How to up the ante in leadership

BY Jayashantha Jayawardhana

Opening his illuminating article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) back in 1998, Daniel Goleman wrote: “Every businessperson knows a story about a highly intelligent, highly skilled executive who was promoted to a leadership position only to fail at the job. They also know a story about someone with solid but not extraordinary intellectual abilities and technical skills, who was promoted to a similar position and then soared.”

Such stories buttress the widespread belief that spotting individuals with the ‘right stuff’ to be leaders is more an art than science. After all, the personal styles of great leaders differ: some are subdued and analytical while others proclaim their manifestos from mountaintops.

And we can’t ignore the organisational need for situational leadership – most mergers call for a sensitive negotiator at the helm whereas many turnarounds require a more forceful authority.

According to Goleman, the most effective leaders share one quality in common: they all possess a high degree of emotional intelligence (EQ).

EQ is the capacity to recognise our own feelings and those of others, motivate ourselves, and manage emotions in ourselves and our relationships. This was first expounded by Goleman in his book published in 1995.

However, this doesn’t mean that IQ (i.e. intelligence quotient) and technical skills are of little use. They do count; but largely as ‘threshold capabilities,’ which are the standard requirements for executive positions. According to Goleman, EQ is a prerequisite for leadership. Without it, one will hardly make an effective leader.

So what does emotional intelligence comprise?

Goleman points to self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills as the building blocks of emotional intelligence.

SELF-AWARENESS Knowing oneself means having a profound understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and desires. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Instead, they’re quite honest with themselves and others.

To become an effective leader, you must be able to read people in your charge. But before you can read them, you have to be able to read yourself. Emotional intelligence begins with you from within and never outside.

SELF-REGULATION This refers to your ability to regulate your emotions without succumbing to raw biological impulses. Even though you may have mood swings and emotional impulses similar to what others experience, you can find ways to control them and even channel them in useful ways with self-regulation.

Why is self-regulation so important for good leadership?

People who are in control of themselves, and don’t give way to their emotions and impulses (that is, people who are reasonable), succeed in creating an environment of trust and fairness.

In such an environment, politics and infighting are sharply reduced and productivity improves. Talented people flock to such organisations and stick around for the long haul. What’s more, people who have conquered their emotions are able to roll with change. If you fail to conquer your own emotions, you won’t inspire others to conquer theirs.

MOTIVATION This is a crucial trait that’s shared by all effective leaders. They are driven to achieve beyond expectations – i.e. their own and everyone else’s. The keyword here is ‘achieve.’ Many people are motivated by external factors such as a huge paycheque and other perks.

In stark contrast to such employees, those with leadership potential are motivated by a deep inner drive to achieve for the sake of achievement. They seek creative challenges, are keen to learn and take great pride in a job well done.

EMPATHY While empathy sounds quite unbusinesslike in the fiercely competitive corporate world of today, it’s essential to garner the cooperation of your people. This means that you must thoughtfully consider their feelings – along with other factors – during the process of making intelligent decisions.

Today, empathy is especially important as a component of leadership for three main reasons: the increasing use of teams; the rapid pace of globalisation; and the growing need to retain talent.

SOCIAL SKILLS As a building block of EQ, acquiring social skills isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not simply a matter of friendliness, although people with high levels of social skills are seldom meanspirited. Social skills refer to friendliness with a purpose – moving people in the direction you desire, whether that’s agreement on a new marketing strategy or enthusiasm about a new product.

If you wish to become an effective leader, you can’t help but accept the fact that by now, emotional intelligence has evolved from being a ‘nice to have’ quality to one that leaders ‘need to have.’