“I want to be a good leader. But what does being a good leader mean?”. You are not alone in finding a clear definition for leadership – there is a plethora of definitions, theories, beliefs about what to do and what not to do. Some claim there are inherent leadership traits one is born with, some claim it is through experience and professional development that leadership is crafted.
The answer is – it can be both. Daniel Goleman (1995) reviewed leadership competency models from 188 companies, most large and global, to identify the “special ingredients” of leadership. Cognitive skills (such as lateral, big picture thinking and being able to articulate a strategic vision) and technical skills were important measures of success. But Emotional Intelligence (EI) was identified as critical for leadership performance. Indeed, when comparing the highest performers to average performers in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence rather than cognitive abilities. And while EI is to a certain degree innate, it does indeed increase with experience, and can be cultivated through attentive focus.
Imagine this. You have had a long day of back-to-back meetings, and haven’t felt like you have progressed any milestones you were hoping for. You run back to the office, and try to block out some time for yourself, to get out a proposal you have been sitting on for the last few days. You have missed lunch, and a second coffee, which isn’t ideal. A relatively new team member taps you on the shoulder to discuss a new idea for a process they want to soundboard. You tell them in a short manner it’s not a priority or a good time to discuss this, without taking your eyes off your screen, and they leave. And as you drive home that night, you feel bad for your crabby attitude towards this new team member. How could Goleman’s pillars of EI cultivate a different experience of leadership?
Self-awareness: You might be thinking, not another buzz word. Or that this will require you to travel to Ubud and live in a monastery for a month. But this is not a new concept. Self-awareness is about being in tune with your emotions, your drivers, and your impact on others. It is about acknowledgement and acceptance of what is occurring in your internal world, without judgement and criticism. Rather than the above outcome, perhaps you took a few moments during the day to take a deep breath and assess and label your emotions. You feel frustrated, ineffective, and hungry. You realise this will place you in a delicate mood, with or without a sandwich. You are allowed to feel this way. Just by being more self-aware, you place yourself in a better situation to understand how your action and behaviours may be affected. Before starting your project, perhaps you advised your colleagues you will be offline for 30 minutes as you are feeling under pressure.
Self-regulation: This is the filter, your impulse control mechanism. This is what was missing when you hypothetically snapped at your colleague while hangry (hungry meets angry). This is the mental deep breath you take before responding, particularly in a sensitive situation. By increasing your self-awareness, you are in a much better position to regulate your emotions and behaviour, because you are almost anticipating the knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps, rather than telling your team member their idea is not a priority (even if they have interrupted you when you have blocked out your time) – choose your action, with a conscious thought. Thank them for their initiative, remind them politely of your deadline, and ask for them to send you through a meeting request for tomorrow where you can give them your full deserved attention. An additional 15 seconds of thought has allowed you to maintain a good working relationship with your colleague, and in turn, they are building trust and respect for you as a leader – you have shown rationality, respect, and even-temperedness. This is while also allowing you to continue your work flow (while also saving you from the inner turmoil you may have potentially faced later).
Motivation: Perhaps another buzz word. But it makes sense, right? What makes us sustain energy and drive towards an objective, in the face of adversity? What makes us excited and have a want to do better, be better. It is things we are passionate about! Perhaps, rather than accepting your milestones have blown out for your projects, you can understand this as a challenge. While frustrating, it is an opportunity to review the process – is there an opportunity for delegation? How you manage your time? Was there another way to get the signature over the line, were you truly listening to the customer’s needs? When motivated to achieve results, combined with an ongoing desire for self-reflection, you are interested in improvement. You settle on a need to refine your project management process map, which assists you to map out clear objectives for the next 3 months and is such a success it is shared throughout the organisation. A real frustration has been the productive source of a process-improvement.
Empathy and Social Skill: Being able to understand another’s emotional reaction, and respond to them in a way that is sensitive to these emotions. Shifting from an inward focusing to an outward focus. Then managing relationships effectively for the long term. Again, this is why self-awareness is a foundational skill (how can we understand how others are feeling, and respond appropriately, if we don’t understand ourselves?). Sometimes at senior level, having empathy is seen as a weakness – other associated phrases that come to mind might include “doormat”, “too feeling”, “too sensitive” and “people pleaser”.
Tips for increasing emotional intelligence
- Throughout the day, make a conscious effort to label your emotions and thoughts – this will only take a few minutes. You can do it while walking to work, or waiting for your tea to brew, or photocopying a document. You don’t need to necessarily wait until you are feeling a particularly heightened emotion. After a few weeks, you will find that the habit will stick and labelling will be easier. Perhaps you prefer to write – keep a diary and build your vocabulary of words.
- Why is it that we have our best ideas in the shower? Or ruminate over our regrets (snappy outbursts) on the drive home from work? It is because we are physically doing a repetitive, unconscious task – but mentally, our minds are drifting, to focus where it wants to. What if we could turn on this reflective ability when we wanted to? Even in a work crisis? Ubud jokes aside, meditation may be what works for you. The purpose of meditation is to make this self-reflection activity a priority, while also engaging in deep-breathing exercises (which has many positive physiological benefits). This could be in the comfort of your home to start with, but it is also important to bring it into the workplace, so it helps you during your day. Downloading a mindfulness meditation app, and doing this for 5 minutes on your lunch break, could help you.
- If you need to spend 30 minutes doing some research on salary benchmarking, don’t check your emails or wander off into the internet cyberspace, remain on the task at hand. Harness your focus. Some days you will feel in the flow, and others it will be harder. But practice your concentration as you will reap the reward.
- If you make a time in your diary to meet with a colleague, be focused on them. Put away your laptop and phone and notepad. Truly listen. Note their body language, their tone, their wording choice.
- Don’t be afraid to be personal. Use people’s names. Show recognition and appreciation where it is deserved. Take a personal interest in people’s challenges, enjoyments, hobbies.
The implication for Employers – Gain expert advice on how you can utilise psychometric assessments, and other recruitment and selection techniques, to select for emotional intelligence, cognitive capability, and technical skills. Also, consider how you are cultivating emotional intelligence in your leadership team. Do you have a leadership capability framework? Do leaders know how their leadership objectives align with the organisational values and strategic vision? Are your leaders getting valuable feedback, to understand what their strengths and blind spots are? How do you know if your leaders are effective, and how can you utilise performance feedback and data to inform future hires?
Our advice is to keep it simple. Pick your top 2 key issues or concerns, and implement some simple yet effective strategies that could be inbuilt, over time, to make a positive impact on Leadership Capability in the business.
- Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review.
- Tan, C. M. (2012). Search inside yourself: The unexpected path to achieving success, happiness (and world peace).
- Carroll, M. (2007).The mindful leader: Ten principles for bringing out the best in ourselves and others. Shambhala Publications.
Kaitlan Laurie – Organisational Development Consultant