Why we need emotionally intelligent leaders

Why we need emotionally intelligent leaders
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The top management of social media companies such as Facebook have demonstrated failure to factor in the feelings of their stakeholders and understand the serious consequences of their actions.

In business, we tend to admire leaders who achieve innovative results and often overlook their bad behaviors. As a culture, we have normalized the abnormal and, at times, glorified such behaviors. In a recent example, the University of Maryland’s board of regents reinstated the university’s football coach after a two-month absence, before firing him a day later, because they considered his star power more important than his bullying behavior, which resulted in a fatality.

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Because of the numerous exposures of wrongdoings, including abuse and harassment that has touched every aspect of our society, we are just starting to recognize the risk of poor leadership. 

Poor leadership can be put into three categories.

First, “Brilliant Jerks.” We don’t have to search long for examples of leaders who can be labeled as “brilliant jerks.” They leave a trail of collateral damage behind. Leaders such as Apple founder Steve Jobs or former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick come to mind, but the list is long and growing.

Second, “Espousers.” These leaders espouse responsible and conscious leadership, but in turbulent times show poor leadership through deflection, denial and deceit, discrediting those who cross them. Leaders such as Wells Fargo’s former CEO John Stumpf, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg come to mind, but that list also is long and growing.

The third category of poor leaders are the “Predators” — those accused of sexual abuse such as former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Like the other lists, this one is long and growing.

So, what makes a good leader?

Doris Kearns Goodwin in her recent book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” captures the essence of leadership by describing Abraham Lincoln’s greatest strength: “Possessed of a powerful emotional intelligence, Lincoln was both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent — able to mediate among factions and sustain the spirits of his countrymen. He displayed an extraordinary ability to absorb the conflicting skills and wills of a divided people and reflect back to them an unbending faith in a unified future.”  

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If boards of directors mandated emotional intelligence as a core competency for everyone in a management capacity, the toxic cultures poisoning our institutions could be transformed.

This belief is reinforced in a study by David Rosete that found leaders who were more emotionally intelligent were more likely to achieve their goals, but they cultivated relationships and engaged in more, not less, ethical behavior.

The ability model of emotional intelligence (EI), developed by John (Jack) Mayer and Peter Salovey, defines EI as intelligence and a set of hard skills — which include determining how you and others feel; how to match the right emotion to the task, and match the mood of others to connect with people; how to determine the meaning or cause of these moods and emotions; and how to be able to constantly move, or manage moods and emotions to stay on task.

In the Rosete study, leaders took an objective measure of EI and their performance was evaluated. Leaders higher on the EI measure were slightly more likely to achieve their concrete goals than leaders lower in EI. But higher EI leaders were more likely to display behaviors such as exemplifying personal drive and integrity, or cultivating productive working relationships. The two main messages of the study are: You can still hit your targets without acting like a Jobs or a Kalanick; and the turbulences similar to what Google and Facebook are going through can be avoided.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, validates the last point. Barra inherited the ignition switch crisis, and unlike Zuckerberg, she took full responsibility for it. But more importantly, she changed the culture at GM to foster relationships so that people at every level are comfortable in speaking truth to power.

Another misconception is that emotionally intelligent leaders are always happy and smiling. The ability model of EI views all emotions as potentially smart and adaptive. Different emotions can be harnessed to drive performance and positive. The goal of an emotionally intelligent leader is not to create an environment where everyone is happy all the time. In general, you want a positive climate, so people are engaged, productive and ethical, but you tactically dip into other emotions to drive a particular result, interaction or meeting.

The challenge that some leaders have with emotions is failing to fully and productively harness the power of emotions such as anger. Here again, Lincoln’s emotional intelligence was reflected in his tremendous skill in managing and harnessing anger and other emotions effectively. Anger, which often arises from a sense of injustice, can fuel positive change. But that fuel represents raw power that needs to be effectively harnessed to bring about change.

Our emphasis on the importance of emotional intelligence does not mean you need to trade off IQ points for a leader with high EI. Both are essential; it’s not an either/or proposition. Because EI is a standard intelligence, it is positively related to general intelligence (IQ). Therefore, it should be mandatory to hire and promote people who are smart in the traditional sense, as well as highly emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is not a golden ticket but rather, a core competency essential to lead in turbulent times.

David R. Caruso is a psychologist and research affiliate at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence.

Lisa T. Rees owns LTR Leadership and is a leadership coach for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. She and Caruso are the authors of “A Leader’s Guide in Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence” (EI Skills Group, 2018).

Andrew Faas is a public voices fellow at Yale University and former executive with Canada’s two largest corporations, Weston/Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart. He is author of “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire” (Rcj Press Inc., 2017).