What’s the ‘right stuff’ to be a leader? It’s more art than science as David Goleman describes in his article in Harvard Business Reviews 10 Must Reads1. Through his research he has found that the most effective leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence. IQ and technical skills are important but mainly as ‘threshold capabilities’ ie they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.
Without emotional intelligence a person can have a bright analytical mind and an endless supply of smart ideas but they still won’t make a great leader. Organisations are full of stories of highly intelligent, highly skilled executives who have been promoted into leadership positions only to fail at the job; and others with solid, but not extraordinary, intellectual abilities and technical skills, who have been promoted into similar positions only to soar.
Goleman’s research focused on how emotional intelligence operates at work. He examined the relationship between emotional intelligence and effective performance within the areas of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill.
In his research Goleman analysed 188 companies to determine which personal capabilities drove outstanding performance. He grouped the capabilities into three categories: purely technical skills like business planning; cognitive abilities like analytical reasoning and competencies demonstrating emotional intelligence such as the ability to work with others and effectiveness in leading change.
On analysing performance data it was shown that emotional intelligence played an increasingly important role at the highest levels of a company where differences in technical skills were of negligible importance.
Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. People with strong self-awareness are honest with themselves and with others. They are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. They recognize how their feelings affect them, other people and their job performance.
People with high self-awareness are candid and have an ability to assess themselves realistically. They are able to speak accurately and openly about their emotions and the impact they have on their work.
Self-awareness can be identified during performance reviews. Self aware people know and are comfortable talking about their limitations and strengths and demonstrate a thirst for constructive criticism. By contrast people with low self-awareness interpret the message that they need to improve as a threat or a sign of failure.
The key to successful self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect impulses and moods together with the propensity to think before acting. Successful self-regulators still feel bad moods and emotional impulses, just as everyone else does, however they find ways to control them.
Self-regulation is important for leaders because people who are in control of their feelings and impulses (ie people who are reasonable) are able to create an environment of trust and fairness.
Self-regulation is important for competitive reasons. In today’s fast-moving and ever-changing business environment people who have mastered their emotions are able to roll with the changes. When a new initiative is announced they don’t panic. Instead they are able to suspend judgment, seek out information and listen to others.
Self-regulation also enhances integrity – both personal and organizational. Many bad actions that happen in companies are a function of impulsive behaviour. People don’t necessarily plan to lie, exaggerate, or misrepresent situations. When an opportunity presents itself people with low impulse control just say yes. By contrast people with high levels of self-regulation challenge impulses and build lasting relationships based on trust.
Leaders with emotional self-regulation therefore have a propensity for reflection and thoughtfulness; comfort with ambiguity and change; and integrity – an ability to say no to impulsive urges.
Effective leaders are driven to achieve beyond expectations – their own and everyone else’s. Many people are motivated by external factors (big salaries, impressive titles, being part of a prestigious company) however those with leadership potential are motivated by a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement. These people have a passion for the work itself, they seek out creative challenges, they love to learn and they take great pride in a job well done. They are often restless with the status quo, want to do things better and are eager to explore new approaches to their work.
People who are driven to achieve are forever raising the performance bar. People who are driven to do better also want a way of tracking progress – their own, their team’s and their company’s.
Whereas people with low achievement motivation are often fuzzy about results, those with high achievement motivation often keep score by tracking such hard measures as KPIs, sales results and market share.
People with high motivation remain optimistic when situations are against them. In such cases self-regulation combines with achievement motivation to overcome the frustration and depression that come after a setback or failure.
Motivation to achieve translates into strong leadership. When leaders set the performance bar high for themselves they will do the same for the organization. Similarly a drive to surpass goals and an interest in keeping score can be contagious. Leaders with these traits can often build a team around them with the same traits.
Empathy means thoughtfully considering employee’s feelings, along with other factors, in the process of making intelligent decisions. It doesn’t mean adopting other people’s emotions as one’s own and trying to please everybody – because that would make action impossible.
Leaders with empathy understand the emotional make-up of people – they know what their people are feeling. People with empathy are attuned to subtleties in body language – they can hear the message beneath the words being spoken.
In today’s team based business environment empathy is an important component of leadership. Within teams a leader must be able to sense and understand the view points of everyone in the group and to encourage them to speak openly about their feelings.
5. Social Skill
Social skill is not just a matter of friendliness, rather social skill is friendliness with a purpose – moving people in the direction you desire.
Socially skilled people tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances and they find common ground with people of all kinds. It doesn’t mean that they socialize continually but it does mean that they work according to the assumption that nothing important gets done alone. Such people have a network in place when the time for action comes.
Social skill is the culmination of the other dimensions of emotional intelligence. People tend to be very effective at managing relationships when they can understand and control their own emotions and can empathize with the feelings of others.
Socially skilled people are adept at managing teams. They are expert persuaders – a manifestation of self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy combined. Good persuaders know when to make an emotional plea and when an appeal to reason will work better. Motivation makes such people excellent collaborators – their passion for the work spreads to others and they are driven to find solutions.
Socially skilled people may at times appear not to be working at work. They are chatting in the corridors with colleagues or joking around with people who are not even connected to their ‘real jobs’ Socially skilled people don’t think that it makes sense to arbitrarily limit the scope of their relationships. They build bonds widely because they know that in these fluid times they may need help someday from people they are just getting to know today.
Social skill is a key leadership capability. Leaders need to manage relationships effectively. A leader’s task is to get work done through other people and social skill makes that possible.
In summary, successful leaders have highly developed emotional intelligence. They have self awareness – they know their strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and impact on others. They have self-regulation – they control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods. They have motivation – they relish achievement for its own sake. They have empathy – they understand other people’s emotional make-up. And they have social skill – they build rapport with others to move them in desired directions.
These first three components of emotional intelligence are self-management skills. The last two – empathy and social skill, concern a person’s ability to manage relationships with others. Successful leaders strengthen these abilities through persistence, practice and feedback. Emotional intelligence can be learned. The process is not easy. It takes time and commitment.
1. Notes from “What Makes a Leader?”. Daniel Goleman. HBRs 10 Must Reads. The Essentials. Harvard Business Review Press. 2011.