Ideas & Debate

Why it pays to have emotional intelligence skills in leadership


Yale University president Peter Salovey. photo | diana ngila | nmg

Former US President Bill Clinton was visiting Yale University to give a speech. A Yale dean arrived at the same time seeking a parking spot for his car and he pulled right in front of Mr Clinton’s limousine blocking the exit.

This caused the Secret Service agents to jump out of the limousine menancingly, rushing toward the dean. The tense situation was averted when Mr Clinton stepped out of his limousine still speaking into a cellphone and restrained his security detail, “ It is okay, he is the dean”.

Fifteen minutes later, Mr Clinton and the same dean meet at the reception and the former president warmly grabs his hand and addresses him, “Dean Salovey, we already know each other, didn’t I just meet you in the parking lot?”

Mr Clinton was empathising with Dean Peter Salovey who was admittedly nervous at meeting the former president for the first time. For his part, Mr Clinton was warm and relaxed, putting everyone he interacted with at ease with his uncanny ability to establish an immediate social bond attributed to his high level of emotional intelligence.

Prof Salovey shares this account in a recorded speech on YouTube as an introduction to a speech on the impact of emotional intelligence in leadership. 

He is now President of Yale University and he was in Nairobi this month to give a talk on the place of emotion in leadership at the Capital Club to a gathering of Kenya’s top corporate and business leaders. Prof Salovey is a social psychologist and the originator of the theory of emotional intelligence.

In collaboration with John Mayer from University of New Hampshire, he wrote a paper in the late 1980s, that was published in 1990 with detailed evidence of why emotions matter and named the theory emotional intelligence (EQ). The term entered mainstream usage after the publication of a book by the same title written by Daniel Goleman in 1996 where he emphasised its importance in the business of leadership.

Since then, numerous papers, books and studies have shown that in tests where IQ and professional competency are equal,  EQ emerges as the differentiating factor identified with great leadership.

Emotional intelligence is often confused with manipulation and part of the charm arsenal of political leaders. All leaders kiss babies on a campaign trail because the simple public display of an ordinary human connection has been proven to humanise their personas.

For this reason Prof Salovey stresses EQ should not be confused with self confidence, optimism or intuitiveness.

Emotional intelligence is defined by Prof Salovey as the ability to recognise, understand and manage one’s own emotions and to recognise and influence the emotion of others. EQ is the ability to use emotional awareness as guide to thinking and behaviour.

READ: Managing with emotional intelligence

Emotions are an intelligent system that help the human species to survive and energise our behaviour towards an action. Emotions communicate what is going on around the individual and regulate response.

Cultural context and situation matter a great deal in understanding emotional intelligence. Emotion in the African masculinity cultural context is a touchy subject. Gender stereotypes regulate how to express emotion in the arena of leadership.

Strict cultural behaviour codes determine where to cry, how to cry and when to cry. These ingrained social norms inform the alpha male leadership styles of complete emotional suppression with the exception of anger.

Prof Salovey notes that in male-dominated spaces, the power of emotion is lost in translation and seen as weakness, passivity and skittishness. Men and women in leadership are socialised to suppress emotions lest they get in the way of clear thinking. Even powerful women leaders are expected to hide their emotions. 

Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, is described in media accounts as pragmatic, methodical in decision making as a backhanded compliment for showing little emotion.

Prof Salovey explains that established gender stereotypes make it easier for male rather female leaders to express emotion in public. Ms Merkel would have a difficult time getting away with tearing in public, while a male leader would be lauded for showing vulnerability.

When Barack Obama was moved to tears during a speech on gun violence at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, an online article on CNNPolitic described those tears as revolutionary.

Mr Obama was a man known for emotional aloofness but his open display of emotion was attributed to his African American church heritage where men showing emotion is permitted.

Ms Merkel’s lack of charisma and understated manner was initially criticised until her leadership style came under scrutiny following her political successes in Germany and the EU level.

The Economist magazine attributed her diplomatic successes to her emotional intelligence, “An ability to put herself in the shoes of every protagonist in a complex multilateral chess game”.  In the corporate and formal workplace, the unwritten law is to leave  emotions at the door.

Emotional indulgence is talked about as an opposition to clear thinking. However, what Prof Salovey argues is scientific proof that emotions give us another source of information alongside logical thinking that should be exploited. Emotions provide the added advantage of informed response in problem solving.

It is knowing the difference between feeling and acting. One can feel angry but they do not necessarily have to express anger where it is deemed inappropriate to do so. Emotion can be used as data in problem solving and this skill has immediate attendant benefits in the professional workplace. 
Prof Salovey explains that the ability to be an emotionally intelligent leader is based on 19 competencies in four areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Emotional intelligence is now taught as a skills set, where hard science is used to teach soft skills.

The concept of emotional intellegence is what Prof Salovey advises should be extended to organisations that work with people to encourage a culture of empathy.

READ: Emotional intelligence key to success

This thinking led to the founding of the Center For Emotional Intelligence in Yale that aims to use the power of emotions to create a more effective and compassionate society.

EQ is a set of guiding principles that underpins one’s leadership values. Values reflect what is important in the way we live and work.

In the book Emotionally Intelligent Manager by Prof Salovey and David Caruso, the authors argue that EQ is a human asset and an integral part of what it means to think, reason and be intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is the great predictor of leadership success because our ability to manage relationships determines how well we perform in the job of leading people.

Pala was at Captial Club Nairobi where Prof Slovey spoke to Kenyan executives during a visit early this month.