Build Your Skills

Share this page

Written by Philip Gimmack on 22 August 2014 in Opinion

The secret of great leadership lies not in management books, but in learning to identify and understand your emotions.

Do you remember that 2011 photo of Ed Miliband carrying a stack of leadership books off on his summer holiday? I wondered then if they would help him find his holy grail of great leadership. We can presume they did not, as recently he’s hired an emotions expert to help improve perceptions of him as an emotionally aware leader.

Ed’s bacon-butty moment reveals why this might help. His awkwardness in attempting the simple task of eating has affected people’s verdicts on his competence. And tapping into and listening to the emotions of ourselves and others – an approach termed Emotional Intelligence (EI) – is a much better way to help people to feel comfortable with themselves than any amount of mugging up on external models and theories.

Organisations are going through a similar evolution of approach. The US Air Force had huge failure rates recruiting for its Para-Rescue Jumper Programme. In 2009 it turned to EI profiling to test and select recruits, using as a model the EI profiles of their existing top performers. This facilitated a massive change-around in both recruitment efficiency (which experienced a 97% improvement) and costs, producing a budgetary saving of $19m (£11m) in its first year.

There’s growing evidence to support a move away from the purely physical, technical or intellectual skills to concentrate more on building our emotional ‘muscle’. The process I describe below is being proposed for stress, depression and, yes, a more authentic approach to leadership. It may sound simple enough but it needs discipline, time and courage.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman suggests that up to 85% of an individual’s success in a senior role is determined by their EI. Emotions, after all, are our most fundamental feedback mechanism. We see this most clearly when we’re pushed to extremes: when we’re tired, stressed, being criticised, or making critical decisions under pressure. Senior leadership can bring out the worst in us. Why do the very best footballers in the world head-butt (Zinedine Zidane in 2006) or bite their opponents (Louis Suárez in 2014) in crucial World Cup games? They might be supreme with the ball, but their lack of emotional awareness and their inappropriate ‘reactivity’ causes them to lose control at crucial moments.

Good leaders tend to know themselves and be willing to accept their failings. Taking action to improve ourselves requires not only awareness, but bravery in addressing what’s going on in our minds. And it’s a worthwhile pursuit, when the alternative – repressing feelings – has been shown to lead to ‘emotional leakage’ and increased anxiety. When we ‘leak’, we’re giving off mixed and often negative messages without realising it. This lack of awareness of our emotional state undermines our authenticity and credibility.

Ed Miliband’s admission recently that he’s not a PR expert shows a healthy awareness and a willingness to share feelings. Ironically, the very admission that he feels ill at ease at times, and this open seeking of emotional support, creates greater authenticity. It shows him as open and human, and this builds relationships. After all, leading people is all about relationship-building; and all relationships thrive through similar qualities. Name the top 10 qualities of a leader. The chances are most of these will be the same for a colleague, parent or friend.

Working and living well with people requires constant emotional management. Unchecked, emotions can take the driving seat and steer us towards unintended destinations; we become ‘reactive’. If we are able to step back and look at ourselves – at our emotions and thoughts – then we have a chance to take control and become ‘pro-active’. Every moment then becomes an informed choice, taking account of the latest highest-quality information produced by our emotions.

This brings us to the nub of the issue. Leading ourselves and others may well depend on a powerful practice to manage our emotions without being controlled by them. It’s a practice based around being ‘present’, and can have enormous potential for personal growth and wellbeing.

It is also quite simple to try out. First, slow yourself down by focussing on your breathing to become aware of your body, your thoughts and your feelings. Second, acknowledge thoughts and feelings as they happen, but resist deeper analysis. This is achieved by watching and listening without judgement or being carried along by emotion, applying a light, almost playful curiosity. Undertaken even for 10 minutes, a few times a day, this practice of mind-body awareness helps clarify the mind and calm our emotional system.

Third, name your experiences and feelings. Neuroscience is now showing us that, particularly when labelling negative, fearful experiences, the practice of naming feelings has a very positive affect on a part of our brain called the amygdala – helping us to be less anxious in difficult times.

I wish Mr Miliband well. And hopefully he can take some lighter reading on holiday with him this summer. For very often, the key to becoming a better leader is not found in self-help books or academic management theories, but inside your own mind. All that’s required is a bit of technique, and the time and space to explore it.

Philip Gimmack is the chief executive of EQworks, a psychotherapist, and a certified EQ coach


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.