Inspirational leadership does not emerge from skin-deep charisma that is all flash and no substance. Nor can leaders expect to engage and inspire their people by simply demonstrating coldly rational attributes such as confidence, competence, intelligence or authority. These attributes are important, of course, but as Professor Kerrie Fleming explains in her chapter contribution to the book Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, the best leaders attract and engage loyal followers because of their human qualities. In the context of today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, she writes, “The need for humanizing leadership is greater than ever.”
What separates “humanizing” leadership from leadership built solely on positional authority and/or intellectual competencies and attributes? The answer, according to Fleming, is captured in the concept of emotional intelligence. Because emotions differentiate us as humans, the awareness and appreciation of emotions in ourselves and in others is at the heart of humanizing leadership.
An associate professor of Organizational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education Centre at Hult International Business School and leadership consultant Fleming has worked closely with numerous corporate and governmental leaders. For leaders who have difficulty recognizing or expressing emotions, Fleming uses the Mayer, Salovey and Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) to help them develop four key emotional intelligence abilities — or what are referred to as “branches.”
The first branch of emotional intelligence is the ability to identify or perceive emotions. Many leaders believe that to survive in a tough competitive environment, they need to “turn off” their emotions, to depend fully on rational competencies and attitudes. These leaders are also incapable or unwilling to perceive the emotional needs of others.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of their own emotions, and intuitively aware of the emotions of others. They are not only willing to listen to the concerns of others, but can decipher, even in silence, the emotions betrayed through facial expressions or body language.
The second branch of emotional intelligence is the ability to use emotions. This skill is not about manipulating emotions, but instead recognizing that emotions will influence judgement or decisions. Emotionally intelligent leaders “tap into emotional data,” writes Fleming, and act accordingly. To take a simple example, whether you are in a good mood or a bad mood will colour your reactions to events or situations. Through their empathy, emotionally intelligent leaders factor in emotions when presenting information, making assignments or otherwise engaging with their people.
The third emotional intelligence branch is the ability to understand emotions.
Confronted by the emotions of others, some leaders react in kind, for example countering an outburst from an employee with their own angry retort. Emotionally intelligent leaders, on the contrary, try instead to understand the source of the emotion. They might first seek to calm the emotion, perhaps taking an angry employee aside, for example. They then ask open questions intended to uncover the roots of the emotion.
The fourth and final branch of emotional intelligence is managing emotions. Managing emotions begins with resisting the attempt to ignore or suppress them — a common impulse in many leaders. At the same time, emotions cannot run rampant. The key, as Fleming writes, is “to select effective emotional strategies to get to a certain emotional outcome in social situations.”
The best strategies for dealing with emotions are strategies that blend thinking and feeling. While emotionally intelligent leaders recognize the need to be rational and cognitive in their decisions or responses, they are also open to emotions, even uncomfortable ones. This balance of thinking and feeling ensures better decisions for both leaders and followers.
“People follow human leaders,” Fleming concludes, “certainly those who can lead but also those who inspire and offer a glimpse of their fallibility.” Unfortunately, the ego or insecurity of many leaders may lead them to reject her prescription for powerful leadership. No matter. There is ample evidence to support the contention that the most effective leaders are those who perceive, use, understand and manage their emotions and the emotions of those around them. The result: Leaders who “lead in a way that is both inspiring and intelligent.”
Inspiring Leadership: Becoming a Dynamic and Engaging Leader, edited by Kerrie Fleming and Roger Delves, published by Bloomsbury Business Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1-47293-207-5