Emotional Intelligence is a crucial component of both effective leadership and power.
Especially long-lasting power.
However, it’s not the “Emotional Intelligence” as most people think of it.
By the end of this article, you will know exactly what’s the emotional intelligence that enables and supports leadership and power over the long run.
How People Get Emotional Intelligence Wrong
First of all, most authors and writers have spread misinformation about emotional intelligence.
Let me give you an overview here of how that happened.
Daniel Goleman in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence popularized studies like this one with the often misquoted headline that “EI accounts for 80% of career success”.
For the sake of clarity, Goleman clarified that he has been widely misquoted and misrepresented.
And of course to anyone with a critical mind the “80% thing” is absolute nonsense.
But that didn’t stop the spreading of the misunderstanding.
The issue has been compounded by the misunderstanding of “vulnerability” as espoused by the researches of Brene Brown and culminating with bestselling books such as Daring Greatly and The Gift of Imperfection etc.).
Since then vulnerability has become the new way of showing power. And leaders should now “showing their weakness”, “show their true self”.
Of course, there are moments when a leader must be vulnerable, but not nearly as frequently as some people have been lead to believe and not nearly as obvious as one might want (also read: vulnerability is not power).
So today many people see emotional intelligence as a form of touchy-feely way of leading.
Of course that’s not the case: emotional intelligence is simply the ability to better understand feelings and social dynamics.
But let’s go in order.
CEOs Are Emotionally Stupid
So today many people believe that emotional intelligence means tending to relationships and that emotional intelligence will help them become more powerful.
But is that true?
Does EI help in climbing dominance hierarchies?
Well, it turns out that Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 measured the EI of many managers, executives, and CEOs.
What he found out was striking.
Managers had higher EI scores than average.
CEOs showed lower EI scores than the average.
See the results here:
Bradberry’s answer to that says a lot about human nature (and cognitive dissonance).
Bradberry instead of calling into question the whole idea that EI helps you advance in your career, says that CEOs weren’t doing a good enough job and they had some work to do.
This a good example of “bending the data to fit the narrative”.
But let’s get back to the data now and develop a better theory with it.
And the data clearly showed that emotional intelligence is not a great predictor of career success. At least, not if you’re aiming for the top spots.
The Truth of EI & Gaining Power
The truth, unluckily, is dimmer and darker.
And the truth is that climbing to the top of many hierarchical organizations requires people to act more ruthlessly.
Or at least, not to prioritize the aspects of emotional intelligence that put your own interests in the backburner in favor of harmony and general well being.
Here is indeed what George Simon, Ph.D., says in his important book “In Sheep’s Clothing“:
CEOs like who they are and are comfortable with their behavior patterns and how they act.
Even though their behavior might bother others a lot.
The CEO might be emotionally intelligent enough to understand when his behavior might bother some people.
But he also ignores those other people’s feelings and keeps on going anyway.
And says again Simon:
CEOs most often have inflated self-esteem, and it’s not compensation for underlying feeling of inadequacies.
CEOs are undeterred by adverse consequences or societal condemnation.
That’s a different type of emotional intelligence.
It’s not endless love and empathy. And it’s not about accomodating others.
The emotional intelligence that is more likely to carry people to the top is also about knowing when to keep on going straight, no matter how others feel.
In the words of Dan Rust in his wonderful Workplace Poker, CEOs act more like Teflon rhinos.
Here is how Dan Rust defines rhinos (edited by me for brevity):
Sometimes these individuals don’t even perceive rejection that would seem blindingly obvious to others. We call these people “Teflon Rhinos” because nothing sticks and nothing penetrates their thick skin.
That thick skin is not what most would think of when they read about “emotional intelligence”.
But in my book, it’s one of its most important elements.
Says again Rust:
So is the key to success having a rhinoceros-thick skin, emotionally speaking?
Well, there are a lot of benefits.
You don’t let rejection slow you down. It’s easier for you to talk to influential, powerful people without being intimidated. You’re more likely to ignore the lame criticisms of others. You persevere through obstacles. Accept no excuses. Drive yourself hard—and drive others even harder. You achieve your career goals, and in the end, that’s all that really counts, right?
Dan Rust then goes on to describes the negatives of being an extreme rhino and to propose a slightly more balanced approach.
Power Requires the Ability to Switch Off Empathy
But a new theoretical paradigm seems to emerge when it comes to power and emotional intelligence.
And that’s that the people who get to the top are able to dim, shut down or ignore empathy and interpersonal emotions to enact plans and activities that might bother, hurt, or pain at least some of the people around.
And looking at the business world today, we might make the case that no Emotional Intelligence is better than too much Emotional Intelligence IF that EI functions as a constraint to actions.
Here is the truth then:
- In life and interpersonal relationships, EI is crucial
- To become (mid-level) managers, EI is very important
- To get to the very top, a “barge my way through it and fuck what others think” yields better results than one which is overconcerned about others
And that’s why, sadly, the world we live in is prone to hostile takeovers by people who have no conscience and no moral checks and balances.
Leaders Without Conscience
Now we get to the real problem.
Sometimes you might have to act in spite of your empathy and caring. That’s part of being a leader with a mission.
The problem is when leaders who climb to the top or get into power positions don’t have any conscience at all.
This has happened more than once throughout history with a few recent examples including:
- Donal Trump (The Dangerous Case of Donal Trump))
- Elizabeth Holmes (Bad Blood)
- Albert “Chainsaw” Dunlap (Discussed in “Leaders Eat Last“)
- A bunch of unnamed others that might as well be in your company (see: psychopathy at the top)
Leaders with no conscience at all are very dangerous for everyone. And, in the long run, can also lead to very poor results for themselves too.
What’s the solution then?
Ultimate Leader: High EQ, But Can Shut It Off
Even though it seems like many CEOs have little EI, it would be very silly to discount Emotional Intelligence as a crucial aspect of leadership, power and even the ability to quickly climb dominance hierarchies.
Countless studies, papers, and researches show a positive correlation between EI and effective leadership (for example: Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence).
The ultimate leader indeed is a compassionate leader, who cares and loves the people he leads.
But who can also look beyond the single instances and act forcefully when needed. A leader who feels the pain for himself and for others but, if he must act, will act anyway.
As Ray Dalio says in Principles, the whole should take precedence over the single and what’s good for the whole is good.
And as Babin and Willink say in The Dichotomy of Leadership, a good leader must love his troops but, ultimately, carry the mission for which he is responsible for.
And as Robert Greene says in The Laws of Human Nature:
This empathy, however, must never mean becoming needlessly soft and pliant to the group’s will.
That will only signal weakness.
When it comes to our primary task—that of providing a vision for the group and leading it toward the appropriate goals—we must be stern and immovable. Yes, we can listen to the ideas of others and incorporate the good ones. But we must keep in mind that we have a greater command of the overall details and global picture.
As Daniel Goleman explains in Primal Leadership, the best leaders can combine different types of leadership and pick and choose what is best suited for the occasion.
And Goleman recommends to develop both democratic and affiliative leadership styles, focused on harmony and relationships, and authoritative leadership style, based more on top-down orders for crisis and “difficult” employees.
Long Term Power Rests on Good Leadership
Leadership rests on two opposing forces: the people’s need for a leader and the people’s resentment for the leader’s power and benefits.
Poor leaders let resentment grow and then must rely on coercion -and the military- to keep their control.
It’s not always easy to stay on the good side of the majority of people, and that’s one of the reasons why Machiavelli in “The Prince” said that it’s best to be feared than loved.
But don’t let that mindset infect you.
Great leaders do manage to enact strong leadership while being loved. And so can you.
These great leaders create enough goodwill to outweigh the resentment for having a leader in the first place.
They do it through shows empathy, caring, and delivering results.
And that’s why empathy, caring and love, all elements of emotional intelligence, are crucial for leadership.
When leaders fail to show they care about the people they lead, the follower disconnect. Passive aggression increases, and the chances of rebellion also increase.
A mutiny, either in the form of violence or voting the leader down, becomes more likely.
This is what Robert Greene says:
When leaders fail to establish these twin pillars of authority—vision and empathy—what often happens is the following: Those in the group feel the disconnect and distance between them and leadership.
They know that deep down they are viewed as replaceable pawns.
And so, in subtle ways, they begin to feel resentful and to lose respect. They listen less attentively to what such leaders say.
… And On Tough HR Decisions
Needless to say, not everyone deserves your love and not everyone deserves to be in your team.
Emotional intelligence also allows you to “see” who are the people who are spreading rumors, discontent and generally poisoning the environment.
It allows you to see the power dynamics in your tribe and the power moves that can be used against you by conniving completists.
Emotional intelligence allows you to know when it’s time to use force and prune your beautiful trees by the bad apples that threaten to spoil the bunch.
Then once you know, act forcefully and swiftly.
As I often repeat on this website, there can be no love without the capacity of facing evil.
Emotional intelligence is crucial for leadership because leadership, ultimately, rests on the people to choose you, and support you as their leader.
But you must not confuse “emotionally intelligent” with touchy-feely. Or with “paralyzed” by what others think and feel.
Emotionally intelligent leaders do care about the people around them.
But they also have a deep understanding of how to get the most from them and when it’s time for forceful actions.
And that’s what emotional intelligence is about: understanding people, caring, and leveraging that knowledge and love to doggedly pursue the best course of action.