High Levels of Emotional Intelligence is a Primary Characteristic of Effective Leaders.
As we have been creating the leadership development training course, my partner Alex Pilkington and I have realized that high levels of emotional intelligence are one of the primary characteristics of effective leaders. The ability to understand both oneself and others is critical to establishing effective teams, making necessary course corrections, and motivating people to do their best.
What is emotional intelligence, and how can it help you? First explained by Daniel Goleman as 5 essential characteristics in 1995, it has since developed into a wider explanation of traits and skills. As defined by Oxford Languages, it is “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.”
The best leaders exhibit these traits consistently. They are able to respond to stress and uncertainty with a higher degree of calm and perspective, less encumbered by the knee-jerk and impulsive reactions exhibited by their less self-aware counterparts.
Even for people that are not leaders, this capacity for thoughtful reflection is beneficial. This Fast Company recap of different reports all shows the same results – “people with strong emotional intelligence are more likely to succeed than those with high IQs or relevant experience.”
In addition to being more successful, people with higher EQ’s are happier, as clearly explained in this article by Dr. Travis Bradbury. Happiness is an inside job, and the level of understanding we have of our role in creating our own joy has a direct bearing on our ability to be happy.
Alex and I distilled all these definitions into our own core five, very similar to but slightly different from Mr Goleman’s. The five characteristics that we have chosen to concentrate on are amended to focus on how they impact leadership, although, of course, they are good practice for all of us.
Our list of traits in emotional intelligence is the following, which we will break down in greater detail below.
- Emotional and self-awareness
- Emotional and self-control/management
- Intrinsic motivation
- Constructive relationships
When we are able to take a critical step back from our immediate response and understand not necessarily why but how we are reacting to situations, we are exhibiting emotional awareness. When we operate on auto-pilot and allow our automatic responses to determine our response, we may not be happy with the outcome. Reacting out of unrecognized anger or pain can cause us to say thoughtless things that lead to arguments and hurt feelings we later regret. Taking an intentional step back before we react can give us the time to assess the situation more clearly and ask ourselves how we would ideally like to respond.
One useful tool for creating emotional awareness is to pause for a few seconds and take a couple of deep breaths to calm our brains. It’s good to stop and ask yourself what you feel before you react. Victor E Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Journaling is another useful tool. I am a firm believer in the power of taking the time to write down and contemplate your thoughts. Self-reflection is an excellent process for recognizing where you need to improve and then thinking through and creating the steps to accomplish that improvement. It’s also a great place to practice gratitude!
Having emotional control is important when we find ourselves in situations that test us on any number of levels. Someone might say something that we find upsetting. We might have to await test results. We may have to make an important decision that will have a significant impact on our lives. How a leader responds to these situations is even more important because not only do they set the example and the tone, their reactions can affect the people they lead. Being able to stay calm in the face of stress is not only helpful to the person experiencing the stress but to all the people around them as well.
Breathing with attention is a wonderful way to get control of your emotions. As this helpful article explains, deep breathing can help calm the brain and the nerves, adding that nasal breathing is even more helpful.
Empathy and Sensitivity
People have a deep need to be heard and to feel important. Listening to someone with empathy is one of the best gifts we can give. Listening without interrupting, mirroring back what they just said to show that you heard them, and allowing them to have their feelings without judgement are all tools of sensitive and active listening that show you have empathy for the other person.
Empathy can make all the difference in a relationship. Leaders who are able to slow down and stop the frantic pace long enough to listen to a team member share their frustration or disappointment regarding a project outcome or disappointing results may direct what could be a strained relationship into a positive one.
As this clip from Brene’ Brown shows, being empathetic isn’t being positive or trying to get someone to ‘just get over themselves’ or ‘buck up.’ Dr. Brown defines four qualities of empathy:
- Perspective taking: The ability to take someone else’s perspective and recognize their perspective as truth.
- Avoiding judgments: Judgments cloud clarity.
- Recognizing emotion in another person: Find a space inside of you that knows the other person’s feelings and feels with him and not for him. Feeling for the other person over time could drain your energy and lead to compassion fatigue but feeling with someone is a vulnerable place which leads to an empathic connection.
- Communicating and understanding: Communicate with and understand a person rather than try to fix their problems. Connection is what heals us. We don’t need someone to offer a solution or to tell us that everything is alright.
Intrinsic motivation is doing something for the sheer satisfaction of engaging in the activity. It’s something healthy leaders are able to achieve on their own and it’s also a trait they are able to inspire in their team members. Leaders who are acting from extrinsic motivation alone are doing so for the outer reward, without regard for inner satisfaction. Offering external rewards may spur productivity; however, when someone is intrinsically motivated by their performance, they will be more fulfilled. Positive emotions are formed when someone is doing something from intrinsic motivations. If someone is fulfilling a duty out of obligation and the external reward, they may have negative emotions such as bitterness, resentment, anger or a host of other feelings.
People and leaders with a high degree of self-motivation are more likely to take the initiative, set goals, work on self-improvement and be more action-oriented. All of these traits lead to a life that is more successful and satisfying.
Building and fostering constructive relationships is one of the most important roles of a leader. Healthy leaders recognize that the stronger the relationships, the more loyal the band of followers. Being a leader who everyone wants to follow starts by being someone who has enough emotional intelligence and the other four factors combined with the ability to establish and maintain constructive relationships. This doesn’t happen by chance, it happens with focused diligence.
Some of the components of constructive relationships are:
- Encouraging. People do much better with encouragement. Acting on that with words and actions will improve almost everyone’s performance and loyalty.
- Listening. Active listening makes people feel heard and valued and also helps you understand them better.
- Caring. Being able to put aside your ego and your needs for others is a key factor of emotional awareness and a true sign of a more effective leader.
TIPS FOR IMPROVING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
The first step starts with being aware of and tuned into both your own emotions and those of others. What are you feeling? What might they be feeling? Because we are often on autopilot, we tend to plough through situations without stopping to analyze our feelings. We also make false assumptions that cause us to misinterpret the actions of both ourselves and others. We all have instances of belatedly finding out that our misunderstandings have led us to react inappropriately.
The next step is to look at the story you are telling yourself about what is happening and how you or the others are feeling. Look deeper at what is going on under the initial reaction. Often we are responding to something below the surface that we are not aware of. This helpful word list might give you some ideas for other underlying emotions.
Compassion and Forgiveness
Being able to accept and forgive ourselves and others is a key element of emotional intelligence. This wonderful quote from Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify, says it all: “Be kind: everyone is on their own journey.” Releasing our own anger, regret, sadness etc., are critical elements of moving on and looking beyond the surface indicators.
Choose Again and Reframe
While it seems simple, this critical next step is where the power lies. We are capable of changing our perspectives and our reactions. We have the ability to train ourselves to be more in control and to react in ways that are healthier, more constructive and which lead to better outcomes.
This article has given a brief overview of the importance of having emotional intelligence as a leader, and yet it is the tip of the iceberg. Developing oneself as a leader is a life-long commitment to yourself. It’s knowing that in order to grow a company, a culture and a team, the health of an organization begins with the health and effectiveness of its leaders.
“Discovering the truth about ourselves is the work of a lifetime, but it’s worth the effort.” – Fred Rogers, It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood