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Emotional Intelligence as a Component of Leadership

One field of study that has gained increasing attention in the last decade is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s capacity to use emotion proactively, both his or her own emotions and those of others around them, and on both a conscious and sub-conscious level, as a tool to enhance reasoning and decision-making. Daniel Goleman, the “godfather” of emotional intelligence, has published extensively about the importance of non-technical skills in the workplace. He connects qualities of emotional intelligence directly to leadership and argues that success in leadership does not depend exclusively on the more traditional qualities of intellect and practical proficiencies. Goleman writes:

It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but mainly as “threshold capabilities”; that is, they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. But my research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the “sine qua non” of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader (Goleman 1998b, 1).

Goleman identifies five major aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill (Goleman 1998b). Self-awareness is the capacity to identify one’s own strengths and weakness, and to behave at the workplace in ways that capitalize on the former and minimize the latter. Goleman cites a person with high self-awareness who was resistant to a new corporate initiative: “She offered an explanation: ‘It’s hard for me to get behind the rollout of this service,’ she admitted, ‘because I really wanted to run the project, but I wasn’t selected. Bear with me while I deal with that’” (Goleman 1998b, 2). Candor about areas of weakness, comfort with oneself and “a strong and positive sense of self-worth” (Goleman 1998a, 80) characterize people who are self-aware. Part of self-worth is the willingness to listen to oneself before anybody else. Goleman suggests, “Our gut feelings — our deepest sense of what feels right and what is ‘off’ — provide critical information that we must not ignore” (Goleman 1998a, 50). The importance of instinct as the principal operating factor in reaching conclusions has been echoed by other scholars, as well, such as Malcolm Gladwell, whose bestseller Blink reinforces this very theme (Gladwell 2005). Based on Goleman’s and Gladwell’s observations, self-awareness goes beyond an individual’s conscious self-assessment and more deeply involves a person’s innate capacity for decision-making, thus influencing every aspect of performance.

Self-regulation is related to self-awareness, but describes more specifically the ability to control emotions, whether negative or positive, in order to maintain a demeanor best suited for professional practice and activity. Goleman writes about self-regulation not only as a reactionary approach to scenarios that can jostle, excite and distract, but also as an executive’s steady and deliberate impact on organizational culture:

Why does self-regulation matter so much for leaders? People who are in control of their feelings and impulses — that is, people who are reasonable — are able to create an environment of trust and fairness. In such an environment, politics and infighting are sharply reduced… . Talented people flock to the organization… Fewer bad moods at the top mean fewer throughout the organization (Goleman 1998b, 3).

The idea that executives shape the tone and attitude of interpersonal behaviors — and, consequently, productivity — in an organization is not a new one (and I explore the concept further later in this article). Goleman also emphasizes the direct correlation between self-regulation and ethics, indicating that “people with low impulse control” (Goleman 1998b, 4) sometimes succumb to threats to integrity. “A propensity for reflection and thoughtfulness” (Goleman 1998b, 4) exhibited by the leader of an organization, then, offers security to every area affected by leadership decision-making, particularly staff and finances.

The principle of motivation represents the will to achieve — eagerness, drive, ambition — regardless of obstacles, and is another theme consistently reinforced by the profiled leaders. Two particular qualities of motivated leaders are that “they are forever raising the performance bar, and they like to keep score” (Goleman 1998b, 4). They are competitive — with themselves and with peers alike. They set goals and employ methods of measurement to quantify how well they have met those goals, if at all. It is not difficult to imagine how easily this trait, if unchecked or insufficiently balanced with other characteristics such as self-awareness and self-regulation, could undermine one’s leadership profile. But Goleman contends that a potential leader will not materialize into an actual one without ample motivation: “If there is one trait that virtually all leaders have, it is motivation” (Goleman 1998b, 5). Leaders work their way into leadership roles through a relentless sense of pursuit, a need to constantly produce results. Problem-solving is a critical hallmark of motivation, and Goleman uses a term that I discuss in depth later in this article: optimism. The strongest leader sees opportunities where others may not and assumes that all issues are resolvable, and, importantly, is motivated to seize those opportunities and find the resolution.

Empathy is Goleman’s fourth pillar of emotional intelligence and is perhaps the most prone to misconstrual or dismissal from corporate sector diehards. But empathy has a clear and concrete professional purpose, and “doesn’t mean adopting other people’s emotions as one’s own and trying to please everybody” (Goleman 1998b, 5). It describes the leader’s intuitive understanding of staff’s non-technical needs and the ability to communicate that understanding effectively. As I discuss later, the importance of staff satisfaction, by way of feeling respected and heard, cannot be underestimated. Staff morale and job satisfaction have enormous impact on how others in the organization feel about their jobs and how the entirety of the organization performs. Demonstrating the value of empathy in an increasingly cross-cultural global market, Goleman observes, “Empathy is an antidote. People who have it are attuned to subtleties in body language; they can hear the message beneath the words being spoken. Beyond that, they have a deep understanding of the existence and importance of cultural and ethnic differences” (Goleman 1998b, 6). Empathy also enhances the leader’s ability to make staff feel respected so they can, in turn, respect one another, strengthening the constant efforts toward retention. This type of leader can thus develop strong teams who work together effectively to affirm one another and successfully carry out the mission of the organization (Goleman 1998b).

Social skill, the fifth component of emotional intelligence, is, like empathy, reflective of a leader’s interactions with the world, in contrast to the first three factors, which highlight more internal characteristics (Goleman 1998b). It is the ability to leverage relationships toward the ideas and ideals a leader wants to promote, through likeability, trust and respect. But just as the line blurs between self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy, social skill also represents shades of the other four. Without social skill, the other four components of emotional intelligence may fall flat. For example:

[C]onsider the case of an executive in the strategy department of a global computer manufacturer. By 1993, he was convinced that the future lay with the internet. Over the course of the next year, he found kindred spirits and used his social skill to stitch together a virtual community that cut across levels, divisions, and nations. He then used this de facto team to put up a corporate website, among the first by a major company (Goleman 1998b, 7).

Without the strength of his interpersonal connections, the person in this example might not have accomplished this important and viable goal. Goleman notes also that because social skill is based in positive relationships, the more successful leaders may “appear not to be working while at work” (Goleman 1998b, 7) and, thus, social skill may be the most difficult area to quantify.

Goleman acknowledges, in fact, that emotional intelligence in general is not always conducive to measurement. Referring to a hypothetical hotel receptionist who is particularly adept at her job, he quotes Tom Pritzker, President and CEO of Global Hyatt Corporation, which operates Hyatt Hotels, saying, “The lady at the front desk who wins over the customer with her smile can’t be quantified, but you can sense the advantage” (Goleman 1998a, 167). Goleman’s findings did not distinguish between public and private sector, but they do speak to business nuances specific to nonprofit industry. For example, the complicated power structure inherent in most successful social service organizations necessitates a leader with particular acuity in self-awareness, personally and organizationally, in order to engage funders strategically and pursue support from appropriate partners. Likewise, social skill and empathy are inherent in any effective approach to relationship-building, a particularly essential element of the personal business standards described by the four leaders featured in this study.

Some of the most important qualities described by the leaders profiled in this study, indeed, are rooted in principles outlined by Goleman. Taking smart risks, making good decisions and showing initiative (Morris and Jones 1999) are behaviors exemplified by the most successful and entrepreneurial leaders. The principles of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill enable the clarity and capacity to carry out these behaviors, especially in vulnerable nonprofit industries where they are increasingly critical to organizational strategy. Some suggest, in fact, that this vulnerability actually fosters creative leadership: “[E]ntrepreneurship [may represent] an effective strategic response to environmental turbulence. Discontinuities in the environment threaten existing modes of operation, while also creating numerous opportunities for innovative behavior” (Morris and Jones 1999, 72).