Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Resonant Leadership

Lawyers are inevitably leaders in all positions they hold due to their privilege, power, prestige, and responsibility.
~ Randall Kiser ~

Effective leaders develop resonant relationships with their community members.  Resonant leaders are empathetic, deploying high emotional intelligence.  They inspire others, invite multiple perspectives, and value prosocial behaviors.  Dissonant leaders are authoritarian, and they tend to alienate and demotivate people.

Resonant leadership has been studied by neuroscientists.  Middle-aged participants were placed in an MRI scanner and asked to reflect on critical events involving leaders.  Reflecting on experiences with resonant leaders activated 14 regions in the brain (including those that increase attention and social orientation), while recalling dissonant leaders activated only 6 regions (including those that narrow attention, diminish compassion, and increase negative emotions), while also deactivating 11 regions.  Resonant leaders establish positive relationships and enhance social awareness.

Communities look to their leaders for guidance during crises.  The brains of stressed or traumatized people are doing a significant amount of threat processing, which may be hindering their cognitive capacity.  Resonant leaders:

  • Model Empathy: Our brains sort people into in-groups (similar goals & trustworthy) and out-groups (competing goals & untrustworthy).  They are aware of the potential “empathy gap,” where folks feel empathy for those in their in-group, but not for people they consider as members of the out-group.  Empathetic leaders help people recognize the entire team as their in-group.
  • Build Trust: by establishing shared goals, cooperation & fairness for the entire team.
  • Strive to Create Certainty and Limit Ambiguity: to reduce debilitating stress, and
  • Offer Flexibility and Autonomy: to increase a sense of control.

Takeaway: Effective leaders deploy resonant leadership skills to take care of their communities. 


Randall Kiser, Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer 226 (2017).

Andy Nelson, The Basis of Leadership Is Born in the Brain: Why Leaders Should Care about Neuroscience,

Richard Boyatzis, Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights, Ivy Business Journal, Jan/Feb 2011,

Bill Murphy Jr., Want to be a Truly Exceptional Leader?  Neuroscience says do These 5 Simple Things Right Now, Inc., May 29, 2020,

Ozan Varol, Why Empathy Can Backfire,

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