British politician, Andrew Mitchell is clearly a highly intelligent man. He’s well-educated, good at his job and was once tipped for the political heights. But his behavior that came to light as a result of the “Plebgate” saga showed him to lack another ingredient which is increasingly being seen as vital in an effective leader: emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence has been touted to matter as much as IQ. The concept started to gain popularity in the 1990s and has been the subject of much debate within academic circles, as well as organizations, over what it constitutes and its significance. Research has tended to focus on showing the value of high emotional intelligence to leaders and organizations. My research also considers the relationship between a lack of emotional intelligence and leadership failures.
Defining the concept of emotional intelligence is an issue in itself. Is it about traits? Is it about competency? Is it really an “intelligence” or is it about ability? If it is about traits or competencies, which traits and competencies comprise our emotional intelligence? If it’s about the way you relate to other people, then isn’t it more to do with social intelligence than emotional intelligence? There does tend to be agreement, however, that both self-awareness and an ability to regulate how you act on your emotions are crucial components of emotional intelligence.
Beyond the Soft and Fluffy
Within organizations, a debate is often more centered on how something that sounds so soft and fluffy can really contribute to leadership success. For those organizations where strategic thinking, rational decision making, and financial results are prized above all else, emotional intelligence can sound a bit too woolly.
The research suggesting that it does contribute is compelling and is typified by a study of more than 300 managers, which found superior performers scored higher in all emotional intelligence attributes including self-awareness and self-management. The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations summarises much of the early research into emotional intelligence, making a clear link between emotional intelligence and an organization’s ability to meet its bottom line.
Learning from low Emotional Intelligence
Interestingly the focus of much of the research is on demonstrating the relationship between high emotional intelligence and leadership success. We can, however, learn as much, if not more, about the importance of emotional intelligence to leadership success through observing those that fail to demonstrate it. Lack of emotional intelligence – in particular, lack of self-awareness and self-control – are key leadership derailers.
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Andrew Mitchell’s fall from grace is far from the only example of a politician derailed through momentarily lapses of emotional intelligence or an overall lack of it – and in the past year we’ve seen other high-profile cases, including the demise of Paul Flowers, former chairman of Co-op Bank, largely as a result of dysfunctional behaviors. There is a harsh reality to lack of emotional intelligence in leaders.
In leadership development and talent management, the predominant focus on strengths and positive traits or attributes leads to an overall lack of understanding of the causes of derailment. For many leaders, it is their response to difficult, challenging or stressful events that is the significant contributor. When under stress, both our self-awareness and our emotional self-control are challenged.
In stressful situations, our brain’s primitive fight-or-flight reflex, our amygdala, is triggered. In the grip of our emotional reaction, we can lose perspective – particularly, an awareness of how our emotions are directing our behavior – and lack the self-control to step back, evaluate and regroup. It’s in these situations we say and do things we regret later when we’re calm. We’ve probably all been through this at some point in our lives. For leaders, however, poor self-awareness, losing perspective and lack of self-control can have significant consequences.
It Starts with Self-Awareness
For leaders, self-awareness is crucial to developing emotional intelligence and preventing derailment. Simply knowing our own values, attitudes, beliefs, and motivators go some way to helping us to understand our own behavior and, in particular, how we respond when these values feel compromised. Recognizing what triggers our stress response and pre-empting this before we’re in the grip helps us to maintain composure and control.
With clear evidence linking high emotional intelligence to high performance in leaders, and regular illustrations of high-profile leaders derailing due to the lack of emotional intelligence, there is a compelling case for leaders to focus attention on developing emotional intelligence in order to sustain leadership success.