Catabolic versus anabolic leadership.

Do you know the difference?

I didn’t until I heard a great presentation on the topic from HR Executive Coach, Erika Schramm*. 

And when she outlined the traits of a catabolic leader — did I ever recognize myself!

You see, catabolic leaders will get it done at any cost. They always win and work well in a crisis situation as they are great at dealing with problems. They are organized and delegate effectively to accomplish results. 

That’s who I was. I rescued projects and programs, tackled the most challenging situations, and got it all done successfully.

I delivered results, but sometimes I left my team behind.

And in the long run, that wasn’t good for me, my team, or the organization.

I’ve since realized the limitations of that approach — and the power of bringing more emotional intelligence to bear in my leadership role.

In contrast to the hard-charging catabolic leader, an anabolic leader leads from a place of engagement, bringing the whole team along with them. They know that the journey is just as important as the destination, so they focus on building and sustaining relationships. They look for the opportunities in every situation. 

In short, anabolic leaders display a lot of the qualities that have come to be associated with emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

This leadership style is not only better for the team — it’s better for the organization (and for you).

In fact, emotional intelligence is THE characteristic that distinguishes star performers from average leaders. One study found that divisions whose leaders possessed a critical mass of emotional intelligence exceeded annual revenue goals by 20%. And divisions that lacked that critical mass underperformed significantly.**

Emotional intelligence (EQ) skills can certainly be learned — but acquiring them requires commitment, persistence, and practice.

Here are few way to bring more anabolic energy into your leadership style:

  • Before reacting, try to see the situation from another’s perspective.

Reactive leaders often engage in behaviors that are disruptive to their teams, their projects, and their organizations.

Learning to pause before reacting gives you a moment to remind yourself of the big-picture goals — and putting yourself in another’s shoes helps you address the situation productively.

  • Ask how your team feels — and if there are issues, ask how you support them better.

Often when we think about motivation and success, we think in hard and fast terms —  projects completed, deals closed, profits recorded. Many leaders are deeply motivated to improve on those metrics — but they ignore other markers of success, like the cohesion, performance, and well-being of the team.

Take those markers as seriously as you would your quarterly numbers — and seek out the information and feedback that you need to solve problems and improve your performance.

  • Take time for social interaction and relationship-building.

Great leaders are persuasive, influential, and effective in leading change. And they get that way by consistently building relationships and rapport across the organization. A too-narrow focus on productivity and results can crowd out the social activity that’s necessary to create the trust and buy-in you need to lead effectively.

  • Look for ways you can help your team perform better (and then ask them for suggestions!).

One of the hallmarks of strong leaders is self-awareness — an ability to understand themselves and their effect on others. Taking time to consider how you can support others — and soliciting feedback on your own performance — allows you to develop the self-awareness you need to lead your team effectively.

  • Focus on others first.

Too many leaders approach situations solely from their own perspective — their goals, their concerns, their priorities.  Maintaining an awareness of others’ needs, desires, anxieties, and priorities helps you build consensus, engage commitment, and find productive ways to address common concerns.

For most of us, the development of emotional intelligence is a lifelong process. More experience tends to naturally lead to more EQ.

But it’s well worth taking time now to develop the habits and practices that will spur your EQ growth. 

Displaying more self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills is helpful in every area of your life — and in the business world, it can mean the difference between a lackluster career and a stellar one.


** From the book “Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core” by Bruce D. Schneider

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