Emotionally Intelligent Team Leaders Not Mindless Execs And Middle Managers

In this article, I’m purposely leaving out the entire theme of autonomy versus command and control because it oughtn’t be debatable and instead it needs to be swiftly recognised as hygiene and considered the normal next step in the evolution of any enterprise that wants to still be in business in the next 20 years. 

Aside from it, what is also fundamental to this survival, is understanding the role of so-called “soft skills”. We must do what we can so we walk away from the condescending “aww isn’t this cute” attitude towards anything that has to do with these skills and we must do so urgently in this day and age where automation (call it “AI” if it alarms you more) will take over every job that isn’t intensely human.

What’s a leader?

Little as we may sadly talk about it, Emotional Intelligence to a team leader is the only true compass to steer the ship. 

As a team leader – (and I obstinately use this term these days in lieu of any other description regarding leadership because if you don’t have a team -or more!- you’re at best a diffuse influencer or more likely an organisational liability and not a leader) if you don’t have EQ you’re impotent to help your people and therefore your overall goal. 

While perhaps recognising and naming every mood and each emotion they are each experiencing is nice but not mandatory, being able to sense moments that will destabilise equilibrium, notice subtle signs and understand pitfalls is sine qua non.

Irrespective of the form it takes and even irrespective of whether they are overtly aware of it or not, each talented (and therefore successful) people leader has a mental counter of the wellbeing of each team member and an overall, perhaps undefined score for how well the entire team is doing, that contains many of the things we measure in an exact fashion in our Team Leader Dashboard – starting with how their morale is to how flexible, open, curious, resilient and courageous they are. They may not think of any of these things in isolation -and arguably they should- but they have this firmly etched in their subconscious so they can react in ways that they need to. 

Many times, leaders will discover when they get coaching that they have long employed a bevvy of skills that have to do with emotional intelligence to lead their teams and that they have roll-calls and check-ins and a deep interest and appreciation of each and every team member even if they don’t overtly spend time thinking of it. For these leaders, it’s a matter of honing in on those practices and leveraging those skills. 

Whom do we lead?

Obviously this applies for those who truly lead people not those who have a position of leadership on paper and while this is easier in smaller teams (a software development team, a new start-up, etc) it is possible and it is done by exceptional individuals at macro level too. 

The limit there is possibly somewhere around Dunbar’s number and if we were serious about organizational design and didn’t think enterprises to be these immutable mountains of accidental organizational structures, and, furthermore if we understood the importance of EQ, we would have HR departments everywhere only assign teams to belong to a leader depending on how much “space” they have in their mental relationship counters. 

We’d be agonising over whether there is an allowance of more than 150 for work relationships or if it’s included in the overall, we’d wonder if the same level of interaction and knowledge is needed to maintain these rapports as the ones in our Facebook list, we’d wonder about a certain team lead’s capacity to understand and recognise emotions and we’d agonise over the best ways to fine-tune their instincts and coaching them through learning how not to slip into old middle management patterns of self-obsession and impression management. 

How do we lead, not manage?

Of all things to teach and focus on, and they are many, we’d first and foremost work on empathy -or for the ambitious, on “compassion”-. It’s a higher goal that surpasses listening, understanding, humility, openness and mindfulness but firmly includes them, so if we are to focus on increasing it -which is no easy task- then we would be getting the benefits.

If we had empathy we would arguably have kindness, understanding, forgiveness, warmth, all those things that are so needed for human relationships to flourish and that we have obstinately cast aside and labelled as “non-professional” in the work environment. Fundamental to what makes us good people, these abilities simply haven’t been seen as what makes us good employees, much less good leaders, and they have been completely cast aside in favour of the seemingly more profitable hard skill and harsh, numbers-driven, harsh attitudes. 

The correlation between staunch, un-emotional, stoicism and even ruthlessness and efficiency of leadership is one of the biggest unexamined myths of the business world and one of the most harmful ones at that. 

A myth because, even in the harshest command and control environments, if you examine it in detail beyond the Steve Jobs type folklore, the leaders who were truly making history and helping their teams thrive were in fact far from that hardened psychopath image and instead had heaps of inbuilt compassion and finesse. 

We train everything else, why not EQ as well? 

While the organisation in itself needs to recognise the immense importance of EQ and its connection to leadership and allow and even demand its training, and while there are coaches and now even software tools out there to help (come talk to us about what we’re building in the Emotional Intelligence Trainer) the hard work has to be a matter of personal responsibility. 

This one’s on you, team leader, as you look at the year that passed and at the year ahead, do you have a plan on how you’ll be better? How you’ll be more? 

You surely do, like you always have. And this is that time you may have dreaded to make the leap into intentionally examining the uncomfortable topic of emotions and feelings in lieu of excel files and reports. You knew it was coming and your training regimen will have to kick into high gear and shift from just your body to your mind and soul and focusing on your EQ will need as much effort as your cross-fit practice but it’s the only way forward. 

Do us all a favour and finish your New Year’s Even resolution (or equivalent) and then examine it and wonder how much of it is hard versus soft skills. How much are external actions and how much is work on yourself? If you’re matching the hours spent on a spin bike or living a barbell to the hours spent in deep thought about each of those in your team and how they feel, think and what would make them thrive. If you have any serious plans to establish (or better!) a gratitude practice, an emotional check-in and a roll-call or a kindness mantra if you have designs on faster recognising emotions or measuring any of the attributes that keep your team psychologically safe and happy. That’s what’s going to make you inspiring and will bring everyone along.

Come to think of it, before any of this sit and wonder who your team really is. Or teams. Who’s a team you lead and who’s a team you’re part of. Find it. Define it and see it clearly in your mind’s eye. Picture it until it’s a collection of humans, a group, a living entity made up of several lives and personalities put together, and not a list of names or departments and then wonder what the common purpose is that binds them together and once you see that in lieu of an organizational chart you’re halfway there. 

These are your people. Your tribe. Your “guys”. How can you do better by them so you can all build together? What can you lean and train and focus on, so that you master these soft skills, hard as it may be? 

I know you want to be a true team leader, not a middle manager – who doesn’t?- and this is the way to do it, your EQ is the only thing that will take you there. Get serious about working on it. We’ll all be better off for it.

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