leaders will not be mentioned so that the reader can make their own comparisons.

Emotional Intelligence

In their seminal work Primal Leadership, Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee (2002) posit that leaders either create resonance or dissonance. Resonance might be understood as an overall harmony of vision, purpose, and actions while dissonance is a chaotic disconnect in those key areas. Emotional intelligence is the tool at a leader’s disposal to identify, analyze and appropriately respond to the emotional state of followers in a way that creates resonance instead of dissonance. This of course requires that a leader be aware of and in control of their own emotions as well as sensitive and responsive to the emotional environment within their leadership context. This area of research and practice is a storehouse of leadership skills that can transform a cacophony into a symphony.

National Emotions

How can the emotions of a nation be perceived? Certainly, the diversity and intensity of such a notion is overwhelming. The pluralism of our society creates a wide spectrum of belief, conviction, opinion, and of course emotion. However, even in the midst of such a melting pot it is clear that leaders can draw on foundational emotional triggers to unite people behind their cause that otherwise would have never been engaged. Those emotional triggers can be positive or negative. Hope and unity are examples of positive triggers while fear and anger are negative. National leaders have the unique challenge of identifying, analyzing, and appropriately responding to emotions on a much larger scale. Responding to events of tragedy are opportunities for leaders to demonstrate empathy and to resonate with the nation. Those opportunities can also be squandered.

Philosophical Leadership

Juxtaposed to leadership that is in tune with emotional status is what this author will refer to as philosophical leadership. Philosophical leadership focuses on the nature of knowledge as it relates to various connected issues while remaining essentially disconnected from the heart of the matter itself, whatever that might be. This kind of leadership places emphasis on carefully crafted speeches and turns of phrase and tends to keep the reservoirs of passion at a distance. Abstraction is the brushstroke of the philosophical leader and the colors selected from the palette tend to be cool. It can even be effective at first, but it is not sustainable long term as humanity is much more than merely cerebral. Eventually the effective leader must find other brushstroke techniques and make use of the warm colors as well to create a thing of beauty.

Evaluating and Applying

The best way to process these various leadership paradigms and the current status of our nation is to ask, reflect upon, and engage with questions.

  • What leaders can you identify with a high level of emotional intelligence? What actions have they taken that triggered this identification?
  • What leaders can you identify who are more philosophical in nature?
  • In your own realm of influence (leadership), would others describe you as an emotionally intelligent leader? A philosophical leader? What actions of yours might lead them to this conclusion?
  • How might leaders on the national stage seek to resonate with people from various backgrounds?

These days in which we live are complicated and leaders are required selflessly to act for the good of those under their leadership. Sometimes that means an eloquently crafted speech, but sometimes it means placing personal interests aside and determining what the emotional needs of others are. Philosophical leadership can be a useful tool from time to time, but it is ineffective as a default approach to inspiring others to action. And these are days that call for action.


Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

On leadership. (2011). Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Chris Dunn
Latest posts by Chris Dunn (see all)