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Outlook on Leadership

by Dan Wyant

Chairman & President

Emotional intelligence: Robust leadership tools for tough times

A couple years ago I was introduced to the concept of emotional intelligence while attending a leadership workshop at the McChrystal Group in Washington D.C. The topic resurfaced recently in conversations with local leaders, so I picked up a copy of “Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence,” an intriguing book by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. Although first published in 2001, I think it’s especially applicable today as we navigate our way through COVID-19.

According to the authors, there are four domains of emotional intelligence — two that revolve around managing ourselves and two about managing others:

Self-awareness — This includes the ability to accurately identify your moods, emotions, temperament, strengths and weaknesses. For example, you’re conscious of when your motor runs a little hot, when you’re bored, losing interest in a conversation or not in the moment — and you understand why.

One of the things that’s helped me be more self-aware is having been exposed to a variety of behavioral assessments, from Myers-Briggs to DISC. For example, as an extrovert I draw energy from being around other people, and I’m a big-picture thinker. I recognize that without a detailed person to back me up, I’m not as good as I can be. Being conscious of my strengths, weaknesses and temperament has been liberating; it’s helped me know where to spend my time and when to bring in someone to help me.

Self-management — This bucket is about self-control, transparency, adaptability, achievement, initiative and optimism. If you’re good at self-management, you can control your moods or redirect an impulse. You’re not prone to overreact, you think before speaking, acting — or putting something in an email. And you’re comfortable with ambiguity.

I have three simple rules for life: 1) The world is run by those who show up, 2) don’t burn any bridges, and 3) don’t play with wild animals because it never turns out well. They all touch on self-management, but especially the second one, which applies to big bridges and small ones. With that in mind, I try to never be adversarial or overreact, and some of my best lessons have come from my marriage. Kathy, my wife, and I remind each other that “tone matters,” because when you use tone, you generally get tone back. It’s easy to become lax and vent at people you know well, so it’s important to continually manage yourself.

Social awareness — This is largely about empathy. Socially aware individuals are able to push their agendas to the back burner and focus on others around them. It’s about really listening — keeping others upmost in your thoughts during conversations — and understanding what they’re going through, along with resulting emotions. From my perspective, this is the most important pillar of emotional intelligence — and I have to admit, it’s also where I fall short.

Since reading “Primal Leadership,” I have a greater appreciation for empathy and why it’s important, which helps as I strive to be a better practitioner of it. Empathy helps you connect with people and establish trust, and trust is critical to any positive relationship. As leaders we need to spend time understanding others before we can expect to be understood. Instead of jumping in to tell our story, we need to have enough sense and presence to notice when people aren’t getting enough air time. One caveat: your empathy must be sincere, otherwise people will see through it.

Relationship management — I absolutely love the fourth pillar of emotional intelligence, which is about inspiring others, building bonds through networking, getting others engaged and doing the good work that needs to be done. It goes beyond being friendly…it’s about friendliness with a purpose. Yet it’s not manipulating, which is where integrity comes into play. You’re able to have difficult conversations in a positive way and negotiate win-win situations, which is critical to developing healthy relationships with adversaries.

Intentionality is really important here. Rather than randomly walking through life and hoping you run into the right people, you need to be proactive about building bonds. Think about who your peer group should include, who should mentor you, and who you want to meet and learn from. Go find those people. Be a catalyst for putting relationships together (something the foundation is trying to do with our 40ish Under 40ish group of young leaders). Strong relationships are key to solving complex problems.

Although emotional intelligence is beneficial in any environment, it’s essential today. In addition to all the change and uncertainty fueled by the pandemic, we’re also dealing with political divisiveness, which creates an even more toxic environment. We need to be able to talk across our differences, and emotional intelligence helps with that. Being aware of your emotions, strengths and weaknesses, being able to manage them, having empathy for others and being able to build relationships are what enables you to deal effectively with people — even those who don’t deal with you.

To me, emotional intelligence is a more sophisticated approach to leadership. It goes deeper than the platitudes about being proactive, bold and having integrity. Emotional intelligence raises the bar and provides you with a more advanced tool kit — skills that can transform good leaders into great ones.