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Instinctual Leadership: Signaling Warmth and Competence

lion and cubHumans are contradictory creatures. We have the capacity to step back, think rationally, and reason through complex problems, but we often don’t use that capacity—relying instead on snap judgments to guide us.

Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” popularized the idea that we have two “systems” for thinking:

  • System 1 is “fast” thinking, which relies on emotion, naïve intuition, and non-conscious mental models or “rules of thumb” (called “heuristics”) that are part of our evolutionary heritage. System 1 is very useful in helping us quickly solve simple problems and respond to threats (a rustle in the bushes=predator=run!), but not so good on more-complicated matters that require careful assessment.
  • System 2 is “slow” thinking, which makes use of our ability to pause, evaluate, consider options, test hypotheses, etc. System 2 is more accurate, but not as fast and it requires more energy. Thus, we have evolved to use it less, saving energy and erring on the side of seeing predators in the bushes or other threats even when they are not there—better safe than sorry, after all…

Both of these systems are valuable and have their drawbacks if used in the wrong context. Fast thinking helps us solve simple problems quickly but can lead to simplistic responses to complex problems; slow thinking helps us solve complex problems accurately but can be paralyzing if we keep seeking more data than the problem requires. The trick–and it’s a difficult trick–is to know when to use which system of thinking.

This dual-system processing profoundly affects our response to leaders. Most of the books about “conscious,” “enlightened,” “servant,” etc. leadership are appealing to System 2—yes, when we stop to think about it, we would like these kinds of leaders. But working under the surface is System 2, which responds to a very different set of stimuli—and it responds in a more primal or instinctual way. Thus, leaders face a dilemma—our “slow thinking” pushes us to say we want one thing but we tend to respond in ways that contradict what we say when our instinctual needs are heightened.

The best leaders understand this and develop a set of skills and competencies that satisfy both systems. They have the ability to sense and respond to what system is needed, an ability I call “Instinctual LeadershipTM.”

Instinctual LeadershipTM includes a variety of skills that fall into a few broad categories, including:

  • Mastery of the requisite management and execution skills (by “requisite” I mean those necessary for the particular situation).
  • Self-awareness and emotional intelligence based on a requisite understanding of human nature. (Leaders don’t need to be professional psychologists, but it helps to know the basics—you can’t win hearts and minds if you don’t understand hearts and minds.)
  • Excellent critical thinking skills that help us avoid the potential errors of emotion-based, System 1 thinking (often known as “common sense“).
  • An understanding of the three instinctual biases—preserving, navigating, and transmitting—that influence what aspects of business and leadership we focus on and which we ignore, often to our detriment.

In this article I want to focus on a very specific instinctual dynamic that shapes how we respond to leadership: the need to see both warmth and competence in our leaders.

In order to understand this dynamic it helps to see it in terms of evolutionary advantage in social species. In almost any social species, a group will have an “alpha” male and/or female. The alpha is dominant—getting its needs met first but also being looked to for guidance or protection in times of danger. The alpha eats first, but the rest of the group will look to it for signals of how to respond to threats—if the alpha fights back they will all fight back; if the alpha flees they will all flee. If the alpha makes poor decisions, or proves to be untrustworthy or dangerous by taking too much advantage of its privileged position, the followers will rebel and overthrow the alpha.

Human dynamics may be more complex than other social species, but the fundamentals are the same—we look for leaders who are competent and strong, but also “trustworthy enough.” By “trustworthy enough,” I mean that followers have to believe that while the leader may be flawed, he or she will not betray “us,” however “us” is defined.

One of the ways we humans signal trustworthiness is through displays of “warmth,” the leader’s ability to show enough empathy and approachability that the individuals in the group believe the leader will treat them fairly. Someone with warmth will consider “our” needs and not stab us in the back; someone who is competent will be able to meet the challenges of leadership that arise from both within and from outside of the group. Thus, at an instinctual level we look for warmth and competence in our leaders.

Aloof or “cold” leaders, even if they highly competent, will lose the support of followers—an aloof leader may make a mercenary decision that doesn’t protect the needs of those in the tribe. Followers, feeling unprotected, will not rally emotionally around a leader from whom they feel no warmth.

Likewise, empathic or “warm” leaders will loose the support of followers if they are not competent enough. If the leader cannot deliver results, the whole team fails; people are fired, bonuses are not paid, market share is lost.

Sustainable leadership involves developing both warmth and competence and being able to signal to others that one has those qualities.

“Signal” is the critical word here. In biology, signals are behaviors or qualities that send a message that lead others to believe something particular about an individual. A classic example is the peacock’s feathers, which send a message to the pea-hen that the peacock is healthy and robust, making him a suitable mate. In reality, not every peacock with spectacular feathers is a suitable mate, but the probability is higher that they are and pea-hens have evolved an attraction to them. Evolution is a wise gambler and always plays the odds.

Leaders, like all of us, send signals whether they are aware of them or not. Team members infer, consciously or not, messages from the behaviors and qualities of the leader. The aggregate of these messages shape how the leader is perceived and ultimately influence how effective and sustainable the leader will be; the right signals inspire trust and followership, the wrong signals erode them.*

Note that that we are talking about messages and impressions when we talk about signals, not facts. Someone may seem warm but may not actually be empathic or trustworthy, which is how con artists operate. Someone may seem far more competent than they actually are and get into a role that is beyond their abilities. A discerning leader is able to see beyond the signals and look for the substance, they understand that their System 1 picks will tell a compelling intuitive narrative but that in important matters it must it must also pass the System 2 test of careful evaluation.

That some signals are misrepresentative, however, is not a reason to ignore the importance and power of the signals we send. Because someone else appears warm but is actually a jerk is not reason for you to be aloof; that someone else falsely signals competence is not a good enough reason for you to resist signaling your competence.

Another important point to note is that while you can never be too competent, it is possible to be too warm. Beyond a certain point there seems to be diminishing returns on additional warmth. People need to think the leader is warm, but not soft. The leader has to be able to be forceful and, to a degree, even intimidating when circumstances require it. Too much forcefulness, however, sends a message of a lack of empathy that has much the same effect as “coldness” and erodes trust.

The lesson from this is that leaders need to continually develop competence while cultivating enough warmth to build trust among those they lead. They need to demonstrate those qualities, not by pretending to be something they are not, but by being attuned to and demonstrating the behaviors or qualities that signal warmth and competence.


*In my role as executive coach I am often asked to help people develop their “executive presence,” but rarely can anyone define what they mean by the term. I believe that what they are trying to capture is the combination of warmth, competence, and effective signaling that is felt implicitly but difficult to describe explicitly.