Emotional Intelligence as a Defining Top leadership Quality

An article by Mark Winkle

Emotional intelligence has long been recognised as a key capability of effective CIO’s and technical specialists. It is this capability which raises them above their peers and enables them to move into world class territory.

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The original Goleman research, at nearly 200 companies worldwide, indicated that one-third of the difference between average and top performers was due to technical skill and cognitive ability, while two-thirds was due to emotional competence. In top leadership positions, that difference was four-fifths. This importance has been reinforced by the subsequent research on Board of Directors and senior leadership roles.

While this masks the fact that technical and cognitive abilities are qualifying criteria for senior roles and a key element for individual development, it emphasises the reality of emotional intelligence, as a defining quality at senior levels in organisations.

A key distinction is that not only does emotional intelligence enable a world class performance in role; it moves the CIO and technical specialist into the sphere of business and organisational leadership. It is this senior influencing role that so often proves elusive for technical leaders of functions, who are often central enablers of competitive advantage for the organisation.

What do we mean by Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence can be defined as an ability, capacity, or skill to perceive, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others and of groups. There are generally seven main elements of emotional intelligence identified as:

  • Self-awareness: being aware of one's feelings and able to manage them
  • Emotional Resilience: able to maintain one's performance, especially when under great pressure or when being challenged or criticised
  • Motivation: with the drive and energy to achieve challenging goals or targets
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity: demonstrating sensitivity and empathy towards others, particularly consideration for their needs and feelings, and the ability to listen to, and build on, other people’s ideas
  • Influence: the ability to influence and persuade others to accept your views or proposals
  • Intuitiveness: able to make decisions, using reason and intuition when faced with incomplete or questionable information; and finally
  • Conscientiousness: being consistent in one's words and actions, and showing integrity— behaving according to prevailing ethical standards.

Why is Emotional Intelligence so important in top leadership positions?

It stems from the nature of transformational leadership and challenge, the constant companion of the senior leader. This transformational leadership has three key elements; the Rational; the Political; and the Emotional. Of these three it is clearly the emotional element to which emotional intelligence is applied and for which there is often a lack of preparation and development. It is this ‘Emotional Ceiling’ where there are issues around ambiguity, personal commitment, vision and engagement which CIO’s and technical specialists typically need to address in order to progress their career at the highest levels.

People often talk glibly about transformational leadership, but in this context we would see it as “the process of fast dramatic change in an organisation by building commitment to the organisation and its mission”. So we begin to clarify the linkage between emotional intelligence and the classic transformational change chain.

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While these transformational skills are often part of the ‘technical’ toolkit, it is the direction of their deployment which creates the distinction between excellent technical functional heads and true business leaders. True business leaders are engaged and focused on the organisational business agenda which requires a more encompassing alignment with emotional intelligence.