Primal Leadership Book Review

Nine years later Primal Leadership still stands up as an interesting read on leadership strategies. My boss recommended it to me, part of the coaching strategy discussed below. Although this does not appear directly related to software, I believe that personal effectiveness and leadership skills are key. Soft skills translate into huge gains on software projects, business, and in life. Of all the factors on a project, one of the few things we can control 100% is how we interact with other people on that project.

Primal Leadership Review

Leadership styles (or lack thereof) are easy to recognize in others and self. Each strategy is like a tool in the toolbox, and they are called for at different times. Here they are from a software professional’s point of view:

The four positive styles of leadership:

  • Visionary – Set a positive direction for the team.
    • “We are going to change the world for the better!”, “In 10 years the world will look back and say how did we live without this?”, “When this refactor is complete, boy will department XYZ love us!”
    • The visionary style can be used incorrectly, for example: “I am going to get so rich off this”, “I want us to kill the competition”, “Company XYZ will be the best in the industry”. (These examples are bad because they start with ‘I’ instead of ‘we’, and lead to negatives like greed and arrogance).
  • Coaching – Mentor team members and connect their goals with the company’s.
    • Get to to know team members personally and encourage their learning and growth.
    • Powerful tool for loyalty and team spirit.
    • Allow team members to define their own goals.
  • Affiliative – Connect people to each other.
    • Involves team building, finding common ground, uniting individuals.
    • For leading software teams, which is like herding cats, I find this one exotic and hard to apply. Perhaps paired programming is one example?
  • Democratic – Get everyone’s input and make decisions together.
    • This is practically required in the software field when balancing priorities across stake holders, gathering requirements, and considering design approaches.
    • Leading group meetings is a chance to exercise this skill.
    • When done correctly, SCRUM planning meetings and stand-ups are democratic because everyone provides input.


The two styles of leadership that are negative and over used:

  • Pace Setter – Meet challenging goals through heroics.
    • Common in engineering disciplines like software development.
    • Often seen in start-ups and entrepreneurial activities.
    • Often leads to low quality output, and long term negative results.
    • Not effective or useful in large companies.
    • Can lead to burnout.
    • Some pace setting engineers who are promoted only to end up hating their management role. Quote from a friend: “If you are going to climb the corporate ladder, make sure it is leaning against the right building.”.
  • Command – Provide clear direction.
    • Useful in emergencies.
    • Can be close minded and abusive – eg my way or the highway.
    • Archaic 1960’s “command and control” mode of operation which worked in the industrial era.
    • Stifles creative thinking and culture of information sharing and trust.

The middle part of the book talks about how to create a holistic life plan for improving leadership and happiness. I was encouraged to read that these leadership skills are learned by practicing them. I found the last section on executive level techniques for running large organizations was boring.  The book is full of praise for the ideas but does not explain why so many companies with bad managers seem to succeed left and right.

The author, Daniel Goleman’s original breakthrough book is called Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995. Several years ago I read that book. Reading Primal Leadership has inspired me to reread Emotional Intelligence and write a review about it.



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