What makes a good leader? For too long, the answer to that question has focused on qualities such as vision, ambition, drive, and experience. Yes, those are qualities of a leader, but they paint a rather limited picture of what truly effective leadership looks like.
The best leaders – the ones who truly inspire those they lead to be their best – embrace and embody humility, empathy, compassion, and transparency. Some may describe those attributes as “soft” skills. I argue they are among the hardest skills of all. They can be the hardest to master and the hardest to embrace. They are also hard in that they often take the longest to see evidence of real impact, yet they can be incredibly durable and far-reaching. What I’m referring to is emotional intelligence (EQ).
Emotional intelligence is a phrase that is tossed around a lot, but it really starts with building self-knowledge. We often don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We see the person that we want other people to see. It is hard for us to develop and reach our potential when we aren’t in touch with our blind-spots, those behaviors that make those around us feel dismissed, devalued, unheard. Socrates had it right 2,000 years ago when he said, “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.”
The reality is this: you can’t rise to the top and be a truly exceptional leader without a high degree of emotional intelligence. Sure, you can rise to a certain level, but at some point, you will hit a ceiling of your own making. We’ve seen this occur time and again with clients who have had very successful careers, and then suddenly, they stall or find that what worked for them in the past had become an obstacle to their continued success. Let me give you an example:
I once had a client who boldly told me at the beginning of our consulting relationship that he was always the smartest person in the room. He actually said that … and believed it. More interestingly, when we interviewed his colleagues, they also viewed him as the smartest person in the room. While this was a trait that served him well early in his career, when technical and domain expertise was most important, it became less relevant as he advanced in his firm and was charged with leading teams of similarly bright professionals. He suddenly found himself facing a daunting problem: nobody wanted to work with him.
I once had a client who boldly told me at the beginning of our consulting relationship that he was always the smartest person in the room. He actually said that … and believed it.
We worked with him to start paying attention to his verbal and non-verbal communication cues (more than 80% of communication is non-verbal after all). Over time, the shift in how this person worked with his peers was remarkable and caught the attention of his colleagues. As he would say, “Now, when I’m debating a point that I know isn’t mine to debate, I quickly recognize that I’ve fallen off the EQ bandwagon and correct.” Even better, he found that the benefits of his newfound EQ stretched beyond work to his home life with his wife and kids.
As you can see, many of us don’t even realize we lack in emotional intelligence. It simply hasn’t been core to the conversation of what it means to be a true leader. That needs to change. To help you down the path of making that change, I offer the following six steps to begin becoming a more emotionally intelligent leader:
1. Act without defensiveness & arrogance
Defensiveness is a form of self-protection that is often unconscious and can be triggered without us even being aware that it is happening. Arrogance is the opposite of humility and often leads to actions, behaviors, or communication styles that are interpreted by others as insulting or condescending. Developing one’s self-knowledge can overcome defensiveness and arrogance.
2. Practice accurate empathy
Accurate empathy is the ability to assess another’s verbal as well as non-verbal communication cues to understand their perspectives, state of mind, or experiences as they see and feel them, objectively, and without bias. Emotionally intelligent leaders carefully observe and listen, so others feel not just heard, but understood.
3. Live your social values
Social values guide organizational culture and define acceptable behaviors. Successful organizational cultures are built on a foundation of robust social values that include integrity with compassion. Leaders reinforce organizational culture by consciously modeling social values in a way that is worthy of emulation.
4. Be Appropriately Transparent
Transparency requires honest and open communication, even when it is uncomfortable or makes one feel vulnerable. Appropriate transparency refers to the appropriate amount at the appropriate time for the appropriate reason.
5. Lead with Emotional Courage
Emotional courage is doing what is the right thing to do despite the fear one might have about doing it. It takes emotional courage to look inward and see the truth about oneself. Effective leaders exercise emotional courage to appropriately challenge the status quo.
6. Embrace Paradox and Ambiguity
Accept and embrace complexity and uncertainty. Leadership is inherently paradoxical. While many of us have achieved career success by accomplishments that had clear objective criteria, leadership deals with issues that are often far more nuanced. Organizational leaders routinely find themselves facing challenges that have no clear, well-defined solution, and they are often making decisions with incomplete information. This requires leaders to develop both the familiarity and mindset to comfortably function in situations which are complex and paradoxical. Embracing the embodiment of paradox within ourselves, modeling these behaviors to our organizations helps create cultural and social dynamics that support resilience and adaptability.
As stated earlier, emotional intelligence is rooted in self-knowledge. The six steps shared above only work when you’ve taken the time to be deeply introspective. Be brutally honest with yourself about what’s holding you back from being the leader that you – and those around you – want you to be. With that foundation and level-setting, you can begin to incorporate emotional intelligence into your leadership style. Reflect, set a goal, share it with your colleagues, and practice it. That is the only way to become truly emotionally intelligent – the single most distinguishing quality of exceptional leadership.