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Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Thanks to Daniel Goleman it is accepted wisdom that leaders must be emotionally intelligent to be effective. But this notion is not only wrong, it is harmful if it blocks people from showing leadership who might otherwise be great and vitally important leaders.

A critical element of leadership is challenging the status quo. Dissatisfaction with an existing order is often based on youthful rebelliousness, a condition that is not normally associated with emotional intelligence. Businesses that require constant innovation to compete depend precisely on youthful innovators who are not afraid to challenge the status quo, even if, in so doing, their influencing style is blunt or aggressive and completely lacking in emotional intelligence. This article sets out a new slant on leadership that clarifies the proper place of emotional intelligence. The bottom line is that emotional intelligence is more important for management than leadership.

What is Leadership?

When we visualize Martin Luther King making one of his famous speeches or demonstrating against segregation on buses in Alabama, we see his brilliant oratory. But if he had used his speaking skills to sell used cars, we would never have seen him as a leader. The reason he was a leader was that he was challenging the status quo. We tend to forget that fact because we are so awestruck by his oratorical powers and their impact on us. Mahatma Gandhi also challenged the status quo by protesting against British rule in India. So did Nelson Mandela with regard to white rule in South Africa. These leaders had widely different influencing styles but they shared a passion for changing what they thought was wrong in their contexts.

We also think of leadership as a relationship between leaders and their followers. But we overlook a more important relationship, the one between leaders and their target audiences. The three leaders mentioned above were aiming their cry for change at their respective governments and the population at large. In fact, you could say that their followers on the street actually helped them show leadership to their governments. Martin Luther King’s leadership effort in Alabama was successful when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on buses unconstitutional.

These three leaders have other things in common. None of them managed the people responsible for making the policy changes they were promoting. They had no formal authority over their respective governments. Because they showed leadership from the sidelines, their leadership came to an end once the target audience bought their proposals. This means that they showed leadership without having anything to do with managing the people who had the power to implement their proposals. In short, such leadership does not entail directly getting things done through a group of people working for or with the leader. This means that leadership can be defined simply as the successful promotion of new directions.

Innovative Knowledge Workers as Leaders

A multitude of new business models and revolutionary products are started by young people. Think only of Google, Yahoo! and Amazon. But sometimes innovators within established corporations are successful in convincing their senior management teams to move in new directions. The Sony employee who created Playstation had difficulty influencing his superiors to develop this product because they felt that Sony should not do toys, but he persisted and won them over. Bill Thompson (not his real name) is a product developer in a large software company. He was struggling to persuade his superiors of the merits of a new product his team had developed. Management resisted the innovation because it meant cannibalizing a successful, established product.

After trying a numerous influencing tactics ranging from a soft sell through losing his temper, he finally demonstrated a prototype of the product to a group of customers. With their support, management gave in and agreed to develop the product. Bill’s leadership was bottom-up or from the sidelines, much like that of King, Gandhi and Mandela. Like them, bottom-up leaders have no authority over senior management and they might not have anyone reporting to them. Their leadership also comes to an end once their bosses buy their new product ideas. If they demonstrate the value of their proposals with hard evidence or a convincing business case, they don’t need inspirational communication skills. In fact, their presentation style might be rather quiet and self-effacing, simply factual, or even blunt and abrasive.

Bill Thompson was not a very good people manager. He devoted most of his time to product development and was often short-tempered with team members who bothered him with what he saw as trivial problems. His influencing style, both upwards and down, tended to be direct, factual and often aggressive. While he was not well liked, his compelling ideas often persuaded colleagues to back him.

Creativity and Leadership

Leadership, as traditionally conceived, has always been founded on the power to ascend to, and maintain, a dominant position in a group. When a ‘’leadership position’’ has been attained, the leader can call the shots, make the strategic decisions that move the business forward. But it is increasingly recognized that business has become too complex and fast changing for executives to provide this type of direction. The reality is that the power to provide leadership is shifting from what it takes to dominate a group to the ability to generate profitable new products.

Business has become a war of ideas. The inconvenient fact about ideas, however, is that no one can monopolize them or use them to dominate a group for long. As a result, business is now like guerrilla warfare and leadership is more dependent on creativity.

Anyone with a good idea can strive to show leadership by promoting it. Creative people, like Bill Thompson, are notoriously low in emotional intelligence. Leadership conceived as simply the promotion of better ideas is an occasional act that can be shown by anyone. It is not a role. In a meeting, such leadership can shift from one person to another several times.

Managerial Leadership: Only a Special Case

Focusing exclusively on leadership shown by managers creates a distorted picture of the meaning of leadership. Thomas Kuhn pointed out, in his epoch shattering book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions1, that accepted theories ignore anomalies because they can’t explain them. Our conventional concept of leadership ignores the following inconvenient forms of leadership because they fall outside the managerial framework:

  • Leadership shown by outsiders such as King, Mandela and Gandhi.
  • Leading by example: a new customer service employee serves customers more effectively and colleagues follow suit.
  • Leadership between companies, such as Microsoft following the lead of Apple.
  • Inspiration from dead leaders, as when present day activists follow the lead of Gandhi and practice non-violence.
  • Sports competitors following the lead of better performers.
  • Bottom-up leadership, where a front-line employee, like Bill Thompson, champions new products.

All of these instances of leadership amount to showing the way to others, nothing more. The dead leaders and the customer service employee leading by example are not even aware of the impact they are having on their followers let alone intentionally trying to lead anyone. Not one of these examples involves even an informal reporting relationship between leader and follower.

Why should we pay attention to such perverse instances of leadership when our real interest is in managerial leadership? There are two crucial benefits of recognizing that leadership is much broader than what managers do with their followers. First, greater weight is added to the argument that we should view bottom-up leadership as a legitimate type of leadership rather than as a mere anomaly. Second, the fact that these forms of leadership have only one thing in common, moving people in a new direction gives us the means of differentiating leadership from management. This is a key step in seeing that emotional intelligence is critical for management, not so for leadership.

Management is a vital function that has been wrongly cast in the rubbish bin ever since the success of the Japanese commercial invasion that began in the late seventies. At that time, everyone with a view on the subject called for an end to management, to be replaced by leadership. This was a gross error. A scapegoat was needed to blame for the failure of Western businesses to cope with Japanese competition and management was fingered for this role. Previously, we talked of different styles of leadership or management. You could be task focused or people oriented, theory X or theory Y, transactional or transformational. But since the late seventies, management has been saddled with the bad guy side of these pairings while leadership has been conceded the good guy side. Naturally, it made sense to tack emotional intelligence onto leadership.

A very different view suggests that leadership and management are totally style-neutral functions. Leadership promotes new directions, management executes them. An inspiring leader moves us to change direction while an inspiring, transformational, people oriented manager motivates us to work harder. Because leadership, so defined, can come from outside the organization or from the bottom up, it does not entail managing people. Executives who both lead and manage are wearing a managerial hat when they coach, empower and motivate employees to improve their performance.

The Place of Emotional Intelligence

When Daniel Goleman and others discuss the place of emotional intelligence in leadership they have senior executives or CEOs in mind. Occupying a role with such heavy responsibility for so many important resources, often including large numbers of people does require integrity, emotional intelligence and other sterling character traits. For this reason, it is no surprise that established large companies usually do not have twenty-something year old chief executives.

As Goleman stated: ‘’One thing is certain: emotional intelligence increases with age. There is an old-fashioned word for the phenomenon: maturity.’’2 The implication is that young technical geeks are not generally suitable to be chief executives because they lack sufficient maturity to manage such heavy duties and the vast range of stakeholders that come with the territory.

This may be so, but is it necessary to be a senior executive, or even to manage people, to show leadership? Popular conceptions do imply that leaders are in charge of teams and that their purpose is to get the best out of those teams relative to certain shared goals. But, as we have seen, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela had no managerial authority over the people to whom they were striving to show leadership: their respective governments. The reality is that our vision of leadership as shown by senior executives is totally confused with management.

Management is a role and all roles entail responsibilities. Even a lighthouse operator who never sees anyone must be of trustworthy character and have sufficient emotional intelligence to communicate with users appropriately. The more responsibility people have the more they need to be trustworthy. Senior executives have a psychological contract with employees for equitable and considerate treatment. Emotional intelligence is vital for sensing when employees are struggling and for being able to use different approaches to motivate them.

Unlike management, leadership is not a role. It is an initiative or action that influences people to change direction. Managers show leadership when they champion new directions but non-managers can show leadership as well. When people are appointed to management roles, it is often because they have shown some leadership. Once promoted they wear two hats. When showing leadership they are effectively selling tickets for a journey but they switch to their management hat to drive the bus to the destination. Enroute, if resistance emerges, a further injection of leadership may be needed to resell the journey. Otherwise, getting to the destination is mainly a management task.

It is not uncommon for employees who show bottom-up leadership to be both unsuitable and uninterested in managing people. Those who are stereotypical technical geeks are only interested in their technology. They are so immersed in their own worlds that they are often quite unaware of people around them. Some even neglect their appearance or forget to eat and sleep. They not only lack the necessary emotional intelligence to manage people, they often have poor organizational skills as well so they would struggle to monitor performance or manage complex projects.

Because leadership divorced of managerial authority is not a role with ongoing responsibilities, there is less need for emotional intelligence. However, having interpersonal skills gives such leaders a greater number of influencing tactics. Those without such skills must rely on hard evidence and a confident delivery. Often, technical gurus are very confident, even egotistical and self-centered. Lacking emotional intelligence simply requires them to have stronger evidence for their proposals. In short, emotional intelligence has a situational role to play in leadership. This simply means that leaders need to be sensitive only when trying to move certain audiences. Those that respond to a hard-hitting factual case or a demonstration care less about how the message is delivered.

In many scientific and technical domains, such as health care for instance, the current slogan is “evidence based practice,” the idea being that hard evidence must be the primary mode of influence for prospective leaders in these contexts. This trend reinforces the point that the power to lead is increasingly knowledge based and less about personality and character. Conversely, emotional intelligence is essential for all managerial roles.

Cultivating Bottom-up Leadership

Organizations that depend on constant innovation to prosper must cultivate bottom-up leadership. They need to recognize and encourage their Bill Thompsons. But if potential leaders are told to keep quiet until they become emotionally intelligent, they may well say good-bye before they gain the necessary maturity. The leadership shown by young knowledge workers is based on youthful rebelliousness, the desire of all young people to question authority, to make their mark and to differentiate themselves. Their impatience, zeal and negative attitude toward authority figures inclines them to be aggressive in their influencing style. But these same traits are also associated with creativity.

The desire to find a better way stems from the same source as the drive to challenge the existing order. If the rough edges of such leaders are smoothed over for the sake of maturity, they might become more conservative generally – a potential disaster for organizations that depend on innovation.

To reap the benefits of bottom-up leadership, organizations need to change their cultures so that those in executive positions become more comfortable letting go of their monopoly on leadership. In addition, budding, front line leaders need to be encouraged to express themselves freely and courageously. Empowerment so extended is very engaging and has great potential to enhance talent retention. Executives must learn to be more receptive to upward challenges to their authority if the organization’s most vital leadership resource is not to be lost. This being a lot to ask of senior executives, all the more reason why they need emotional intelligence.

  1. Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962  
  2. Goleman, Daniel, ‘’What makes a leader?’’ Harvard Business Review, November-December 1998.

This article was published in Ivey Business Journal, Jan-Feb 2009 and reprinted in Cases in Leadership, 3rd edition, Glenn Rowe and Laura Guerrero, Sage 2012.

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