Emotional Intelligence and the Leadership Trap

The value in leadership is obvious. Being able to develop deep meaningful relationships, communicate with clarity and display empathy are keys to influencing and inspiring others. But success does not equate to an Emotionally Intelligent Leader and this may be the greatest misunderstanding and risk to sustainable success.

Leadership is one of the main business qualities and skills coveted, researched and studied in business today. One indicator that has grown in recognition as being positively correlated with strong leadership qualities over the last 20 years is Emotional Intelligence.

Though popularized by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence was being studied well before his #1 bestselling book was published in 1995. But while the term has become popularized as a measure of leadership, the idea often gets conflated with isolated dimensions of Emotional Intelligence, such as social skills or extraversion. 

In reality, Emotional Intelligence is defined as the ability to identify, monitor and manage emotions within oneself and in others. 

The value in leadership is obvious. Being able to develop deep meaningful relationships, communicate with clarity and display empathy are keys to influencing and inspiring others. But just as extraversion is not synonymous with Emotional Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence does not guarantee strong leadership. In fact, the biggest potential self inflicted risk may be the lack of self-awareness of what true leadership and its impact and relationship with organizational success.

The Pillars of Emotional Intelligence

Not to be mistaken with any one trait, there are actually various traits and dimensions within the Emotional Intelligence framework, including empathy, social skills, self-regulation, self-awareness… Of these traits, Charles Duhigg points out that self-regulation has been shown to be one of the most powerful keystone habits (The Power of Habit, 2014).

Self-regulation is the gateway that allows one to control internal responses, react emotionally appropriate and methodically take the best course of action. Studies have consistently shown that self-regulation, a key trait in Emotional Intelligence, is a powerful indicator of success in life.

But if self-regulation is the gateway to developing successful behaviors, then self-awareness is the key that unlocks it. Like most other abilities and skills, Emotional Intelligence is not static and can be developed and strengthened. But only if one has the self-awareness of their weaknesses.

Studying the Mentality of Success

A study was conducted by Dr. Paul Piff where two players were set up to play a rigged game of Monopoly.  A coin was flipped and one player was given clear and distinct advantages, which were made clear to everyone. After 15 minutes, as the advantaged player began to accumulate more wealth and property, researchers observed their behavior beginning to change. They became more aggressive, louder, abusive and even began to physically take up more space.

While most people draw the conclusion from this study that money has a negative impact on empathy and character, it is also worthwhile noting that it is an illustration of the power of cognitive dissonance. Despite being well aware of the designed advantages awarded to them based simply on the flip of a coin, when asked to describe their victory, the advantaged players rationalized their success and attributed it to their own merit and acumen.

Self-awareness, it seems, changes with success and circumstance, and that may be the biggest threat to leadership. 

The Contradictory Evaluation

Many free online studies offer Emotional Quotient (EQ) tests which claim to be scientifically validated but are in fact superficial questionnaires designed to provide self-satisfying reassurance. When self-awareness is a critical trait of Emotional Intelligence, the very notion that it can be measured objectively by a self-directed online test is oxymoronic.

Take for instance the following question on an online EQ test asking the respondent to answer on a scale of 1 (Never) to 5 (Always):

“I am good at recognizing my emotions”

Unfortunately, this tool may end up doing more harm than anything, further enabling the incompetent manager that masquerades as a leader. There are any number of reasons people are promoted, including political skill or nepotism. Promotions aren’t awarded for leadership skills, they are awarded for political skills. Furthermore, some studies suggest ironically that highly emotionally intelligent people display bullying traits, which seems counter intuitive. 

The hidden danger of emotional intelligence self-assessments, is that in the hands of the emboldened individual, blinded and armed with self-serving reinforcement, may eventually lead the organization off a cliff.

The Emotionally Intelligent Leader

There is no shortage of large corporate empires that once seemed iconic, that ultimately failed. From Blockbuster Video to Nortel, there are any number of case studies to suggest why seemingly monopolistic titans which appeared too big to fail, eventually became obsolete. 

While revisionist historians can easily point to lack of innovation, toxic cultures, poor customer demand, the reality is that these were all just derivatives of poor leadership, or rather the lack of self-awareness of poor leadership.

True Leadership marries accountability, authority and responsibility. Organizations that take conscious, deliberate and honest approaches to cultivate a culture of self-awareness can be recognized through their structural habits. All organizations suffer setbacks through growth and there can be a fine line between success and failure. By the late 90’s, Blockbuster Video had become one of the largest and most recognized brands in the world. It is said that in 2000, Netflix co-founder, Reed Hastings, offered to sell Netflix to the mega video chain giant for $50 million. An offer which John Antioco, Blockbuster CEO, turned down. Today, Netflix is valued at $200 Billion and features the documentary The Last Blockbuster.

Success requires a tremendous amount of talent, effort, and skill, but also a little bit of luck; which can sometimes come down to the flip of a coin. But leadership that is able to remain vigilant in the face of circumstance reveals itself not when times are good, but when they are difficult. And therein is the irony of Leadership. The ability to remain confident, while having the courage to be self-aware and honest with oneself, is the true display of the Emotionally Intelligent Leader.

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