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What leaders need to know about emotional intelligence

Just being smart isn't enough for the top exec


(Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Todd's book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be.” It is the third of a three parts. Read Part One and Part Two.)

Mantra # 5: IQ ≠ EQ

It’s not good enough to be smart. That may get you into a leadership role, but it is emotional intelligence (often abbreviated “EQ” or “EI”) that will allow you to succeed. As an executive, there are some things that you should know about emotional intelligence.

Here are three of the most important:

  1. You can measure it.
  2. You can improve it.
  3. You are more likely to get fired for lack of EQ than IQ!

If the last point didn’t get your attention, it really might be an IQ issue! Differing models use different language, but for our purposes, let’s stick with the basics from Daniel Goleman’s model and talk about self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and social skill.

Self-awareness means that you have a solid understanding of what you are good at and the areas where you need to improve. If someone were to ask all of those who engage with you to describe your style, personality, and habits, these should mirror your own description. We are all breathing our own exhaust to some degree, but it is very important that the image you have of yourself is not significantly different than the image others have of you.

Self-management means that you can take your self-awareness and do something with it. It means that you don’t fly off the handle frequently. It means that you are able to remain calm even when you are fearful. It means that you can delay gratification and can adjust to fluid situations. This can all be enhanced with practice and coaching. Once again, if you have challenges in this area, it is imperative to have someone who can help you through this, someone who will be a truth-talker.

Social awareness means that you are able to understand how others are feeling. It means that you are able to understand social clues like facial expressions, language, and posture. It means that you can anticipate how people will act and feel in many situations. Great sales people (not the show-up-and-throw-up variety!) often have a high level of social awareness. As a CEO, you are often selling your ideas, and the manner in which you communicate them is critical.

Social skill means that you know what to do with your awareness of others. The leader who relies on position authority—“I’m the CEO, damn it!”—rather than the authority that comes from social skill is rarely successful in the long-term. With social skill you can adjust your style to make people want to listen to you. You can inspire and influence others. You know how to make friends. You know how to negotiate. You understand the power of questions rather than making pronouncements. This is the backbone for EQ.

IQ is important, especially if you are a rocket-scientist. But to be a great leader, IQ plays a significantly smaller role than your ability to communicate, implement strategy, and lead a team all the way to the promised land of success.

Real lesson: Have others who know you well (and who will speak the truth!) help identify your level of self-awareness and social-awareness. If you are lacking, create an action plan to improve. Pick up a copy of Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, if you’d like a better understanding of this mantra.

Mantra # 6: Ask a Great Question Today!

Isador Rabi, a recipient of the Nobel prize for physics, gives credit to his mother for helping him become a scientist. He said that when he was a child, his friends’ mothers would ask their children when returning from school, “Did you learn anything today?” Yet his mother would ask, “Did you ask a good question today?”

Those of you who are basketball fans know that sometimes an outgunned team can win the game by slowing it down, controlling the pace, and thereby playing a more surgical game. Run and gun doesn’t always win the day. As a business leader, sometimes you need to slow the game down and be more thoughtful in your approach. It is very easy for an individual or a team to respond to a question, and then they are off to the races—down the wrong road!

Here are some examples of reframing questions:

  • Rather than asking, “How should we grow our European market?” you might ask, “Where will we receive the best return on our investment in growth?”
  • Rather than asking, “How should we solve this problem?” you might ask, “Is this problem large enough to allocate resources to solve?”
  • Rather than asking, “Should we be focused on top-line or bottom-line growth next year?” you might ask, “How can we grow our top line next year without compromising our margins?”

Get the idea? Framing questions effectively is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as an executive! Take the time to think before you speak and always understand the type of answer you are seeking, so you can better tailor the question.

Real lesson: Leaders should focus more on asking the right questions rather than giving the right answers. The wrong question, answered accurately, always produces the wrong answer for the situation at hand.

Mantra # 7: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

It is dangerous for a leader to become a full-time firefighter. Perhaps you saw the movie “Backdraft,” where Robert De Niro plays an arson investigator? De Niro’s character discovers that the mystery antagonist and arsonist is actually a fireman. In the real world, this is perhaps a rarity. But in business, some leaders love to start fires because the adrenaline rush of coming to the rescue is addictive.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” You clearly can’t plan for every contingency in a fast-paced business, but if your vision and strategy are clear, you can avoid many of the fires. And when the unavoidable occurs, you are ready to take action without hesitation. In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

While you should avoid becoming a full-time firefighter, as a leader, you cannot run from fires. In fact, you have to be ready to run right into them. You must have courage.

Deciding which color to paint the conference room doesn’t require courage. Giving rah-rah speeches about needing customer service, innovation or ethical behavior doesn’t warrant much courage. Flying around in the company jet to slap backs or attend golf tournaments doesn’t demand courage. As Epicurus said, “You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.”

Hiring a senior person who’ll stir things up requires courage. Making a strategic choice to abandon large markets or customer groups necessitates courage. Firing loved team members who don’t have what you need to get to the next level demands courage. Looking at the future and deciding that your business model needs dramatic change requires courage. Risking your job and your position to make a change you believe in takes a lot of courage. Great leaders maintain that courage, along with the seven mantras mentioned above. These pillars help to shape great leaders and maintain crystal-clear focus in otherwise muddied waters.

Real lesson: Real leaders do not run from trouble, nor do they become full-time firefighters. They are courageous and know that they must occasionally fail in order to achieve the greatest amount of success. What are you avoiding right now that needs to be dealt with?

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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