Why Emotional Intelligence is Essential in Leadership

More than ever, employees yearn for something more from leadership than mere competence — something more than sheer intelligence.

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Emotional intelligence, while far from a new concept, has taken on added importance over the last several months, as organizations have grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and its many aftershocks. More than ever, employees have yearned for something more from leadership than mere competence, something more than sheer intelligence.

More than ever they have needed someone rooting in the tenets of emotional intelligence (variously called emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ — also EI). The most crucial of those are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management, with empathy and adaptability among the crucial offshoots of those.

The concept of emotional intelligence was established in 1990 by Drs. Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer — researchers from Yale University and the University of New Hampshire, respectively — who defined it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” Author Daniel Goleman then expanded upon their findings in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence,” noting that individuals’ emotional skills varied as much as their intellectual abilities.

Clearly such qualities are essential to effective leadership, now more than ever. As Goleman has put it, “Gifted leadership occurs where heart and head—feeling and thought—meet.” Emotionally intelligent leaders foster creativity and risk-taking. They are unthreatened by viewpoints that run counter to their own. They are inclusive, positive, collaborative and able to manage conflict.

But let us hone in once again on self-awareness and empathy. While 95 percent of people actually believe they are self-aware, studies have shown  that no more than 15 percent actually are. It is a rare and treasured gift, and especially valuable to a leader who must establish a vision for everyone else on the org chart. As for empathy, a 2016 study undertaken by Development Dimensions International (DDI) determined that leaders demonstrating it perform at a level that is 40 percent higher than that of their peers — that in particular, they are better able to engage, coach, plan and organize more effectively. As DDI senior vice president Richard S. Wellins put it:

“Being able to listen and respond with empathy is overwhelmingly the one interaction skill that outshines all other skills leaders need to be successful. … The research shows there is no other single leadership skill that is more important and yet, in today’s culture, empathy is near extinction. I believe it is one of the most dangerous global trends of our time.”

Richard S. Wellins, Senior VP at DDI

Such skills have never been in greater demand than they are now, given the pandemic’s many hardships. A survey of those in the marketing sector alone found that 79 percent of those in the field regarded 2020 as the most challenging year they had ever faced, and that was no doubt the case in many other industries as well.

As a result, the workforce has looked to leadership in ways it might not have ever done before, and management has largely stepped up to the plate. Particularly notable is the adoption of remote work. A survey by the Adecco Group, a Zurich-based human resources firm, showed that 75 percent of the employees surveyed have appreciated the increased flexibility, and an equal number want to see work-from-home policies extended beyond the pandemic. Seven in 10 employees, meanwhile, believe that having support for their mental well-being is “important to their working life.”

Well before the pandemic, McKinsey predicted that the demand in the workplace for social and emotional skills would mushroom by 26 percent in the U.S. between 2016 and 2030, and certainly, it will be no less than that, given what everyone has experienced of late.

As mentioned, we have often seen how beneficial such qualities have been to those in a leadership position. Node.AI founder Falen Fatemi referenced the EQ of astronaut James Lovell as being essential to averting complete disaster on the Apollo 13 moon mission in 1970, and those in the business world have likewise shown the many ways EQ can be used to an organization’s best advantage.

Consider Michael Tilson Thomas, founder, and director of the New World Symphony, who while serving as music director of the San Francisco Symphony told the Harvard Business Review while traditional conductors want to lead at all times, he does not. Rather, he cedes that leadership to certain orchestral sections, depending on his read of how they are performing on any given night.

Another example cited by HBR is that of Andrea Jung, the president and CEO of Grameen America, the largest microfinance organization in the U.S. While serving in her previous role as the president and CEO of Avon, she said she encouraged transparency in meetings with her 10-person advisory council, believing that that was the only way she could truly keep her finger on the company’s pulse. 

Jung also told HBR that EQ was of particular importance at Avon, given that it was a relationship-based business, built on those formed by 4.5 million independent sales representatives. And, she added: “Of all a leader’s competencies, emotional and otherwise, self-awareness is the most important. Without it, you can’t identify the impact you have on others.”

Summing up, then, EQ has clearly been shown to be vital to the success of every business. That has become that much more clear during the pandemic when organizations have been forced to reinvent themselves on the fly. It is also expected to remain the case in the years ahead.

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