Emotional Intelligence – the X factor for great leaders?

Paul Holland, Consulting Partner at Signium Ireland, discusses the role emotional intelligence plays in effective leadership.

We all know of countless examples where people who weren’t the smartest in their class went on to become highly successful leaders in say politics or business. Similarly, many young “rocket scientists” we thought destined for leadership greatness ended up middle of the road….or worse. And why did individuals of distinctly moderate IQ’s like Richard Branson and Ronald Reagan (still one of the most popular US Presidents ever) become recognised as great leaders in their professional spheres? The answer probably lies in their emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence or EQ as its often known, is a buzz word in the lexicon of modern  leadership theory. But what is it, how does it influence great leaders and is it something that can be learned and improved? 

The concept of emotional intelligence first gained real traction in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article “Inside the mind of a leader” by Daniel Goleman. It remains a seminal article on the subject.

Goleman researched 200 large global companies and found that while the qualities traditionally associated with great leaders like intelligence, toughness, determination and vision are present in all great leaders, they are not enough. Of course they matter, but Goleman says only as “threshold capabilities . He contends that great leaders also need high degrees of emotional intelligence. In fact, Goleman’s research found that as an ingredient of excellent performance, EQ was twice as important as other more traditional factors like IQ and technical skills.

Goleman focuses on 5 key characteristics that define EQ; 3 relating to self-management; Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation and Motivation and 2, to the management of others, Empathy and Social Skills.

Self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognise and understand ones moods, emotions and drives and crucially, their effect on others. Characteristics of self-aware leaders include; self-confidence, realistic self-assessment and ability not to take oneself too seriously.

Self-regulation is seen as the ability to control and redirect disruptive and negative thoughts and channel them in a positive direction. Leaders with strong self-regulation are open to change, comfortable with uncertainty and pressure, trustworthy and operate with high levels of integrity.

Great leaders are Motivated by a will to succeed that goes beyond money or status. Their motivation is characterised by drive, optimism, focus and a relentless commitment to a collective (vs an individual) purpose.

Empathy relates to a leaders ability to understand the emotions of others and manage them effectively. Empathic leaders are strong at building high-performance teams with different cultural and emotional make-ups and are highly customer centric.

Finally, enhanced Social-Skills are required to effectively manage important relationships through building strong external networks and internal teams.

While Goleman asserts that there is a strong genetic component to EQ he does identify ways in which leaders can develop and improve it. As EQ is largely born of the brain’s limbic system it can be learned and improved through a combination of; motivational change, continuous practice and regular performance feedback.

So what are the implications of EQ for business leaders and HR professionals focused on identifying and developing the leaders of tomorrow? I will leave you with 3…

  1. Traditional leadership criteria like IQ and technical ability while important, are not enough for effective leadership in global, multi-cultural organisations in the digital age. This is particularly relevant in a global workforce of 50% Millennials who have very different values, motivations and expectations from previous generations.
  2. The process of identifying future leaders – whether internal or externally sourced - must clearly recognise and evaluate a leader’s EQ as well as IQ and technical expertise.
  3. Senior leaders and HR professionals must create environments and engender cultures where future leaders can develop and improve their EQ skills. Additionally , they must proactively develop and implement clearly defined strategies and programmes that enable individual leaders (and future leaders) to develop and improve their EQ over time.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the characteristics of EQ were nice to have in great leaders – more recent wisdom (and research) proves otherwise.

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