Emotional Intelligence

by Andy Smith

The Emotionally Intelligent leader

It’s important to recognise that a leader is not the same thing as a manager. Here are some commonly recognised differences:

Manager Leader
  • adjusts to changes
  • administers
  • controls
  • efficient
  • implements
  • manages resources
  • organises
  • reactive
  • makes changes
  • creates
  • is flexible
  • effective
  • decides
  • sets objectives
  • motivates
  • proactive

One striking difference is that the manager is concerned primarily with systems, while the leader is also concerned with people. One could meaningfully speak of someone managing a complex computer system, with no other people involved; it would not make sense to call that person the ‘leader’ of the computer system.

Leadership involves people – communicating with them, inspiring them, and providing them with direction, a sense of belonging, and a climate that fosters connections between them. For this, emotional intelligence is needed.

The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.

Peter Drucker

What are the qualities of a good leader?

Great leaders share a number of characteristics, beyond Drucker’s bottom-line criterion of having followers.

  • They are trusted (at least by the people who follow them)
  • They act consistently in line with their values
  • They are in the right place at the right time
  • They have a clear vision and communicate it in a way that inspires people
  • They lead by example and create a positive emotional climate
  • Their leadership style brings out the best in people

The emotional intelligence ‘competences’ of self-awareness, social awareness (essentially empathy, but operating at an organisational as well as an individual level), self-management and relationship management are vital to each of these qualities.

Self-awareness and leadership

Integrity is generally agreed to be a vital quality in a leader. It’s usually defined in terms of honesty and adhering strongly to an ethical code. However, when applied to non-human areas, such as a body of data or an ecosystem, something that has ‘integrity’ is ‘intact’, ‘whole’, or ‘not tampered with’. This was in fact the original meaning of the word (from the Latin meaning ‘untouched’).

Integrity therefore came to mean ‘ethically sound’ by metaphorical extension. As so often with metaphors applied to human subjective experience, we can discover something useful when we take the metaphor literally.

Integrity and internal conflict

Consider a person who is grappling with an inner conflict. It may be that two of their most important values are in conflict, or that they cannot choose between alternatives that seem to be equally tempting (or equally scary). Because memory, learning and behaviour are influenced by emotional states, it could even be that what they believe and how they act change significantly depending on how they are feeling.

Can a person who has significant unresolved internal conflicts be a good leader? It’s doubtful. Such a person would find it hard to make decisions and stick to them, because whichever alternative they choose would leave part of themselves unsatisfied. In addition, when you feel ambivalent about your own decisions, it is hard to defend them against criticism.

Another consequence of internal conflict is that it increases the amount of ‘downtime’, when the person’s attention is focused inward (on trying to think through or resolve the conflict) rather than outside themselves. We only have a limited amount of attention – the more inwardly-focused you are, the less you have left over for noticing what is going on around you. Leaders need accurate information about their environment, both as the foundation for making good decisions, and as feedback on the results of their actions.

So, unresolved internal conflicts do not make for good leadership. They lead to indecision, inconsistency, and an inability to stick to your guns – none of which are desirable characteristics in a leader.

Identify your values

In order to build the sound internal foundation (also known as ‘character’) which is necessary for leadership, you need to identify your own values and resolve any values conflicts that you uncover.

Being clear about your own values and acting in line with them also means that you will be perceived as ‘walking your talk’ – the key element in leading by example.

The most important thing to remember about emotional intelligence as it applies to leadership is that self-awareness is the foundation on which all the other ‘competencies’ of emotional intelligence are based. If you are not aware of your own emotions, it’s impossible to manage them and hard to understand the emotions of others; in turn, self-management and empathy are prerequisites for being able to handle and inspire emotions in other people.

Social awareness

Social awareness entails being able to read the culture. What makes people want to follow a leader? What makes them – in the most extreme cases – willing to lay down their lives for that person?

At their best, leaders are ‘living symbols’ of a particular set of values that the followers subscribe to, enabling an almost spiritual feeling of being part of something greater than oneself. Think what Churchill was to the British in the Second World War, what Gandhi was to the non-violence movement, or, to take some business examples, what Richard Branson is to Virgin staff or Steve Jobs to Apple devotees.

If we accept the Clare Graves Spiral Dynamics theory that values systems evolve and develop, the best leaders assist in the evolution of an organisation’s values system or culture. They do this by calling to and encouraging the elements that are ready to make the leap to the next level. Leaders are also to an extent a blank canvas onto which their followers project elements of their own values systems. Which values are appealed to and projected – the best or the worst – will depend on what the leader says and does.

As part of this projection process, followers make sense of a leader’s words and actions by making up a ‘story’ about them. In the follower’s mind, the leader becomes the hero of a narrative constructed partly from pre-existing archetypes (the king, the wise woman, the father, the magician) that are common to society as a whole, and partly from the traditions and culture of that particular organisation.

The meaning of what we say, or what we do, depends on its context. Delivering a hilariously accurate character assessment to a close colleague will mean one thing over a few friendly pints, but quite another in the middle of a board meeting. So the words, actions and qualities of a leader are assessed in the context of the culture in which they are operating. Depending on the context against which they are played out, the same actions could be viewed as:

Reading the culture

One of the great leadership skills is the ability to ‘read’ the culture and emotional climate of the organisation successfully and to communicate and act in ways that are appropriate within that context. Successful leaders act in ways that are consistent with the ‘narrative’ that their followers have constructed (if this is a positive view) or that change the terms of the narrative (if it needs to be changed). This does not mean that the leader’s actions have to be predictable – the best leaders can surprise their people from time to time, but the surprises will be positive ones, which the followers can make sense of them in terms of the organisation’s ‘story’.

Without this empathy for organisational culture and the feelings of the people who are part of it, anything that the leader does is liable to backfire and be misinterpreted.

The practical implication of this is that the better you understand the culture of the organisation you work in and the feelings of the people you lead, the more effective you will be as a leader.

Emotional self-management and leadership

  1. Think about the worst boss you have ever had.
  2. What did they do that made them a bad boss?
  3. Now think about the best boss you have ever had.
  4. What did they do that made them a good boss?

When people are asked these questions, technical competence and intellect are usually a long way down the list of differences between bad bosses and good ones. More commonly, participants characterise bad bosses as being undermining, inconsistent, distant, insecure and prone to outbursts of temper.

The qualities of a good boss, on the other hand, turn out to include self-control, commitment to developing their people, consistency, genuine interest in others, and well-founded self-confidence. These are all components of high emotional intelligence.