Daniel Goleman: What Makes a Leader?

Recently I gave a seminar for the top 100 or so leaders of a global manufacturing company, at the invitation of the head of HR. It was their annual leadership development meeting, and HR wanted me to make both business and scientific cases for emotional intelligence as the active ingredient in strong leadership.

Most of the leaders in that firm have backgrounds in engineering, and were by nature skeptical about something so “soft” as emotional intelligence mattering much for their own performance. So I gathered the most convincing data.

Beforehand I asked the head of HR to send me the company’s competence model, their own analysis of what made a leader successful at their company. I’ve seen many such models, and noticed a strong pattern, which I first wrote about more than a decade ago: when it comes to the top echelon leaders, companies find that 80-90% of the competencies that distinguish star leaders are built on emotional intelligence (or EI).

For instance, confidence in one form or another often shows up in these models. And a sense of certainty in one’s own abilities, based on a realistic understanding of your own strengths and limitations, requires self-awareness – the first tenet of emotional intelligence.

Then there’s staying calm under pressure, another common ingredient of leadership success. That requires self-management, the second trait of emotional intelligence – and one that builds on self-awareness. Other commonly seen self-management competencies include adaptability, initiative, and the drive to achieve goals.

I’ve never seen a list of a great leader’s abilities that did not include impactful communication. And that requires empathy – the third domain of emotional intelligence. There are two specific kinds of empathy; one is cognitive empathy, understanding how others think about the world. Once you know their mental models you can put what you have to say in terms that will make most sense to them.

The second kind, emotional empathy, means you can sense immediately how another person feels. This means you can fine-tune what you say so it has a positive impact. These two kinds of empathy are essential for rapport and chemistry with another person. We use them in all our relationships.

And yet in our high-pressure world, with back-to-back meetings and a constant stream of incoming messages, too many leaders pay too little attention to the person in front of them. When leaders are assessed (by others who know them well) on the EI competencies needed for high-performance, poor listening very often shows up as a weakness. Luckily all these EI competencies can be improved with practice – that’s the point of assessing them: so a leader can track how he or she improves.

Then there are the relationship skills, the fourth domain of EI. Here common competencies for outstanding performance include teamwork and collaboration, influence, and helping others build their leadership abilities.

So when I looked at the competence model of that manufacturing company what did I find? About 80-90 percent of the abilities they had independently determined make leaders high-performing were based on EI. A handful were purely cognitive, like analytic abilities. But because the brain’s design makes our emotional state determine our cognitive efficiency, even those indirectly depend on emotional intelligence.

Learn more about the traits of an emotionally intelligent leader from my new compilation What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters. The book contains my collection of Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings in one volume.

Additional resources:

Leadership: A Master Class: The eight-part video collection includes more than eight hours of research findings, case studies and valuable industry expertise through in-depth interviews with respected leaders in executive management, organizational research, workplace psychology, negotiation and senior hiring. Corporate and educational licensing available.

The HR and EI Collection:The combination of books and audio tools offers actionable findings on how leaders can foster group flow to maximize innovation, drive, and motivation to deliver bottom-line results.

Resonant Leadership: Inspiring Others Through Emotional Intelligence: This master class by Richard Boyatzis (co-author of Primal Leadership and Chair of Organizational Development at the Weatherhead School of Management) offers you the tools to become the leader you want to be—including exercises to reassess valuable and effective techniques.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence: Focus uncovers the science of attention in all its varieties – presenting a groundbreaking look at this overlooked and underrated asset, and why it matters enormously for how we feel, and succeed, in life.

Supplemental reading:

Wise leaders focus on the greater good

Traits of a motivated leader

The active ingredients for innovation

Understanding the science of moods at work

Emotional intelligence and a loyal, motivated staff

Photo: Olivier Le Moal / shutterstock