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When Emotional Intelligence isn’t enough for superior leadership

What defines superior leadership has changed in the last 20 years

“Leadership” is one of those endlessly contested topics. It seems that everyone has experiences to share of working with poor leaders, and some of us with good leaders.

It matters that able people want to be leaders – to make the world a better place. But the risk is that we’re turning people away from taking leadership roles. There is an emerging tension in our increasingly global and interconnected world, and its sub-worlds of business, politics, sport, religion, social lives… (add your own). The tension comes from knowing that leadership makes a difference to people’s lives, for better or worse; wanting to have leaders that use their power and authority wisely; and, increasingly, people wanting to have more voice about the conditions that affect their own, and others’ lives. Many of us want to have impact without the formality of taking on authority roles. Most of us want to be lead well and some of us don’t want to be lead at all.

Add to this the option for immediate, large-scale social comment and don’t be surprised with the current low levels of trust in many high-profile authority figures.

The most compelling work I’ve experienced on leadership is by the Burnham Rosen Group (BRG). I first came across their work in 1993, and have lived its value many times over the years. I’m proud to be an associate for them. What is interesting for me is that as the topic of leadership takes on more importance, BRG’s decades of research into what makes great leaders becomes more relevant.

The BRG focus on identifying what differentiates superior performing leaders. Superior performing leaders always did think about the impact of their organisation. They also thought about how to get people to follow them – this requires high emotional intelligence. Superior performing leaders still think about impact and they still have high emotional intelligence. Having a ‘mutuality-mindset’ that appreciates others’ skills and contribution is still essential. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that those factors are now not enough. Over the last 20 years, the world has changed and this had a dramatic impact on what we want from our leaders. Technology change means that we can all access information as quickly as we want. Peter Drucker’s definition of a knowledge worker was someone who knows more about their role than does anyone else. Leaders cannot know others’ roles in the same depth as the job holders, and must feel OK about this. Indeed, feel strengthened by it. We also expect our leaders to coach and develop us and give us solid, learning opportunities. Many organisational challenges are too complex for the leader to solve. Product and service cycle times have decreased: customers want more in less time. Trends don’t necessarily predict the future any more.

Dealing with all of this takes maturity. Leaders think about how to use their power and authority to create true value

In this messier-looking, more interdependent world, a superior performing leader thinks carefully about being a conduit to help others feel strong and energised, and, through this process, feels strong and powerful oneself. Impact flows from, through and back to the leader. They use their authority to spread a feeling of ‘can-do’, directed towards meaningful, purpose-driven goals. As well as their emotional intelligence, they think and act in three other areas:

1. Returning authority to others. Great leaders are clear that if others own the planning process for how to achieve results, they will ‘buy-in’ to the results. They then hold people accountable for these results. From this mindset comes the strong engagement of others.

2. Great leaders think about complexity, paradox, trends and counter-trends. Faced with increasing market and organisational complexity, they do not resolve their anxieties by polarising decisions into black and white dilemmas. They are self-aware. For example, they are likely to have mixed feelings such as simultaneous excitement and apprehension about the opportunities for change. They involve people in exploring the potential for taking action in areas of containable risk, where mistakes needn’t affect desired outcomes. From this mindset comes the space for innovation, as they explore the grey areas where the group can act.

3. They do all the above in the context of focusing their people on what will make their customers’ lives better. They are more purpose driven. They involve their people in crafting a meaningful purpose, a plan to achieve it, and thinking through how to use their talents so they know they are making a valued contribution to the cause. They create a “we”. From this mindset a feeling of pride-for-purpose is spread.

This systemic combination of crafting a compelling purpose, with emotional intelligence, being mindful of complexities and paradoxes and returning authority to others is a potent mix. It creates an attractor pattern that draws people to worthwhile work and energises them. It also takes an emotional maturity from the leader, as s/he thinks carefully about how to use their power and authority to galvanise others for positive impact.

To hear it explained in compelling detail, hear David Burnham describe the research in this 30-minute audio podcast:

(Many thanks to Jesse Lahey, from for recording the above podcast.)

What are your experiences of superior leadership in thought and action?

© Bluegreen Learning Ltd

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