Depth of experience doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a great leader.
Experience gives you a refined skillset, deep familiarity with industry norms and cycles, and knowledge of key players (both businesses and individual talent). It fills your toolbox with valuable instruments, and it makes you good at deploying the right ones at the right time.
But experience offers no guarantee of another kind of growth: emotional intelligence (EQ).
If your goal is to become a leader, EQ will be the single most valuable tool in your toolbox.
Research summarized in the Harvard Business Review indicates that EQ accounts for almost 90% of what sets leaders apart. That is, when people have similar levels of experience and technical skills, EQ is the deciding factor in whether one is a good leader and the other isn’t. Here’s why—and how you can develop your EQ, regardless of whether it comes naturally.
Why EQ is essential to good leadership
- EQ gives you an emotional barometer, for yourself and others. The central feature of EQ is awareness—of your emotions, of your team’s emotions, of the atmosphere created by these emotional states. Someone with low EQ can’t process this information; a leader with high EQ can. No leader can lead well without this level of emotional information.
- EQ makes you adaptable. People with high EQ can moderate their behavior based on the surrounding circumstances. They can adapt to different communication styles, they can strike the right tone during good moments and challenging moments, they can change their habits based on evolving workplace expectations.
This is especially useful in the context of shifting expectations around employee experience. A leader whose style is stuck in the past will have a much harder time engaging and retaining younger talent than one who’s able to adapt.
- Enables you to lead—not dictate. The difference between a leader and a dictator is that a dictator gives orders, while a leader makes decisions based on a range of input. True leadership means assembling a high-quality team, regularly soliciting their advice, and factoring it into your decisions. EQ is what facilities this feedback solicitation and incorporation process.
How to develop your EQ
- Develop your emotional awareness. A central capability of the emotionally intelligent is a latency between emotion and response. That is, they may feel the same anger, stress, or elation that all of us feel, but they take a beat or two before they react.
If you find yourself with little to no latency between your emotions and your reactions, you probably need to prioritize emotional awareness. Things like meditation, therapy, and leadership coaching are all helpful in this endeavor.
- Become a great listener. Great leaders listen before they talk. A lot gets in the way of great listening—notably ego, which often grows out of hand as people reach higher rungs of the corporate ladder. If you think you’re a great listener, seek input from your team, and listen to see if they feel the same.
- Incorporate as many perspectives as possible. True diversity is diversity of perspective: a team of people with many equally credible versions of the truth. Like listening skills, rising through company ranks can make leaders believe they have all the answers—how else would they have been this successful for this long?
In reality, none of us ever has all the answers. The “answer” to any given situation is best expressed in several compelling versions of the truth; the best strategic initiatives are devised in view of each. Assemble teams with a great diversity of perspectives to benefit from the broadest possible view of the truth.
The luckiest leaders are the ones who are born with EQ. Skills and experience come naturally, and EQ buoys them through long, successful careers. Regardless of whether you fall into this category, recognize that EQ is the heart of successful leadership, and find ways to actively practice it.