Humanity, Social Intelligence & High-Performance Teams: Character Lessons for the Public Sector

Posted January 29, 2024 | Leadership | Amplify
Humanity, Social Intelligence & High-Performance Teams

James R. Rychard explores the essence of high-performance teams, emphasizing the role of collaboration and how it is rooted in social intelligence as part of the character dimension of humanity. After examining the threat of “dark triad” personalities to team dynamics, the article presents an exemplary case of socially intelligent leader Kazuo Inamori, former CEO of Japan Airlines, and extracts important lessons for the public sector. Rychard underscores the importance of investing in leadership development and fostering a culture of character to support collaboration in the public sector.


When we think of a high-performance team, what comes to mind? A Super Bowl champion football team, an eight-person Olympic rowing crew, or maybe a Formula 1 racing team and its pit crew? Probably all the above. But what exactly are the ingredients that make a team high-performance? 

If nothing else, we know this: building one takes significant effort and does not happen overnight. High performance does not occur until all members of the team are working together like a well-oiled machine. Whether they’re athletes, firefighters, or corporate executives, people are the essence of any team — how they get along (or do not) influences the degree to which it succeeds.

For the most part, organizations tend to focus on competencies rather than communications and relationship skills when recruiting talent. Regardless of the competencies team members are recruited for, having a collaborative team with strong interpersonal communications is fundamental to organizational success. And it is the character of the team members that largely determines the outcome of those interpersonal communications.

In public sector organizations such as fire services, how we relate to one another can be the key to whether initiatives are carried out effectively and goals are achieved. In fact, when it comes to creating a healthy organization, alignment at the top dictates how effective divisional/departmental teams will be.

Providing responsive services to the community requires integrating the fire services into a high-performance team. But there is a caveat: it is vital to be aware of potentially destructive personalities, including those who appear to be on board but who actually have differing intentions. When those personalities are vetted accordingly and a team of individuals who exude character are being governed and led by a socially intelligent leader, the ingredients are in place to create a high-performance team.

In this article, we explore four aspects of high-performance teams: (1) the importance of leaders who display social intelligence when leading and putting the team together; (2) the need to look out for personalities endemic to poor leadership and team cohesiveness (known as the “dark triad”); (3) seeking examples of leadership models outside the public sector; and (4) being open to using unconventional practices in addition to conventional ones when developing leaders and striving for high performance.

Social Intelligence as Integral to the Virtue of Humanity

In 1920, Columbia University psychologist Edward Thorndike noted the importance of studying a person’s ability to understand and manage men and women effectively.1 He conceptualized the first iteration of a discipline called “social intelligence,” and it goes beyond how emotions affect our relationships with other people and ourselves. Social intelligence is about how we relate to one another and the biology behind it.

In a 1920 article, Thorndike wrote that “the best mechanic in a factory may fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence.”2 In other words, how we get along (or do not get along) with others has been a strong indicator of leadership as far back as the early 20th century. Unfortunately, due to its association with social situations, the idea of social intelligence as an important leadership quality lay dormant for decades, dismissed as unimportant.

In the early 2000s, the VIA Institute on Character wanted to explore the positive traits of human character, including whether they could affect outcomes. After a comprehensive three-year study involving 55 distinguished scientists, it formalized the 24 key traits that make a person morally good and included social intelligence.3 After being dismissed for years, scientists finally accepted social intelligence as integral to human character. Social intelligence, along with kindness and love (valuing others), make up the theme of humanity. Humanity is one of six themes that capture the values/virtues/traits explored in the study (with wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, and transcendence being the others).

Expanding further, Daniel Goleman, known for popularizing EQ (emotional intelligence) as being more important than IQ (intelligence quotient), wrote in his seminal book Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships that “we might think of social intelligence as a shorthand term for being intelligent, not just about our relationships, but also in them.”4 One determinant of how someone interacts in relationships has to do with their personality. In the end, social intelligence encompasses behaviors of the character dimension of humanity.

Beware the Dark Triad

In a 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management article, three personality traits were identified as endemic of toxic employees and leaders. Known as the “dark triad,” (unhealthy) narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy are destructive to teams and go against the character dimension of humanity (specifically, social intelligence). The authors wrote:

[Narcissism is] defined as an excessive interest in or admiration in oneself. [These individuals] often have trouble connecting to the organization’s values and adopting a cooperative, team-focused mindset because they are overly focused on their own needs and ambitions. Up next is Machiavellianism, the power-hungry and ethically dubious mindset made famous by Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th century work The Prince…. These people often keep to themselves valuable information that could help others in the organization, pit different groups against each other, and build an “in group” of friends while excluding others from their orbit…. Last is psychopathy … an inability to appropriately deal with one’s negative emotions and impulses … you might see bouts of anger, yelling, and aggressiveness.5

These personality traits not only prevent one from being a socially intelligent leader, they also have a propensity to create psychologically unsafe work environments. According to Cutter Fellow and Harvard University Professor Amy Edmondson, “Psychological safety is … a climate in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves.”6 Leaders who practice the character dimension of humanity through their social intelligence create the psychological safety needed to build high-performance teams.

Look Outside the Industry for a Socially Intelligent Leader

When seeking notable examples of socially intelligent leaders for the public sector (i.e., ones who are morally good, do not exhibit dark triadic personality traits, and have successfully built high-performance teams), it’s advantageous to look outside the public sector, not just inside it.

For example, Kazuo Inamori used untraditional business practices to save Japan Airlines from bankruptcy. The airline threw good money after bad in response to global disasters such as the 2003 SARS breakout and the 9/11 attacks. In a desperate attempt to stop further loss, executives slashed the workforce and sold assets. Sadly, this impacted the entire nation: a once very profitable airline struggled to remain afloat in large part because the board of directors had developed terrible practices over the years.

According to University of Singapore Business School Professor Jochen Wirtz, Japan Airlines had “a lot of bureaucracy (and) complacency, very slow decision-making, and not really the guts and energy to make the deep-seated changes needed to the airline.”7 

Japan Airlines was on its way to Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the country faced losing a big stake in international travel. Without a doubt, the culture needed to be changed. To do that, the Japanese government needed someone who thought differently. The airline needed a CEO who was unconventional yet intelligent, had successful tenures, and could make important decisions without damaging the workforce or the company’s values. After decades of loss and profits, mostly the former, Inamori was brought in to bring about a corporate turnaround early in 2010.

A former Buddhist monk, Inamori prioritized people over profits. As someone who understood the nuances of business and successfully paired it with being a good human being, Inamori was the epitome of social intelligence and an expert in building high-performance teams.

Having studied Buddhism, Inamori understood philosophy, ethics, spirituality, and psychology. He had a humbling management style that was regarded as unconventional for the business world yet was surprisingly effective. Inamori was known for challenging common business beliefs: he valued people over profits and placed the well-being and livelihood of all his employees and their families first. He began this practice at his first company, Kyocera, a ceramics and electronics manufacturer.

Inamori believed that a corporation needed to be something employees were happy to be a part of, to the point where they could make significant contributions. This speaks to his character of humanity and his social intelligence. Inamori loved and valued people, and he recognized that taking care of them would positively affect his company’s bottom line. This belief is strongly supported by research.

Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, did extensive research around what constitutes a great place to work. His research showed that:

Psychological needs are at the base of an engaged workforce. It enables them to feel competent at work, helping them connect with their colleagues, and allows them to experience choice identifying the outcomes but also allows employees to determine the process.8

When building a high-performance team, understanding the needs of employees is vital to overall success.

Inamori’s social intelligence helped him recognize that employees had been forgotten about in Japan Airlines’s excessive expenditures over the years and that this had to be corrected. During a press conference, Inamori said:

This kind of situation where the financial is not so good, it caused a lot of problems to the employees. This concerns many people. As people in management, we must be conscious of profitability because we must be responsible for the livelihood of employees. We must really work hard and overcome this problem.9

Despite the pressures he faced as a new CEO and chair, Inamori knew that an organization cannot survive a crisis without its people. One of his first goals was to build up the team and create an esprit du corps to help get employees excited about the new Japan Airlines. (This falls in line with Friedman’s research showing that elevating feelings of status and pride are key to creating great places to work.) Inamori’s turnaround plan introduced a management philosophy he had conceptualized while at Kyocera with significant outcomes: Amoeba Management. 

Inamori’s Philosophy of Building a High-Performance Team

Amoeba Management gives voice to those “on the ground.” Rather than every decision coming from the top, the workforce is divided into small units. Each unit is led by a manager with an extraordinary degree of decision-making power.

At Japan Airlines, Amoeba Management meant every worker felt they had something to contribute to the company’s success. From pilots to custodians, everyone had the freedom and support to share their contributions and demonstrate how their actions related to the company’s bottom line. According to Inamori, each amoeba and its respective staff members add value and contribute to the whole company.10 Although instilling this level of trust is not new, it is uncommon when the stakes are high.

Research by Gallup underpins the importance of this. Gallup’s groundbreaking research, captured in the book Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams, found that followers need four things from their leaders/managers/supervisors to thrive: hope, stability, compassion, and trust.11 The data showed that employees look for these things as a signal that everything will be OK, especially during pressing times. Moreover, when a person feels their opinions matter, it demonstrates that the organization respects and values them.

Gallup’s research showed that two-thirds of employees who think their opinions count are thriving in their overall lives. This dovetails with what Inamori alluded to in a press conference shortly after joining the airline: he stressed the importance of employees feeling a sense of purpose contributing to the bottom line. Gallup also found that “the best managers use their team as the key resource for better decision-making. They encourage [dialogue] and debate and create a team culture of problem solving.”12 

Gallup’s research also shows why Inamori’s Amoeba philosophy was so successful. For years, Japan Airlines leaders had focused on profits over people, and Inamori instituted the reverse with remarkable results. Some may infer that previous leaders’ dark triadic personality traits led Japan Airlines into these crises. In any case, Inamori was the right leader to help save the airline: he exuded the opposite end of the spectrum because he activated his character strength of humanity by focusing on people. 

This practice of focusing people over profits not only yielded exceptional success for Japan’s flagship carrier, it reignited employee enthusiasm — everyone aspired to be a part of the new Japan Airlines. “People over profits” proved a successful mantra and business strategy.

Implications for the Public Sector

In Canada’s municipally owned corporations, staff are the largest part of the budget and the most important asset. At an Association of Municipal Managers, Clerks and Treasurers of Ontario (AMCTO) leadership conference, Rob Adams, CEO of Town Hall Consulting and a former CAO (chief administrative officer), witnessed a discussion focused on the lack of harmony between council (locally elected officials) and staff. To his surprise, this included growing concerns about council members behaving badly.

The audience of CAOs, executive directors, and directors were asked: “How many of you conduct values, leadership, and team training with your senior leadership?” All hands in the room went up. Great! Interestingly, when the same group was asked, “How many do the same training with their council members,” only a single hand went up. Not so great!

According to Adams:

We cannot expect our council members at the top of the organization to lead and work as a cohesive team, with good values, without investing in their development. While many municipal staff may have education and training on these subjects, it is common to have inexperienced or first-time council members elected to office.

Choosing to provide these council members with the correct toolbox is not only integral to success, it also sets the tone for the corporation and its operations.

Sometimes, we do not have to look far too find solutions to our problems. Inamori’s management models at both Kyocera and Japan Airlines can be implemented to help fix a culture without taking multiple courses. For example, should problems like high turnover and poor morale exist at various levels inside an organization, focusing on staff well-being is an excellent way to start turning things around. Reviewing case studies like Japan Airlines can help leaders jump-start useful discussions about changing the culture. For a leader, having a toolbox filled with so-called soft skills along with political and business acumen can go a long way toward building value for taxpayers and municipal staff. Soft skills like humanity, kindness, valuing others, and social intelligence are critical for team success.

When building a high-performance team inside your organization, having a socially intelligent leader is foundational. These leaders create the culture of psychological safety needed to champion diversity of thought and recognize that each person has a unique strength to contribute to the organization’s success.

Leadership based on character strengths elevates performance and enables success. These leaders help mitigate and/or manage emergencies when they occur. Research shows that fostering an environment where members are proud, excited, and feel as though they can contribute impactfully leads to incredible outcomes. This begins with a socially intelligent leader, and social intelligence is one extract of the character dimension of humanity.


Building a high-performance team begins with having a socially intelligent leader — one who embodies and champions the virtue of humanity. An organization does not necessarily need a leader who practices Buddhism to see the value that employees can create. Rather, they can implement the core values of these lessons from those who have. As Adams states, “Once you have created a culture of efficient innovation, that top-down directed innovation becomes undirected bottom-up innovation.”

Inamori successfully rescuing the country’s struggling flagship airline is proof of what can happen when social intelligence leads a high-performance team. Despite what seemed to be an impossible task, Inamori successfully turned Japan Airlines around in 24 months. By focusing foremost on an organization’s most costly budget item (employees), Inamori exceeded the government’s expectations and turned Japan Airlines into the most profitable airline in the world.

For the public sector, profits do not factor into the equation, but people do. When leaders act with social intelligence and focus on building high-performance teams throughout the organization, the outcome is high value. Working in local government is a noble calling for those who care about their community and want to make a difference. Being socially intelligent and building high-performance teams is not only essential, it is a duty to tax-paying citizens.


Portions of this article were previously published in: Rychard, James, and Rob Adams. “High Performance Teams Begin with Socially Intelligent Leaders.” Canadian Firefighter, Vol. 46, No. 3, October 2023.


1 Goleman, Daniel, and Richard E. Boyatzis. “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review, September 2008.

2 Goleman and Boyatzis (see 1).

3 Olson, Deborah. Success: The Psychology of Achievement. Dorling Kindersley, 2017.

4 Goleman, Daniel. Social Intelligence: The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam, 2007.

5 Relihan, Tom. “Fixing a Toxic Work Culture: Guarding Against the ‘Dark Triad.’” MIT Sloan School of Management, 29 April 2019.

6 Edmondson, Amy C. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. Wiley, 2018.

7 Channel News Asia (CNA). “How Japan Airlines Nearly Collapsed.” YouTube, 20 September 2018.

8 Friedman, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. TarcherPerigee, 2015.

9 CNA (see 7).

10 UC Berkeley Events. “Kazuo Inamori: A Conversation on Business Innovation and Philosophy.” YouTube, 6 July 2010.

11 Clifton, Jim, and Jim Harter. Wellbeing at Work: How to Build Resilient and Thriving Teams. Gallup, 2021.

12 Clifton and Harter (see 11).

About The Author
James Rychard
James R. Rychard is a 21-year firefighter/instructor from the City of Burlington, Ontario, Canada. He is an accomplished author, contributing to renowned publications such as Firefighting in Canada and Canadian Firefighter. Mr. Rychard recently joined 23 other Canadian professionals with the publication of his article “Guarding Against Burnout in the Emergency Services: A Firefighter’s Perspective” in Canadian Journal of Criminal Justice Report… Read More