The current US presidential election has provided me with a lot of material on the topic of emotional intelligence. At times, I feel like I’m watching a very large sociological experiment; at some point, I expect a person in a white lab-coat carrying a clipboard will announce that both Hillary and Donald were playing out these roles to merely test the impact of social media on elections. Or perhaps we’re all living in a version of the Truman Show (with apologies to Jim Carrey).
At this stage, it is nearing time for the American people to choose between two very different candidates. They will be asked to select which of these candidates they believe should occupy arguably the most powerful leadership position in the world. There won’t be any competency-based interview or psychometric testing. For voters, this will be an emotional choice rather than a logical one. Even for those who pride themselves on their objective application of logic and reason, emotions will have a role to play. And that’s where emotional intelligence (EQ) makes a difference. Those with well-developed EQ will not only be aware of their emotions but, perhaps more importantly, will understand the role that those emotions play in their decision-making.
Let’s take an example. One emotion that is to the forefront in the election coverage is fear. Fear is a very powerful emotion and one that lends itself particularly well to social media, where short, sharp messages compete for our attention. Fear is a basic emotion that taps into our survival instinct: it is there to protect us from danger and thus elicits very strong responses. The primitive parts of our brains cannot tell the difference between real dangers and perceived dangers. Luckily, we have more highly-developed parts of the brain that provide us with the tools to be emotionally self-aware and help us to make better decisions. And this is where emotional intelligence comes in.
So, what is emotional intelligence? There are many definitions of EQ so, for consistency, I’m going to use the Multi-Health Systems (MHS) definition and the Reuven BarOn model of emotional intelligence (EQ-i) for the remainder of this blog. Emotional intelligence is a set of emotional and social skills that collectively establish how well we:
- Perceive and express ourselves;
- Develop and maintain social relationships;
- Cope with challenges; and
- Use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.
For me, the final part of the definition really sums it up. Emotionally intelligent people are more aware of their emotions and use that emotional information effectively.
So, returning to our voters, using emotional information means being aware of the emotions that are triggered when they read or hear something said by a presidential candidate, acknowledging those emotions, and then using those emotions in a constructive way. It is not about setting emotions aside but, rather, tapping into the emotional information instead of being hijacked by it.
If we look beyond the voters, we can look at the importance of emotional intelligence to leaders, in this case the future leader of the US. What emotional intelligence skills should we be looking for in a future world leader? The research on leadership demonstrates that leaders have significantly higher levels of emotional intelligence than the general population. In fact, top leaders not only have higher levels of overall emotional intelligence, but they have higher levels of emotional intelligence across every single element of EQ. The Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), a global provider of executive education, conducted a study of over 300 leaders and senior managers, some who were quite successful and others who were struggling. They were tested for emotional intelligence and were also measured on leadership performance based on 360-degree feedback. The findings showed that eight emotional intelligence elements, including self-awareness, stress tolerance and empathy, could predict high leadership performance 80% of the time.
You might be surprised to see empathy identified as such a key leadership ability. Perhaps a closer look would help us to see why it is critical. Empathy is about recognising, understanding, and appreciating how other people feel. Empathy involves being able to articulate your understanding of another’s perspective and behave in a way that respects others’ feelings. In order to lead others, it is an important skill not only to understand them but to make them feel that they have been listened to and understood. Interestingly, the word empathy has been used quite a lot in the commentary on the performance of the candidates in the presidential campaign.
MHS has also carried out research on what elements of Emotional Intelligence, if under-developed, would increase the risk to a leader of derailing their career. The top four elements were:
- Impulse Control (part of Decision-making)
- Stress Tolerance (part of Stress Management)
- Problem Solving (part of Decision-making)
- Independence (part of Interpersonal skills)
So, for many leaders, including those who might aspire to living in the White House, these are areas worth considering. Take impulse control for example. This is associated with decision-making and is defined as
“the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive or temptation to act and involves avoiding rash behaviours and decision making”.
For someone with the nuclear codes, this seems to me to be a pretty important area of emotional intelligence to possess.
Stress Tolerance is defined as
“coping with stressful or difficult situations and believing that one can manage or influence situations in a positive manner.”
Leaders are not immune to stress. However, those with high emotional intelligence are very self-aware and understand stress and stressors. They rely on many emotional skills, such as optimism and reality-testing, to help them to deal with stressful situations and not allow stress to negatively impact their effectiveness. We all rely on our leaders to be able to manage stressful situations. It’s part of the job.
Problem-solving is another key emotional intelligence element that, if under-developed, can derail a leader. It is the
“ability to find solutions to problems in situations where emotions are involved.”
The leader who is emotionally self-aware has the ability to understand how the emotions they experience impact their decision-making and to act accordingly. Again, it is important to emphasise that the aim is not to set emotions aside, but rather to learn how to use that emotional information in a constructive way. In other words, “own the emotion, don’t let the emotion own you”.
As a derailer, Independence is an interesting part of EQ, as it is one that clearly demonstrates that a strength that is overused can become a weakness. At its best, independence is the ability to be self-directed and free from emotional dependency on others. However, if overused, independence becomes dictatorial. It needs to be balanced with other areas of emotional intelligence such as self-awareness, reality-testing and empathy.
Based on the above, I hope I’ve managed to describe how emotional intelligence has an important part to play in our lives. Whether a president, a leader or a follower, EQ is a predictor of success. As an exercise over the next few months, take some time to assess the presidential candidates on some of the emotional intelligence elements described in this blog. And, to bring it a little closer to home, assess yourself on the same elements. How good a president would you be?