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Book Summary: Coherence – The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership

It happens to all of us: we get caught by an emotion and react in a way we are not so proud of. Self-awareness involves stepping back and observing your emotions before acting on them. In this week’s reading recommendation, neuroscientist Alan Watkins offers practical tools for growing your self-awareness.

For example, he suggests keeping an “E-diary” in which you record your positive and negative emotions and feelings over the course of the day. This will help you identify emotions when they recur in the future and recognize an oncoming emotion in time to process and deal with it at the experiential level rather than the thought level.


Your happiness, health and career depend on your mind-set and emotional maturity. In fact, you may swing from one end of the spectrum to the other as you read this dense, repetitive, yet deeply illuminating, encompassing work. Neuroscientist Alan Watkins explains that your body can unlock a level of intelligence that is greater than your mind normally accesses. He details how having control of your emotions matters to your life and your career. To use his advice, focus on your breathing, the start point of everything related to health, success and happiness. Depending on your openness to counsel, we recommend Watkins’ wisdom, logic and advice as well as his techniques for emotional growth.

Book Summary: Coherence - The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership


  • Your health, happiness and productivity start with your physiology, which sets the necessary conditions for synchronizing your body and mind.
  • The heart is the body’s most powerful organ; everything else, including the brain, is influenced by its beat.
  • Breathe rhythmically from your heart. Harmony between your breathing and your pulse sends a coherent message to your brain.
  • Brilliant leaders integrate all lines of development from “physiology, emotions, cognition, maturity, values, behavior, networks and impact.”
  • Know yourself; understand what drives you and what fuels or drains your energy.
  • Emotions influence your health, happiness and performance more than diet or exercise.
  • Gain awareness and mastery of your emotions through conscious observation and practice.
  • Manage your emotions to double your insight based on intuition and instinct.
  • You can’t control what others do and say, but you can control how you respond – this is your response-ability.
  • Take time to develop yourself and listen more deeply to communicate and inspire.


A Most Difficult Journey

Forget about pumping yourself up before an important meeting or entering a relaxed and calm state of mind. Neither matters. What matters is your hormones, specifically how much cortisol and DHEA you have in your system. Too much cortisol will make you morose, and you’ll underperform. Higher than normal levels of DHEA will make you feel great and perform accordingly. You can control these hormones, though learning how to do so takes time and effort. When you master your body and mind, you will achieve a state of “flow”: a harmony or coherence that produces better health, better relationships, better decisions and, in general, a better life.

“No one in their right mind would consider going to an important meeting in their shorts and slippers, so why would we consider going to an important meeting angry or frustrated?”

Try to live in a state of renewal to heighten your consciousness. That means that you need to adapt and change constantly, and that you need to reach for a more complete understanding of yourself and your business. When you understand your organization’s systems in totality and see how one part affects another, you recognize what needs to be fixed or adjusted. Then you’ll be able to undertake critical actions to integrate your organization. Silos, specialties and subspecialties create experts in narrow categories whose combined efforts “equal the sum of the parts” but rarely exceed it. Today’s biggest opportunity for companies lies in implementing a vertical developmental approach.

“What we feel has a far bigger impact on what we do than thinking does.”

Emphasizing short-term results in the face of pressure to earn profits prevents most leaders from integrating. To develop as a leader, work in all four quadrants of the “Enlightened Leadership Model,” which cover profits, meaning, personal growth and workplace culture. Pressure to produce fast results may limit you to the upper-left quadrant, dealing with financial results and performance measures. The upper-right quadrant encompasses vision, mission, purpose, strategy and governance. The lower-left quadrant includes how you grow as a person, climbing the ladder of emotional intelligence, ego maturity and cognitive capability. The lower-right quadrant holds culture, teams and the task of creating a high performance workplace where engaged people stay for the long term.

Using Your Intelligences

Before you lead your teams to synchronicity and coherence, you must be in synch with yourself. Your body and mind must align, so that clear coherent signals reach your brain. Brilliant leaders integrate all the key lines of development, “physiology, emotions, cognition, maturity, values, behavior, networks and impact.”

“The simple unequivocal fact about health and happiness is that emotion is the active ingredient and developing emotional coherence will not only make you more productive but just might save your life.”

The beat of your heart – your body’s most powerful organ – sets the rhythm for your entire body, including your brain. The heart and other parts of the body, most notably, the gut, have an abundance of the same nerve cells found in the brain. In a way, each organ has its own brain. The gut brain senses data that logical, rational people refer to as instinct. The body’s brains influence your decision making. Smart leaders consider what their whole body and mind tell them.

“Our heart is the location of most of our positive emotions, so paying attention to our heart will help to induce a positive emotion.”

Because your heart and, to a lesser degree, other parts of your body influence you profoundly, make sure they function well. Your heart can tell you a lot about your overall physical health. Your “heart rate variability” (HRV) predicts your likelihood of imminent death, no matter how healthy you feel or appear. HRV declines with age, but you can improve it by controlling how you breathe. Your breathing can alter your energy levels as well as whether and how much your body synchs. When you breathe unevenly, you drain yourself, like a car that repeatedly lurches forward and then brakes. To use less energy and travel farther, establish a rhythmic even breathing pattern.

“When individuals consciously work on physical, personal and interpersonal intelligences…they become more mature emotionally, cognitively and socially.”

Breathe from the center – your heart – and focus on the pattern of your respiration to establish a breathing rhythm, like inhaling for four seconds and exhaling for six seconds. Whatever rhythm you set, smoothness matters. Remember this skill by using the acronym “BREATHE,” which stands for “breathe rhythmically, evenly and through the heart everyday.” To improve your HRV, record the stimuli that give you energy and those that drain it – that’s your “Ebank.” Try to increase your deposits and decrease your withdrawals. Manage the amount of time you spend with others and the time you give to various activities. Focusing on your breathing and your energy will improve your HRV by 25% to 30% within half a year. Knowing your HRV unlocks the secrets to improved physical well-being and productivity.

Mastering Your Emotions

Your health and happiness depend on your emotional state. Emotion matters more than diet and exercise in its importance to your overall health and efficacy. Manage your emotions to avoid worry and depression, which can fuel heart disease. While you can’t control events – what happens to you, what people say, and so on – you can choose how you respond. By seeing a failure, a loss, a firing, a breakup or another difficult event from a positive emotional perspective you can respond differently. Negative or even tragic events don’t cause heart disease; the worry, anxiety and stress you subject yourself to do. Failing to recognize or manage your emotions can lead to making bad decisions. For instance, your reactions to an unpleasant experience when you were a toddler can trigger emotions decades later that automatically affect your current decisions. Becoming emotionally aware allows you to overcome these subconscious reactions. By mastering your emotions you can overcome your biases and actively account for them when you make decisions.

“Emotional Literacy”

Learn to be aware of your emotions by keeping an “E-diary” in which you record your positive and negative emotions and feelings over the course of the day. Learn to differentiate among your emotions by describing them precisely. This will help you identify them when they recur in the future and recognize an oncoming emotion in time to process and deal with it at the experiential level rather than the thought level. Building such emotional literacy will help you respond to events in constructive ways instead of acting out of frustration. Negative emotional reactions can result in making incorrect decisions or taking actions you’ll regret.

“Every thought, attitude and emotion has a physiological consequence, and our physiological activity feeds back…to influence our thought processes, emotional reactions and behavior.”

You’ve probably been taught to suppress or even ignore your emotions, especially at work, where outdated management theories based on command and control often prevail. In most organizations, management uses rewards and punishments to coerce employees. This tactic is based on the assumption that people’s rational desire for money and perks and their logical desire to avoid penalties drive their performance. Alternatively, corporate management that embraces feelings can rally people and teams around a purpose and can engage talent at a more powerful, emotional level. This requires genuine relationships, communication, an understanding of motivation and a tolerance for human messiness.

“Integration is the real challenge…The knowledge available to all of us now is staggering, so staggering, in fact, that it has pushed many individuals in all walks of life into specialist subjects and intellectual silos.”

If you infuse your endeavors with meaning and purpose, you’ll break free of the limits of work motivated by coercion. Your teams will reach peak performance if they are free to commit to their work emotionally, rather than attached to it only due to command and control. Leaders – the largest pendulum in the room – set the rhythm.

“Positive Energy Practice”

Practice managing your emotions with Positive Energy Practice. Make yourself feel good each morning by practicing 30 to 60 seconds of appreciation. As you wake up, consider everything you’re grateful for; as you commute, sing along with a song that puts you in a positive frame of mind. Embed positive emotions in all your daily rituals, a skill that pays off before critical events occur at work and elsewhere.

“Most companies have not yet realized that the future of their businesses and their leaders fundamentally depends on their ability to develop vertically.”

Without emotional control, you may give in to an evolutionary lapse, in which stressful and dangerous situations evoke the primitive flight or fight response or make you freeze in place. When you receive unfiltered, chaotic information, your amygdala – or limbic brain – takes charge. This reaction helped your ancestors run when a lion jumped out at them, but it has little utility today. By controlling your emotions, you can be more perceptive in the face of stressful or dangerous situations and give yourself time to think. When you recognize reaction and manage it, you send a coherent signal to the more evolved portion of your brain. This allows your frontal lobes to fashion a sound response.

“Vertical Development”

Mastering your emotions takes time, practice and effort. It requires vertical development up a 10-stage ladder of consciousness. The first three stages, which are awareness of body, emotion, and ideas come automatically. At Level 4, you begin to define yourself by society’s rules and norms. Many people stay at this level, though they experience aspects of Level 5, which features abstract thinking and contemplation of life outside rules and norms. Most people can’t navigate this stage, slip back to Level 4 and obey the rules. The quest for meaning may return, so years later, some may face a crisis of disillusionment and numb their disappointment with alcohol or drugs. At this point, a few may abandon Level 4 rules and reach Level 5, where they can mature further.

“Complex systems cannot be understood simply by understanding each part of that system, because the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.”

Not many people evolve to the sixth level where they have taken complete ownership of their feelings. Reaching this level can lead to exhilarating freedom. At Level 6 you become more integrated and authentic. To reach Level 7, you transcend; consider how the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela disregarded their personal needs and disarmed others with their generosity of spirit. At Level 7, you become all you aspire to be: compassionate, giving, empathetic and loving. At this level, leaders can transform their teams and organizations.

“Commercial success is critically dependent on the ability to build good quality relationships with anyone – even if you don’t like them.”

At Level 8, you experience unity as you connect to forces larger than yourself. At Level 9 you no longer think about unity, you simply experience it. At Level 10, you are no longer defined by concepts or time, you have transcended both. You are evolving in the physical world, but also above and beyond it.

Tools for Development

Use the “SHIFT” technique to elevate your thinking or break a logjam if you’re stuck on a challenging task. Stop doing what you’re doing, shift your attention to your heart and breathe rhythmically to “induce a positive emotion.” Feel it surge through your body. “Turn your brain back on” so you can go back to solve the problem with a fresh, positive and more creative frame of mind. Practice this simple drill in minutes to reach clarity of thought and better ideas.

“When someone says something hurtful, they’ve behaved badly; it is their issue, not ours. If we choose to feel upset about that, then we punish ourselves for someone else’s transgression.”

To develop your listening abilities, use the “MAP Skill.” Move your attention away from what you were doing and concentrate on the person speaking to you. Facilitate your appreciation by giving them your undivided attention. “Play back” what you understood that they said. Using MAP can dramatically elevate your communication because your counterpart may never have experienced anyone truly listening. Most of what passes for listening is really just “waiting to speak.”

“Management is about doing, whereas leadership is more about being.”

Ignore clichés about giving work 110% or 120%; even the world’s best athletes can’t do that. Elite athletes aim for steady effort of 80% to 85% so they can surge to higher levels for short periods. Few organizations survive for long when they run at full speed. Competitors who take time for strategy, leader development and relationships will soon leave them behind.

“What we feel about a person, situation or accomplishment is what gives life meaning.”

Be above your business – rather than in it – by focusing on vision, strategy, vertical development and relationships. Step out of the daily grind to lead your company, not just manage it. The “Leadership Behavioral Profile” by researchers Harry Schroder and Tony Cockerill says that leaders with the most organizational impact are strong in four clusters of behaviors:

  1. Imagine” – Seeking, collecting, processing and using information in flexible ways.
  2. Involve” – Getting feedback, listening, using others’ ideas and gaining team buy-in.
  3. Ignite” – Inspiring others to produce with confidence and clarity.
  4. Implement” – Leading the effort to execute, improve and deliver value to clients.

These behaviors drive results. Discover your inner purpose, the source of the energy you need to excel. You’ll know your purpose aligns to your work when it becomes more than a job or even a career: It becomes a calling.

About the Author

Alan Watkins left medical practice after a decade of specializing in oncology and heart disease. He now coaches executives on emotional awareness and control.

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