Losing touch with employees, customers and other stakeholders remains a serious problem for businesses. It’s one of the reasons why emotional intelligence (EQ) is increasingly looked for in the leadership skill-set of CEOs and senior executives today. An ability to listen, empathise and relate to others can make a world of difference when trying to build an organisation which is successful in the long term.

This isn’t to suggest that good old-fashioned operational excellence and IQ aren’t important. The point is that companies need to be better at finding individuals who can help to provide a balance, starting with the mix of executive and non-executive directors on the board and then moving on to key positions throughout an organisation.

Paul Matthews, Chief Executive for UK and Europe at Standard Life, a long-term pension, savings and investment business, comments: “There are clearly examples where companies have been run by individuals with large egos who were not in touch with the people in their business or their customers, but driven by their own agendas which were often linked to personal gain.

“Winning the hearts and minds of your people and customers must be as much a part of decision making as clinical analysis if you are to get your company delivering exceptional results. You can hire some of the best brains in the world but that does not guarantee a successful future.” 

Alison Esse, Joint Managing Director at change management consultancy The Storytellers, agrees: “You might make a rational decision based on a whole series of facts and data… but getting people’s buy-in may require a more emotionally compelling story.

“If you’re not self-aware, if you don’t have that emotional intelligence, it can be difficult for you to begin to bridge the gap.”

Good leadership involves being mindful that others are engaged in what you’re doing. Stephen Catling, former CEO of food manufacturer ABF Ingredients, says: “Unless you possess EQ, you’re really going to struggle… Some of the leaders I’ve worked with are massively task focused; they really get the job done, but they’re so driven that sometimes they forget to take people with them, particularly during periods of change. You have to actually put the brakes on and build that.”

Different strokes

On the flipside, there are plenty of situations where a CEO, who may be seen as lacking in emotional intelligence, can be successful. “In the short term, you could probably get away with low levels of EQ, particularly if you were in a crisis or a fast-moving business,” says Howard Kerr, Chief Executive of business standards company BSI Group. “When you’re very focused and targeted, IQ is certainly necessary and required.

“But once a crisis or short-term issue has passed, you want to have a more stable, high-performing, satisfied employee group. For the long term, I suspect you need to shift the balance.”

Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), comments that there will always be a time and a place for a directive approach but, when taking that longer-term view, stakeholders don’t want one-dimensional CEOs and senior executives. He explains: “Trust in business is not where it needs to be… It has been declining for a number of years and that means we need leaders who are better at listening, communicating, developing and managing people.”

It’s in this context that the emphasis on EQ in leadership needs to be seen. “The big ‘I Am’ as the leadership model of the past is not a sustainable model for the future,” adds Peter. “The notion of trust, being a good listener and communicator, and demonstrating a degree of benevolence are much more important today than they were seen to be.”

A change is occurring, albeit slowly. Paul of Standard Life comments: "In my view there is a shift as we see the emergence of chief executives who listen and learn, rather than just lecture and tell. Leaders who value humility and teamwork, more than getting their own way, will see companies delivering far more over the long term.”

For those who struggle with this side of leadership, there are tools to help identify blind spots, including psychometric testing and 360 degree performance reviews. Julian Birkinshaw, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, comments: “You can teach the principles of emotional intelligence in half-a-day. Likewise, you can read a book. But if you don’t want to really develop the skills, it’s difficult.”

Howard says: “People can be taught the theory but, like anything else, it’s about practice. If you don’t recognise behaviours in yourself, you’re not going to see any reason to change. Raising awareness through peer-to-peer, one-to-one coaching is important.”

EQ comes down to being open to feedback and willing to learn the art of engagement and influence. As Julian says: “Good leadership is about having an understanding of who you are and how people perceive you. When you watch a senior executive in action, seeing how they spend their day, 90 per cent of their time is actually working with others; getting things done through others, rather than sitting down, writing emails and producing reports.”

I hope to see you soon.