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.
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 dynamic.
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.
Bradberry’s answer to that says a lot about human nature (and cognitive dissonance).
Bradberry indeed, instead of calling into question the whole idea that EI is crucial to success, says that CEOs weren’t doing a good enough job and they had some work to do.
Obviously, the work the CEOs have to do is to catch up with his narrative of EI and success and not with, you know, this thing called reality where said CEOs are actually doing rather well :).
This a brilliant example of “I don’t like the data, the data disproves all my narrative… So I bend 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 EI wasn’t such a great predictor of career success.
At least not for those who aspire to great success.
Indeed, once you move above the mid-level managers, EI constantly decreases in Bradberry’s own survey:
(…) the scores trend sharply downward among directors, executives, vice presidents and senior executives and reach all-time low with CEOs
The Truth of EI & Gaining Power
The truth, unluckily, is dimmer and darker.
And the truth is that climbing to the top of many (most?) organizations requires people to act forcefully.
Or at least, not to prioritize those EI signals that lead people to care and tend for interpersonal relationships.
And, most of all, not to let those EI signals change one’s own actions and attitude.
Here is indeed what George Simon, PhD, says in his seminal “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.
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.
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.
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 check and balances.
Leaders Without Conscience
The real problem indeed is not people who can disregard EI signals and switch off their conscience and empathy.
We will make the case in that we need those types of leaders.
The problems is when leaders who climb to the top or get into power positions don’t have any conscience at all.
This has often been the case 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 (Snakes in Suits for an overview)
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: EI Always ON, 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 Love
Remember that leadership always rest 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 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 empathy and caring.
And that’s why empathy, caring and love, all elements of emotional intelligence, are crucial for leadership.
When leaders fail to show care and love for the people they lead, discontent, rebellions, passive aggression increase.
And 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 group.
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, want you and support you as their leader.
You must not confuse “emotionally intelligent” with touchy-feely though.
Emotionally intelligent leaders 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 the people, loving the people, and leveraging that knowledge and love to choose the best course of action.