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How does a leader develop emotional intelligence?

January 29th, 2021

I recently did a webinar, sponsored by Pluralsight, for people interested in becoming managers and leaders. I think you can sign up here and see the recording.

Pluralsight Emotional Intelligence

The conversation with Kevin Miller and Heather MacDonald was really good. I enjoyed learning from them as they talked about their experiences and paths into management.

Callie Kennel was on the webinar and messaged later asking for my thoughts on helping managers and leaders develop emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, had come up on the call a number of times. I talked about how I created a course on leading with emotional intelligence. I think that may be the most important topic I’ve ever covered. It’s not my most popular course, but if people watched and internalized the ideas from that course, which are basic principles of emotional intelligence…. wow! I can’t imagine how great the world would be! As I thought about this I thought “if everyone would start on the path to better emotional intelligence, companies, work environments, etc. would just be so much better!”

My course is a great primer on emotional intelligence. There are plenty of books and tons of articles on it. Instead of repeating some of the oft-repeated bits of advice, I’m going to share four suggestions based on my own experiences:

Strive to Become Self Aware

The first (of five) pillar of emotional intelligence is self awareness. We must understand who we are, how we think, what motivates us, how we act, etc. If we don’t understand ourselves, or increase our self awareness, can we ever understand our impact on others?

Becoming self aware can be pretty cool if you are pretty cool. But if you are a jerk, or have social issues, become more self aware can be very painful. You may have thought you were a good person, but then you come to realize you have a lot, maybe an insurmountable amount, of growing to do.

Becoming self aware is a lifelong journey. It requires being brutally honest, in a healthy way. It requires accepting you for where you are at, and figuring out what you should work on, without beating yourself up. Just as becoming self aware is a lifelong journey, making improvements is, too. The best leaders I’ve had the privilege to work with were continually doing something to better themselves… whether that was reading up on certain topics or trying new tactics, methods, systems, etc.

If you only work on this pillar for decades to come you will make great strides towards having higher emotional intelligence.

Learn to Respect Others

The third pillar is awareness of others. Becoming aware of what makes others tick, what motivates them, what they care about, etc. This pillar isn’t saying you need to be best friends, chummy, or overly social. Actually, it’s not even saying you need to be social. It is saying you need to really want to, and practice, understanding others.

Why do people choose to work hard? Is it for money, or because they want to be in good favor with a leader they admire? Why do people have a problem getting to work on time, or not finishing projects? What is making one person on your team struggle to get their work done, and why is your best performer the best performer?

When you respect others, you have the best hopes for them now, and for their future. In my experience, when a leader has this healthy respect for others, they feel it.

I’ve seen (and experienced) this. When a leader shows they care about the individual, not as an employee or a number, but as a real human with real issues and challenges, the person notices. When you are on the receiving end of this type of dignity and respect, you become super loyal to the leader.

I’m not saying you should increase self awareness just to have loyalty from your team, although that is a great benefit. You should increase social awareness because it makes you more emotionally intelligent. How do you do this? Talk to people. Really talk. Ask them questions… and then listen. Listen a lot. Practice active listening. Of course, I have a course on that, also: Becoming a Better Listener. Click the 10 day trial on either this or the other course, and you can watch both for free :)

Seek to understand (a 7 habits principle) what each person on your team wants, and how you can help them with their personal goals.

Becoming aware of others can be one of the greatest, and most satisfying, parts of your journey to increased emotional intelligence.

Pick a Social Skill and Practice It

When I talked about social skills (the fifth pillar) in my course, I advised you to pick a skill and spend time practicing it. Not an hour or two, but weeks, even months. Whether you are practicing presenting, negotiating, listening, empathizing, motivating, educating… whatever you choose to work on, do a deep dive to learn more. Learn everything you can. Write about it, maybe teach others about the skill, and definitely find opportunities to practice it.

I’m not sure that practice makes perfect, but practice definitely makes progress. Practice with the idea that you will make mistakes, or even fail. Get dedicated to getting better at whatever skill you’ve chosen to work on. Tell others you are working on that particular skill… this is what we call “making your path public.” You might find others, hopefully organizational leaders, will help you with more opportunities and even mentoring.

Making your path public means you have to be vulnerable, but I think the benefits will outweigh the risk.

Seek out opportunities, and then bravely practice. It might feel really weird at first. Maybe you are completely outside of your comfort zone, or perhaps you feel like everyone is watching and analyzing your every move. In either case, who cares? You are doing this for you. Anyone who might make you feel uncomfortable will most likely be completely out of your life in five or ten years. You aren’t doing it for them, you are doing it for Future You.

Learn about Emotional Intelligence

Want to get better at it? Do a deep dive into the topic. You can watch my course free here: Leading with Emotional Intelligence. Take notes and then start practicing some of the things I talk about.

Daniel Goleman is the author of THE book I kept getting recommended to, titled Emotional Intelligence. He has other books… get these and have them on your nightstand to get a regular infusion of the topic.

In addition, I’ve found that business classics like Win Friends and Influence People, 7 Habits, Good to Great, and the others have a foundation of emotional intelligence. Great leaders, great companies, great managers, and I’d argue highly satisfied and happier people have a high emotional intelligence, even if they never say “emotional intelligence” or EQ.

Study successful people through this new lens.

There you go. Learn and practice. Be the tortoise (note the hare) and let this journey be fun and forgiving.

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