Tough Times Call For Emotionally Intelligent CEOs

Dan Hawkins

What is emotional intelligence?

In 1990, Daniel Goleman, then a science reporter at the New York Times, happened upon an article in a scientific journal that referenced EQ. He proceeded to do his own research and found that high-performing leaders were distinguished by their degree of self-awareness, empathy and social skills. EQ is not personality, cognitive intelligence or aptitude. EQ is a set of emotional and social skills that help us understand ourselves and others to respond to different situations.

Having a high EQ doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a “warm and fuzzy” person; it means that you are good at paying attention to how you interact with people, how people react to you and how to be deliberate and strategic with building relationships.

Why does EQ matter for CEOs?

There are multiple studies that show how important emotional intelligence is for executive performance:

  • Daniel Goleman’s research found that 80-90% of high performers in the C-suite are differentiated by high emotional intelligence. Moreover, emotional intelligence is twice as important for predicting performance in executives than technical skills or IQ.
  • For decades, the Center for Creative Leadership has studied the primary causes of derailment in executives. The two biggest driving factors in whether an executive will further or derail their career? The ability to establish strong interpersonal relationships and the ability to adapt and develop during periods of change. Both of these skills are markers of emotional competence.
  • After studying hundreds of senior executives, research firm Egon Zehnder International found that strong emotional intelligence indicates executives are more likely to succeed. In fact, they believe emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than either relevant previous experience or high IQ.

In my experience working with CEOs, most are highly intelligent and results-oriented, yet some fail because of poor interpersonal relationships, arrogance, difficulty leading change, a lack of agility to adapt or because they are unable to influence their key stakeholders. Given the significant volatility and uncertainty today, CEOs must lead with transparency, authenticity and personal believability if they want true followership and buy-in. This requires EQ. The good news is that EQ can be assessed during the CEO hiring phase.

Here’s how to assess EQ when hiring a CEO:

  • Expect an additional set of capabilities. Rescope roles to include factors related to EQ. Assess candidates for empathy, self-awareness, their connections with others and social skills. Discuss candidates’ ability to interact and read others, their ability to manage through stressful situations, whether they slow down their response to challenging situations and how well they consider other points of view. Ensure external referencing taps into these critical areas as well.
  • Ask the right questions. Ask the candidates critical questions about how they have responded to stressful or unexpected circumstances in their careers. What was on their minds? How did they navigate the situation? The goal is to see how their minds work in these situations.
  • Use proven tools. There are some tools that aim to explicitly assess for EQ. These tools have solid normative data and typically assess for empathy, social awareness, relationship building, self-awareness and self-management. Use these in conjunction with the above and you can obtain an accurate read.

If you make EQ part of your assessment process, it can become part of a consistent framework for evaluating how your top executives respond to unpredictable business situations.

Here’s how CEOs and leaders can develop their EQ:

In my experience, CEOs tend to fail or struggle more due to poorly developed EQ than any single factor. Fortunately, unlike cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence can be developed with practice and commitment.

A few methods to improve EQ for CEOs might include:

  • Being more aware of how you react to different situations and people
  • Getting feedback on how you are responding to stressful situations
  • Asking yourself “why” when observing how people respond to you
  • Involving more points of view and hearing various perspectives
  • Slowing down your response time before making decisions or reacting

To improve your emotional intelligence as a leader, get better at slowing down, staying calm and avoiding impulsive or emotionally-driven decisions. Stronger EQ helps CEOs create more effective interactions, get more people involved and make more thoughtful decisions.

The uncertainties and stresses of 2020 are not going away overnight. CEOs will need to engage their teams and align their organizations to navigate the volatility ahead. In this environment, I believe EQ matters more than ever, and CEOs with this trait will be more likely to make clearer decisions, lead well-aligned organizations and deliver better results.

Read the article where it originally appears on Forbes.