Over the years, I have always been fascinated and interested by what influences, shapes and drives leadership conduct and behaviour. This is one of the reasons why I am, you can say, obsessed with and absolutely enjoy my field of work, particularly consulting in human resource management and industrial relations.
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. According to Goleman (1996), EI plays an increasingly important role at the highest organisational levels, ie, where differences or deficiencies in technical skills appear not to be as crucial, when compared to, as an example, the soft skills of relationship management.
Studies show that people who have acquired higher EI skills make better leaders. The ability to lead runs deeper and requires much more than the capacity for simply storing and delivering on theories and applications (knowing). One’s competence and capabilities to make efficient epistemic distinctions in the application of technical knowledge are no longer enough to lead the contemporary workplace.
In my view, good leadership goes further than academic success and technical proficiencies, but rather, it lies in the ability to become a skilled organisational tactician, as it were. I have, over the years, come to a deeper appreciation of how this type of competence is truly informal and indirect, but otherwise an influential force or skill which is essential to run any organisation effectively, be it public or private. When EI is masterfully attuned to and honed, it can positively impact group culture and in turn individual behaviours, resulting ultimately in higher performance levels.
Methods of social and emotional learning are therefore of extreme importance in managing the often-complex network of internal and external relationships that challenge any organisation. This is a must-have skill for any good leader, who is required not only to influence the desired organisational outcomes but also to safeguard its reputation.
According to WCH Prentice, “leadership is the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants.” EI can therefore be said to be the lubrication that ensures the effectiveness of the relationships between this human element and our differing personalities.
Again, Goleman, who popularised the term EI, believes that it offers more than just a convenient framework for describing human disposition, but also offers a theoretical structure for the organisation of personalities, thereby linking it to action, conduct and job performance. He believes the result of emotional competence is outstanding performance in the workplace. Boyatzis (1982) expressed the view that “an emotional intelligence competency is an ability to recognise, understand, and use emotional information about oneself or others that leads to or causes effective or superior performance.”
EI should therefore be a critical component part of any assessment-centre exercise in determining leadership competence during the recruitment process for a potential leader in any public or private organisation.
We are all aware of the behavioural standards leaders are often held to. Some of these standards may be contained in written policies, some may be expressed in their contracts of employment, while others may be simply implied. These implied obligations are often the ones that present the most challenges for leaders who lack the required levels of EI competence. It is therefore the level of EI skills (which can be learned) that enables an effective leader to manage his own conduct in order to influence the behaviour of others.
Sometime in July 2020, an audit manager in an accounting firm was fired after investigations revealed he made racist comments in a social-media post. This negatively affected the company’s brand, resulting in the termination of his employment.
This manager was clearly EI-incompetent, and this brings me to the clear observation that such deficiencies can destroy leadership careers. According to Aristotle, “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.”
Impulsively shouting down subordinates, causing them personal embarrassment, particularly in the presence of their peers or their own subordinates, is easy, but it is unlikely to empower them. Indeed, it may only cause them to fear as opposed to respect the leadership. On the other hand, choosing the right time and place to have a robust performance conversation with your direct report is more likely to have the desired compliant outcome.
In the evolution of mankind, the survival of leaders, providers or hunters was largely dependent on instinctive, emotional impulses which drove people to react immediately to danger in their wilderness environment. Now that we have been transformed to office life, as leaders/hunters/managers operating in a professional environment, we must evolve from that basic instinct to impulsively react and use our emotional intelligence to control our responses strategically and be challenged by the Aristotle principle.
This relearning is harder for some than others, and should not be discounted in the qualitative standards of performance at any level of the organisation’s hierarchy. Understanding and executing the technical aspects of work goes hand in hand with the softer side of behavioural expectations, mental and emotional instinctive capacities.
I think it would be a good boost for employee morale for leaders and managers understand the importance of impulse control, self-assessment and flexibility, etc, and the need to appreciate the role high levels of EI play in overall leadership excellence.