What makes a good leader?

What separates great leaders from average ones? According to Daniel Goleman they answer does not lie in technical skills or IQ, it is in fact emotional intelligence (EQ). These are a group of skills which allow leaders to maximise both their own performance, and that of their team. These skills are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. This does not mean that technical skills and IQ are irrelevant, they are important however recent studies have shown the EQ is the key ingredient of leadership. Without it, no matter how high you IQ I or how much training you have, you will not make an exceptional leader.

The majority of large organisations today, have trained psychologists developing ‘competency models’ which will help them in identifying, training and promoting potential ‘stars’ at leader level. These psychologists have also developed competency models for the lower level positions. Goleman analysed competency models from 188 companies, most of which were large global companies. The aim of this was to find out which personal capabilities were drivers of exceptional performance. In order to do this, Goleman grouped capabilities into three different categories: technical skills, cognitive abilities and competencies which demonstrated emotional intelligence. In order to create some of these competency models, psychologists asked the senior managers to identify the competencies that were typical of the organisation’s best leaders. In order to create other models, psychologists used other objective measures, such as how profitable a division was, to separate the best performers at senior level from the average. These employees were then tested extensively, and their capabilities compared. As a result of this process, lists of ‘ingredients’ for highly effective leaders were developed. When Goleman analysed the data he found that when he calculated the ratio of IQ, technical skills and emotional intelligence as components of exceptional performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others. The analysis also showed that EQ played a hugely significant role at the top levels of the company where the differences in technical skills is insignificant. Meaning that the higher the rank of a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities appear as the reason for their effectiveness. This is backed up by other research who have confirmed that emotional intelligence distinguishes outstanding leadership but can also be linked to stronger performance.

The 5 Components of Emotional Intelligence

Self-Awareness – This is the first component of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness involves being able to understand your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses etc. People who have a high level of self-awareness are not too critical or too hopeful, rather they are honest with both themselves and those around them. They also recognise how their emotions affect themselves, their work and those around them. People who are highly self-aware know where they are going and why, they are able to speak openly about their emotions and how they impact their work. Self-aware people are comfortable talking about their strengths as well as their limits and also crave constructive criticism, conversely people with low self-awareness take the message that they need to improve as a sign of failure or a threat. Goleman’s research has found that senior executives don’t give self-awareness much credit when looking for potential leaders. They fail to give respect to employees who are honest about their weaknesses and often, these people are dismissed as ‘not tough enough’ to lead a team. This however is quite wrong and the opposite is true! People respect honesty and leaders frequently have to make judgement calls that need an honest assessment of the competencies of others as well as themselves.

Self-Regulation – Biological impulses are the drivers of our emotions, we cannot get rid of them, but we can manage them. Self-regulation is the component of emotional intelligence which stops us from being prisoners of our emotions. Everyone has a bad mood and gets emotional; however, you can find a way to control these feelings so that they do not control you. Why is self-regulation important for leaders? People who can control their emotions and impulses can create a better environment of fairness and trust. In such an environment fighting and politics is significantly reduced, and productivity is high. Self-regulation also has a knock-on effect, nobody in the organisation wants to be known as a hothead if their boss is known for being very calm when approaching situations. Less bad moods at the top of the organisation results in fewer bad moods throughout the organisation. Self-regulation is also important in relation to competition. There is constant change in business be it mergers, technology etc, those who have learned to control their emotions can roll with the changes. They do not panic and look to find out as much information as they can to help them deal with the changes. A lot of the negative things that happen in companies are a result of impulsive behaviour. Signs of emotional self-regulation can be easily seen, they have a tendency to reflect on issues, are comfortable with change and uncertainty and can say no to impulsive urges.

Motivation – All effective leaders have this trait, they are driven to achieve things beyond everyone’s expectations. Those who have a potential for exceptional leadership are deeply motivated by an embedded desire to achieve just for the sake of achievement, not for external factors like salary or status. How do we identify these people? They are passionate about the work itself and look for creative challenges, they love to learn new things and take pride in their job. They are also constantly raising the bar in relation to performance and like to keep score. They tend to remain optimistic even if the odds are stacked against them. It is easy to see how motivation to achieve translates into strong leadership, if you set the bar high for yourself then you will do the same for the organisation.

Empathy – This is the most easily recognised component of emotional intelligence. When it comes to business it is very rare to hear someone being praised for their empathy. For leaders, empathy doesn’t mean taking on other people’s emotions as your own and trying to please everybody, rather it is being considerate of employee’s feelings when making decisions. Empathy is particularly important today in relation to leadership for a number of reasons. First is the growing use of teams, a leader needs to be able to understand everyone’s point of view. The rapid pace of globalisation is another reason. Cross-cultural dialogue can easily lead to misunderstandings, empathy is the solution. People who have empathy can pick up on subtle cues such as body language and tend to understand the importance of cultural and ethnic differences. The last reason relates to talent retention. Empathy has always been important in relation to a leader’s ability to keep and develop good people. If an employee leaves, they take the companies knowledge with them. This is why coaching and mentoring is important. It is clear that coaching pays off in better performance as well as increased job satisfaction and increased turnover. Good coaches get inside employee’s heads and sense how to give effective feedback. They know when it is necessary to push for better performance and when they should hold back.

Social Skill – Both empathy and social skill relate to a person’s ability to manage relationships. Social skills can be more difficult to master than it sounds. Social skill is friendliness but with a purpose, which is moving people in the direction you want them to go. People with social skills tend to have a large circle of acquaintances and can easily find common ground with all kinds of people. They work under the assumption that nothing important can be achieved alone, these people have a network in place for when the time to take action comes. The other component of emotional intelligence culminate with social skill as people tend to be good at managing relationships when they can both understand and control their own emotions and can empathise with other people’s feelings. Social skills can be easily recognisable for example, they are good at managing teams and are expert persuaders and so know when to make an emotional plea and when to appeal to reason. Social skills allow leaders to put their EQ to work.

It is clear that technical skills and IQ are obviously important ingredients in effective leadership. But it would not be complete without emotional intelligence. Today we now know that emotional intelligence is essential to effective leadership. Unlike IQ, EQ can be learned but it takes time and willingness. By talking to a leadership coach, you can work out what components you need to work on and gradually improve them. For more information on our leadership coaching click here or email info@rfc.ie.

Goleman, D. (2004) What Makes a Leader? [Online] https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader 

For more information on our leadership/team coaching service click here to visit our website or email info@rfc.ie.

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