The best leaders invest the time and energy to get inside the heads of the people they lead. They don’t just follow the golden rule and treat people the way they personally want to be treated. They are emotionally intelligent (EQ or EI). They work hard to understand the formative experiences and motivations of the people they lead, and they try to see the world through the lenses of others. While they lead with unwavering principles and drive, they are agile in their dealings with others because they understand that everybody is motivated by a unique view of the world, grounded in their own formative experiences.
This does not mean that high EQ leaders are chameleons. Most are quite steady and consistent in their beliefs and practices. But they also have a high level of self-awareness with an acute understanding of how their feelings affect themselves, other people, and their performance. Their unwavering focus on their values and priorities makes them the enemies of politics, infighting, and passive-aggressive behavior. They tend to be servant leaders with a clear sense of where they are headed, and most importantly, why.
I was first introduced to the term emotional intelligence back in the mid 1990s at The Center for Creative Leadership thanks to Daniel Goleman. It resonated with me, but it took several more years for the topic to generate momentum.
It’s easy to discount what some would call this softer side of leadership because the relationship between EQ and bottom-line results isn’t always obvious and is rarely measured. As a former CEO and now as a leadership consultant, I have occasionally encountered board members, executives and managers who think you are a wimp if you even talk about this stuff. However, evolving workforce trends increasingly make people who ignore EQ look like dinosaurs.
Over the last decade more and more researchers and authors such as Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins and Geoff Colvin have highlighted the connection between corporate culture and bottom-line results, and it is increasingly evident that higher EQ leaders tend to cultivate healthier organizational cultures. Furthermore, the continued progression of women into leadership roles is having a profound impact on the way we run companies, and the attitudes of the millennial generation and generation Z are accelerating progress toward a workforce that expects more emotionally enlightened leaders who understand the value of psychological safety at work. The bar is being raised for leaders, which is why EQ matters more today than it ever has before.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of prioritizing bottom line results, accountability, and a strong work ethic. Those organizations who don't ultimately underperform. But I also believe that the way short-term results are delivered will significantly impact an organization’s ability to deliver sustainable growth over the long haul. High EQ leaders understand this balancing act. They are contagiously optimistic, even in the face of adversity, without being pollyannaish. They love teaming with others to win. When they are not winning, they see the other side of winning as not winning yet. As eager lifelong learners, they seek challenges that will both stretch their capabilities and strengthen their skills. While they take personal pride in their achievements, they experience even more gratification when helping others achieve important goals. These servant leaders are genuinely committed to the growth of their team and the people they lead.
Character, Courage, and Trust
High EQ leaders foster cultures of trust, fairness, and psychological safety because they are capable of being vulnerable with the people they lead. They are in touch with their emotions and comfortable discussing feelings. This enables them to deal with ambiguity, change, and even crises with agility and courage because they don’t panic. These are the moments that set them apart. While others might retreat toward self-preservation, high EQ leaders suspend judgment, analyze the situation, and draw upon the best thinking of their teammates. Their extraordinary ability to self-regulate helps them make tough, principle-based decisions while appreciating the feelings of others because they don’t confuse empathy with sympathy. This self-regulation also helps them avoid impulsive temptations; sending a powerful message to their teammates that their integrity and character are unwavering.
Finally, high EQ leaders work diligently to build a solid foundation of relationships with stakeholders, teammates, customers, and partners. These leaders are very good at finding common ground with a broad range of people and building relational bridges with differing constituencies. They are persuasive and nimble communicators, adjusting their approaches, not their principles, based on the needs of their audience and the situation. In contentious scenarios, they have the keen ability to negotiate win-win solutions. They resist the human tendency to make dilemmas binary. They can see the gray when most see only black and white and simply dig in their heels. They help others navigate choices that might appear to be either/or into solvable paradoxes.
How to Nurture Emotional Intelligence
The good news is that emotional intelligence is not static. Like most things in life, it can be learned. Below I provide a few ideas to help build emotional intelligence:
Read broadly, including materials with which you know you will disagree. Avoid echo chambers that might make you feel validated but also promote myopic and/or lazy thinking. Take time to reflect on and critically assess your thinking on what you read. What resonates and what are the implications for your path forward?
Become more aware of your assumptions. Examine the second and third-order consequences of your thoughts and actions. Be unafraid to admit flaws in your thought processes or to change your mind. The truth is the goal and never the enemy.
Take responsibility for your feelings. Your emotions and behavior come from you. Others might trigger your emotions, but you own them as well as the actions you take as a result.
Pay attention to how you behave. While you’re practicing your emotional awareness, take the time to notice your behavior too. Observe how you act when you’re experiencing certain emotions and how that affects your day-to-day life and the people around you. Many people go through life on cruise control unaware of these connections. Managing our emotions becomes easier once we become more conscious of how we react to them and how others are effected by our reactions.
Seek feedback on your performance with a genuine growth mindset. None of us is perfect. We all have opportunities for improvement. Always remember that we tend to judge ourselves based on our intentions while judging others based on their actions. That means you need to seek out people who will give you the unvarnished truth about the impact of your behavior on others. If you’re the boss, you’ll have to go out of your way to create the psychological safety most people need to tell you what you need to hear to improve your performance. Embrace it without being defensive. The longer-term gain of personal growth is worth the shorter-term pain.
Engage in dialogue with smart people who challenge your thinking. Don’t be afraid of people whose ideas are different from your own. In fact, seek contrarian points of view.
Practice self-care and beware of egocentric narcissists. Avoid people who demand that you agree with them in order to maintain the relationship.
Utilize active listening skills and lean into curiosity. Seek what you don’t know you don’t know. Listen for clarity instead of just thinking about how you are going to respond. There’s plenty of time for that. Use follow-up questions to clarify and confirm what is being said. In addition to making you smarter, this also helps validate the feelings of others and fosters a stronger relationship with them. French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
Open yourself up to people who are from different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. They will broaden your thinking and provide valuable perspective.
Keep a journal. Reflect on things you read, people you meet, experiences you have, and the ideas that challenge you most. Constantly ask what you are learning as well as the implications for the path forward?
Emotionally intelligent leaders are force multipliers because they cultivate healthier organizations. Their results are rarely one-hit wonders because talented people flock to them and are inspired to help them build upon their successes. People all around them work to emulate their collaborative approach, and they know that these are the leaders who can help them achieve success as well. Ultimately, emotionally intelligent leaders bring out the best in others, not just themselves.