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Resonant or Competent?

What type of boss or employee would you rather have, one who is in tune with the team or a competent one? While we usually don’t have to make that extreme of a choice it is often the case that we are faced the decision of keeping or letting go a manager or employee who is technically excellent but difficult to work with. Sometimes this is our boss and we have to decide as an employee whether to stay or not. Two theories on leadership that I’ve come across recently have me debating this question. The first is Extremis Leadership from Colonel Thomas Kolditz who is a professor at West Point. The second is Resonant Leadership by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. Dr. Boyatzis is a professor at Case Western Reserve University, Dr. Annie McKee is the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute, and both are co-authors with Daniel Goleman of the bestselling book Primal Leadership.

A simple blog post cannot fully explain either one of these leadership theories and while they do offer generally different perspectives on leadership there is also a great amount for which they complement each other. I encourage you do investigate and read each book but I will provide a quick positional overview that can spark our discussion. Extremis Leadership essentially states that in crisis situations three characteristics of leaders stand out, competence, trust, and loyalty, in that order. And that competency is by far the most important when people feel their lives are on the line. This is to such an extreme that competency can supersede the individual’s rank, which as you can imagine in the military is pretty strong words. There is a promotional video on his site that shows some of the principles that he espouses put into action as Col. Kolditz takes someone through their first parachute jump. The term Resonant Leader, was first introduced in Primal Leadership and refers to a person who is in tune with him or herself, and the people they work with. They create a sense of resonance in the workplace, so great work can be accomplished. Resonant Leadership explains that mindfulness, compassion, and hope are the key elements to enabling renewal and sustaining resonance in leaders that produce quantifiably better results. Additionally they prevent the leader from burning up and becoming dissonant.

An easy way to compare these theories is using our 2×2 matrix that we usually use to explain our “Seed, Feed, and Weed” approach to leadership. In case you haven’t gotten a chance to checkout the rough cuts version of the book we have an expanded section on this concept of identifying the right team members to reward, coach, or encourage to pursue other job opportunities. Below you see how we have overlayed the theories on the axis that they most strongly relate to. Obviously both strive for the upper left quadrant as their goal but each has a dominant axis in which they utilize to get to the upper left.


Having been a part of many crisis situations, including some where people’s lives were on the line I can see how competency can momentarily trump all other characteristics. However, a leader who has produced dissonance in the organization over many weeks, months, or years before the crisis can and probably will be ignored exactly when they are the most useful in spite of perhaps having the best plan.

I would put up with a boss or employee who was extremely competent but difficult to work with for a short period of time to get through a crisis. But having to work with someone for any extended period of time would cause me to discount the value of their competency and remove them from the organization. To me there is an inflated impact rate over time. For every day I have to put up with a person, rather than enjoy their resonance within the team, the value of their competency gets diminished.

As much as I’ve pointed out the differences between the two theories there are many overlaps. For instance, the Resonant Leader is required to display competency but additionally must be able to foster resonance with themselves and their teams. The Extremis Leader displays trust and loyalty among their team in addition to their unflagging competency. I think the answer for all leaders is yes to both. From what used to be the Army’s eleven Leadership Principles, notice the first two:

  • Be tactically and technically proficient
  • Know yourself and seek self-improvement
  • Know your soldiers and look out for their welfare
  • Keep your soldiers informed
  • Set the example
  • Ensure the task is understood, supervised and accomplished
  • Train your soldiers as a team
  • Make sound and timely decisions
  • Develop a sense of responsibility in your subordinates
  • Employ your unit in accordance with its capabilities
  • Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

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