We probably all know a story about a highly intelligent, highly skilled manager promoted into a leadership position only to fail at the job. As well, we know a story about someone with solid, but not extraordinary, intellectual abilities and technical skills promoted into a similar position who then soared.
This reality causes nervousness in HR professionals who know that selecting candidates with the “right stuff” to be leaders is a combination of both art and science. In addition, we said in our last column that we were going to describe the type of leaders who develop and sustain companies that were a “Best Place to Work.” However, if intellect and technical abilities do not predict the “Best” leaders, then what does? The answer? The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of emotional intelligence.
It was Daniel Goleman who first brought the term “emotional intelligence” to a wide audience with his research and books that are noted below.
It is not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities,” or entry-level requirements for leadership positions. Research shows that emotional intelligence is the essential component of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but s/he still will not make a great leader.
For proof, we will review the research findings examining the relationship between emotional intelligence and effective performance, especially in leaders. And to gain greater insight, we will describe how high emotional intelligence shows itself on the job and how you can recognize it in yourself.
Researchers investigated 188 companies. When the data was analyzed, dramatic results were found. To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when statistically calculated, the ratio of intellect and technical skills, versus emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels.
Can Emotional Intelligence Be Learned?
It’s important to emphasize that building one’s emotional intelligence cannot — will not — happen without sincere desire and concerted effort. A brief seminar won’t help; nor can one buy a how-to manual. It is much harder to learn to empathize — to internalize empathy as a natural response to people — than it is to become adept at multi-variant regression analysis. But it can be done. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. If your goal is to become a real leader, these words can serve as a guidepost in your efforts to develop high emotional intelligence.
Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are “appropriately” honest — with themselves and with others. People with a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance.
How can one recognize self-awareness? Primarily, it shows itself as candor and an ability to assess oneself realistically. People with high self-awareness are able to speak accurately and openly about their emotions and the impact they have on their work, without a lavish or confessional approach.
Such self-knowledge often shows itself in the hiring process. Ask a candidate to describe a time they were carried away by strong feelings and did something they later regretted. Self-aware candidates will be frank in admitting to failure — and will often tell their tales with a smile. One of the hallmarks of self-awareness is a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Leaders are constantly required to make judgment calls that require a candid assessment of their companies. People who assess themselves honestly — that is, self-aware people — are well suited to do the same for the organizations they run.
Why does self-regulation matter so much for leaders? First of all, people who are in control of their emotions, that is, people who are reasonable, are able to create an environment of trust and fairness. In such an environment, politics and infighting are sharply reduced and productivity is high. And self-regulation has a trickle-down effect. No one wants to be known as a hothead when the boss is known for her calm approach. Fewer bad moods at the top mean fewer throughout the organization.
Second, self-regulation is important for competitive reasons. Everyone knows that business today is rife with ambiguity and change. People who have mastered their emotions are able to roll with the changes.
Like self-awareness, self-regulation often does not always get its due. People with fiery temperaments are sometimes seen as powerful leaders (think narcissist). However, extreme displays of negative emotion have never emerged as a driver of good leadership.
If there is one trait that virtually all effective leaders have, it is motivation. They are driven to achieve beyond expectations — their own and everyone else’s. The key word here is achieve. Plenty of people are motivated by external factors, such as a big salary or an impressive title. By contrast, those with leadership potential are motivated by a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement.
If you are looking for leaders with motivation, the first sign is a passion for the work itself — such people seek out creative challenges, love to learn, and take great pride in a job well done. They also display an unflagging energy to do things better. People with such energy often seem restless with the status quo. They are persistent with their questions about why things are done one way rather than another; they are eager to explore new approaches to their work.
And they 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 profitability or market share.
Interestingly, people with high motivation remain optimistic even when the score is against them. Some executives would blame the nosedive on circumstances outside their control. The high-achiever sees an opportunity to prove she could lead a turnaround.
A drive to surpass goals and an interest in keeping score can be contagious. Leaders with these traits can often build a team of managers around them with the same traits. Optimism and organizational commitment are fundamental to leadership — try to run a company without them.
Of all the dimensions of emotional intelligence, empathy is the most easily recognized. We have all felt the empathy of a sensitive teacher or friend; we have all been struck by its absence in an unfeeling coach or boss. In business, empathy is seen, by some, as out of place amid the tough realities of the marketplace. Rather, empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings — along with other factors — in the process of making intelligent decisions.
For an example of empathy in action, consider what happened when two healthcare systems merged, creating redundant jobs in all their divisions. One division leader called his people together and gave a gloomy speech that emphasized the number of people who would soon be fired. The leader of another division gave her people a different kind of speech. She was up-front about her own worry and confusion, and she promised to keep people informed, to treat everyone fairly and to work hard at finding them alternative positions.
The difference between these two managers was empathy. The first manager was too worried about his own fate to consider the feelings of his anxiety-stricken colleagues. The second knew intuitively what his people were feeling, and he acknowledged their fears with his words. Is it any surprise that the first manager saw his division sink as many demoralized people, especially the most talented, departed? By contrast, the second manager continued to be a strong leader, her best people stayed, and her division remained as productive as ever.
As a component of emotional intelligence, social skill is not as simple as it sounds. Socially skilled people have a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds — a knack for building rapport. Social skill is the culmination of the other dimensions of emotional intelligence.
People seem to know intuitively that leaders need to manage relationships effectively; no leader is an island. After all, the leader’s task is to get work done through other people, and social skill makes that possible. A leader who cannot express her empathy may as well not have it at all. And a leader’s motivation will be useless if he cannot communicate his passion to the organization. Social skill allows leaders to put their emotional intelligence to work.
It would be foolish to assert that good-old-fashioned IQ and technical ability are not important ingredients in strong leadership. But the recipe would not be complete without emotional intelligence. It was once thought that the components of emotional intelligence were “nice to have” in business leaders. But now we know that, for the sake of performance, these are ingredients that leaders “need to have.”
William Kreider is the founder and CEO of HR Future Group, a firm that offers a full service suite of human capital management services for small businesses. From Transformational HR Outsourcing, Compensation, Leadership Coaching, Talent Acquisition and other HCM consulting services to Cloud-based Payroll, HRIS, Time & Attendance, and Benefit Administration, HR Future can assist your business. Mr. Kreider has significant executive experience in all areas within the HR profession in a variety of industries. For more information, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610.584.2467.