The Power of Caring Leadership
The more I study leadership, the clearer it becomes that my old notions of this subject – as being primarily about intellect, confidence and competence – were incomplete. While these attributes are important as “table stakes” for leadership, what distinguishes a truly inspirational leader is a set of capabilities that is much more people-focused in nature: Emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of our own emotions and those of others in the moment, and to use that information to manage ourselves and our relationships. It encompasses a number of sub-competencies in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, other awareness, and relationship management.
There has been extensive research on the impact of emotional intelligence on leadership effectiveness, and how the competencies serve a leader in different situations. But distilled to its essence, emotionally intelligent leaders are effective because they are attuned to the people around them, care about bringing out the best in them, and show it.
When I present on emotional intelligence, I ask the participants to visualize a boss or leader in their past they’d be willing to climb mountains for, metaphorically, and what attributes made them so influential. Immediately, hands shoot up enthusiastically, and the participants recall things like “he cared about me as a person,” “she was a really good listener,” or “he believed in me.” All of these are examples of emotionally intelligent behavior.
These behaviors resonate with my own work experience. While I’ve had many great bosses, the first boss of my legal career stands out. Several times a week, he’d call me to his office for a casual chat. We’d talk about a new matter he was working on and how I could help him. Rather than just handing me an assignment, he’d give me background on the client, tell me what they wanted to achieve, and let me know where to find more information if I needed it.
And then he asked me for my thoughts. The first few times this happened, I felt stress – “I’m just a clerk who’s had a year of law school,” I thought. “I’m going to sound stupid.” But over time, these opportunities taught me that even without much experience, I could offer useful observations and helpful questions about a client’s situation. If I made an incorrect assumption or conclusion, he would gently steer me in the right direction.
These behaviors, of listening to me and valuing what I had to say, in addition to offering valuable advice, gave me confidence and motivated me to put forth my very best efforts. In contrast to a boss who puts you on the spot and pressures you to “produce or else,” he conveyed the message “we’re in this together.” Through his guidance, he inspired me (and others in the firm) to work harder, take on more difficult assignments, and produce better work than we would have otherwise.
Yes, confidence and know-how are important to a leader’s credibility. But emotional intelligence is what enables a leader to not only motivate, empower, and inspire a team to do great work, but to make a positive lifelong impact on the people she leads.
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