Talking Leadership

The Timeless, the Trendy and Emotional Intelligence

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on May 10, 2018 at 4:36 pm


Those who know my work know me to be a strong advocate for timeless leadership in an era where we seem fascinated by what I describe as a lot of trendy, faddish leadership thinking. It seems almost every week we get a new best seller on the new “best” way to become a better leader. While these trends come and go, some have gained more traction – emotional intelligence fits this category.

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term 1990, describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”  In the 1990’s Daniel Goleman, a science writer at the New York Times, became aware of Salovey and Mayer’s work, and this eventually led to his book, Emotional Intelligence. A new industry was born.

So why do I place this in the category of trendy leadership thinking? It is not because I don’t believe emotional intelligence exists – it most certainly does and it is a valuable, likely even an indispensable, leadership attribute. The issue is not with emotional intelligence but rather with the proposition that it is something new or that it can be acquired by simply enrolling in the right course or reading the right books.

Until this phrase was coined in 1990, we simply called emotional intelligence, empathy. The Oxford Dictionary describes empathy as, “the power of identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation. I describe it more simply as the ability to understand how others are feeling and be appropriately responsive to their feelings. There are really no significant differences between emotional intelligence and what we used to call empathy.

Here is the issue: some people have a lot more of it than others. Over a lifetime in leadership, with thousands of people, I have never seen anyone with low levels of empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, acquire more of it. I have had far more success hiring and removing leaders with this characteristic in mind than I did trying to help people with low levels of empathy become leaders who connected with and inspired their teams.

Robert Hare, in his book Without Conscience: The Psychopaths Among Us writes, “It’s as though they can read the notes but they’ll never hear the music.” To be clear I am not suggesting that people with low levels of empathy are psychopaths, only that the phrase is helpful. One can explain empathy and its importance to someone who is not demonstrating it (I’ve seen much of this over the years) and the individual will understand – will read the notes if you will – and still continue to come up short demonstrating it.

Author John Ortberg in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them puts it this way, “People who don’t read others well aren’t aware that they don’t. It’s like being emotionally tone deaf.” He continues, “These folks are not aware that they’re doing anything wrong.” 

That’s the way it goes with empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, people who don’t have it don’t know they don’t have it but everyone around them knows. The leader lacking in empathy will constantly say the wrong thing, often the wrong way, as everyone in the room wonders, “How could he have said that?” or “How could she be so insensitive?”

Watch a person with lots of empathy and you’ll see them naturally adjust to a wide variety of people in differing situations. They always seem to know how to approach a situation the right way, even when it seems sensitive or a bit tricky. For the most part, they not drawing on learned behaviour, they are acting naturally. This is not to say that good leaders don’t work on refining skills – they do – only that the foundation, the characteristic empathy, must be there for the refining effort to yield results.

A lengthy career working with thousands of leaders has convinced me that empathy just cannot be coached. This may not be good news for the industry that’s been built up around coaching emotional intelligence but I am convinced it is a clearer picture of reality. I focused my limited training resources on the more timeless and enduring fundamentals that can be learned, like feedback, communication, coaching, building team culture and performance management.

A final observation: people who don’t have lots of empathy are not lesser people, they simply have different attributes.  Many if not all people with highly analytical or scientific minds, don’t have lots of empathy but they have the right qualities for other very valuable work. The problems arise when we try to fit them into work they are not well suited to, like leadership.

Looking to go deeper on timeless leadership practices? Check out my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders, available in softcover and all major e-book formats.

Simple Purpose

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on February 23, 2018 at 11:40 am


“But in Britain, too, there were those – especially those among the commercial classes and ruling caste, best informed about the nation’s weakness – who continued to fear the worst. It was Churchill’s epic personal achievement to rally them in support of the simple purpose of repelling invasion.” Max Hastings. Inferno, The World at War 1939-1945. Vintage Books. 2012

I am currently enjoying the early pages of Max Hastings exceptional account of the Second World War. During this morning’s time, I came across our opening excerpt. Hastings describes Churchill’s leadership in rallying his country behind what he describes as “simple purpose” as his epic personal achievement. Can there be anything more essential to good leadership than that ability to rally a group of people to a simple purpose? I think not.

Simple purpose is powerful. Simple purpose has the ability to inspire, to unite and to energize a group. Simple purpose elevates work beyond something we do only to provide for our financial needs.

While it is clear that most of today’s workplace situations do not provide for the kind of urgency Britain felt during the summer of 1940, this does not diminish the importance of simple purpose in inspiring a team’s best work. People in all organizations still crave leaders who can distill a simple purpose and rally them to it. Without purpose – and there are far too many organizations where people feel little or no sense of it – work is reduced the the often uninspiring repetition of tasks. This type of environment does little to bring out the best in anyone. Daily work has to be connected to purpose to become meaningful.

So what is the simple purpose you are rallying your team behind? And know, making money won’t cut it with most people. Money is important but its not as inspiring as many people think it is. How often and how passionately are you talking about your team’s purpose? Is it driving your planning? Are you measuring progress and set backs against it? Are you talking about it with each potential employee during the interview process?

Inspiring your team with a simple purpose is ground zero, the very foundation of effective inspiring team building leadership. For some of us, it may well be time to revisit it.

Looking to go deeper into good leadership? Why not check our my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders to consider a 1/2 day workshop.

Lead Like Scrooge?

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on December 1, 2017 at 11:51 am


“Oh!, but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” – Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol

At this time of year it seems fitting to turn to Dickens with A Christmas Carol for some seasonal leadership inspiration. Let’s see what we can learn from one of literature’s most well known bosses – Ebenezer Scrooge. Read the passage again and this time let your mind linger over the words, then let’s take a closer look.

As the story unfolds, we can’t help but sympathize with the diligent and hard working clerk Bob Cratchit, a devoted husband and father who must endure the scorn and mistreatment of a cold and uncaring boss. Scrooge sees Bob’s wish to be with his family over Christmas as an imposition. As far as he’s concerned Cratchit is taking advantage of him. Even today there are a great many people feeling torn between unreasonable bosses and their families, they are often as discouraged as Bob Cratchit. Encouraging a healthy work / life balance is not only the right thing to do – it builds loyalty and performance. So this Christmas season why not take time to do a balance audit. Look a little more closely at how hard the members of your team are working and how they are feeling about it. Make sure there is time for family, rest and even a little Christmas cheer.

Dickens describes Scrooge as “secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” I think we can pull two good lessons from this passage. Today too many leaders hoard too much information. They don’t talk to team members regularly about the business, and when they do their comments are often superficial. If you want involved employees then you have to involve them – that’s the way it works. When you share information openly, when you genuinely work to help the members of your team understand the situation (whatever it is), you send a powerful message that you trust them and care about them. This is why a good communication plan is a strong loyalty builder. Remember, we talk to people we care about. This is the message good communicators send. So this season, take stock of how often you’re holding staff meetings and how openly you are sharing information.

Finally, I ask what might be the most important the question: Can a leader be “solitary as an oyster” and still build a high performance team? You of course know the answer. Leadership is at its heart all about relationships. When the people you lead know you care about them, they care about you – team members don’t want to disappoint leaders who care about them. I am convinced this is a powerful and enduring leadership truth. Whether you are encouraging, challenging or correcting, it must be evident that you care. So your final assignment as this Christmas approaches is to ask yourself how well you know the people you are leading and how well they know you. If you have well developed relationships, you are doing the work of a good leader, keep it up. If you’ve lost touch, if you’re spending too much time in your office and not enough on the shop floor resolve to get out more – Christmas is a great time to make a start.

We all know how the story ended. Ebenezer had a change of heart. He became the very best of leaders, illustrating the last and most important lesson: a change in the right direction can have a dramatic effect on everyone involved. Merry Christmas all, let us all try to keep the spirit of Christmas all year long.

Dan Gaynor