Ten Strategies for Using Emotional Intelligence to Become a Transformative Leader

When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.
—Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

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When we think of leaders, we usually picture some larger-than-life person known for their ability to create transformation and inspire others to take up their cause.1 These transformative leaders can be great role models, but they can also create a feeling that great leadership is beyond the grasp of most people.2

You may not create a movement like Mahatma Gandhi, but you can achieve transformative leadership. Transformative leadership starts with a big vision of what you want yourself and your company to become.

Although motivated by passion, creating a vision is the domain of cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are important, but just possessing great cognitive skill does not guarantee the successful implementation and acceptance of your vision.

These cognitive skills are only one element of what psychologist Robert J. Sternberg termed “successful intelligence.” Another equally important element is what he called “practical intelligence.” In Sternberg’s words: “Practical intelligence involves applying the components of intelligence to experience so as to a) adapt, b) shape, and c) select environments.”3

In other words, practical intelligence involves the ability to change your own attitudes, change the environment to maximize the potential acceptance of the change you want to implement, and know when to move on after recognizing that the environment is unsuitable for the change you want to implement.

This practical intelligence is key in implementing and gaining acceptance for your vision. But, it isn’t the most helpful place to start. Another type of intelligence gives you skills to successfully adapt and shape the environment. This type of intelligence has gained popularity in the business world, but it is often misused and misunderstood. The type of intelligence I’m referring to is emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence found a wide audience after Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ in 1995 and it became of interest to the business community after Goleman contextualized it in terms of leadership with his 1998 article “What Makes a Leader?” in the Harvard Business Review. Goleman’s work was influenced by psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey’s seminal 1990 paper “Emotional Intelligence” from the journal Imagination, Cognition and Personality.

The Goleman and Mayer/Salovey interpretations of emotional intelligence remain two of the leading models—with Goleman’s model having more widespread use in the practical, business world and the Mayer/Salovey model being more widespread in the academic world. Both of these models share much in common: 1) They both see emotional intelligence as a mix of self-management and relationship-management; and, 2) they both see emotional intelligence as perceiving emotions—both in oneself and in others—and being able to work with those emotions in a positive way—regulating the emotions in oneself and adapting approaches to the emotional states and tendencies of others.4 5

Emotional intelligence is not about being able to turn off or suppress emotions; that’s impossible. Instead, emotional intelligence is about recognizing emotions and emotional tendencies so that you are not dominated by them, don’t identify with them, and that you can respond to them and use them in constructive ways.6

There will be times when all leaders behave in ways that are not ideal. But, having emotional intelligence allows you to dampen the long-term damaging consequences.

Eric Ripert, a buddhist, one of the world’s great chefs, and co-owner of Le Bernardin—only one of three restaurants in New York to have both 3 Michelin stars and four stars from The New York Times—exemplifies what it’s like to manage with emotional intelligence. On Dan Harris’s “10% Happier” podcast Ripert commented about what happens when he behaves in ways that are not ideal:

Sometimes I’m frustrated. When I’m frustrated, I may not be happy. Like I said, I’m not a screamer, but I may be sarcastic when I’m addressing to you my critiques. I may be very irritated. But, what I do after—when the incident has passed—I go back and I apologize on the front of everyone. I have no problem to apologize on the front of my staff for not behaving the proper way. And, that I think I teach that to all the sous chefs: whoever has responsibility in the restaurant has to do that. And, I think it makes us stronger because being angry , it’s a weakness. It’s not a quality. Someone who’s screaming and someone who’s violent is not someone who’s stronger than someone who’s not. It’s someone who has issues and someone who has not mastered himself.

Emotional intelligence is also not about taking on other people’s emotions and trying to please everyone. Instead, it means considering others’ feelings as part of the process of making informed decisions.7

In short, as emotional intelligence expert Travis Bradberry writes: “Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you instead of against you.”8

10 Strategies For Developing Your Emotional Intelligence

It is not a matter of whether leaders are born or made. They are born and made.
—Jay Conger9

Emotional intelligence is something that increases throughout one’s lifetime.10 But, it can be accelerated through a concerted effort.

Here are ten strategies for developing your emotional intelligence:

  1. Study Your Feelings: Learn your emotional patterns and what triggers them. Understanding your default  tendencies allows you effectively respond to any situation.
  2. Practice Empathy: Cultivate your ability to both understand others’ emotions and encourage people to share their perspectives and feedback. By making active attempts to listen to and understand others, you will be better equipped to deal with a wide range of people in a wide range of situations. As Ernest Hemmingway noted: “When people talk listen completely. Most people never really listen.”11
  3. Give Specific Praise: Never give vague praise. Instead, make it specific to the person and deliver it in terms that the person can relate to. By making praise specific, you show that you understand them.
  4. Apologize And Forgive: Apologizing is a sign of strength; it shows people that you are not ruled by emotional whims. Forgiving others not only eases their burden and allows them to be better performers but it also helps you not become fixated on the past so you can better manage the present and future.
  5. Continually Learn: The more you learn the more you can grow. Emotional intelligence isn’t about a destination but about continual growth.
  6. Take Time To Pause: Before you respond, take a pause to better understand all the dynamics of a situation. By taking a pause, you are better equipped to respond in a way that takes into account the emotional states and inclinations of everyone present.
  7. Nurture Relationships: Cultivating relationships gives you practical experience in dealing with a wide range of people. Not only will developing these relationships improve your outlook, but it will also make you better equipped to deal with people you’ve never met before.
  8. Give Direct, Constructive Feedback: Beating around the bush can introduce unwanted and potentially negative emotions into a situation and relationship. By being direct and constructive, nothing is left unsaid that may cloud current and future interactions.
  9. Don’t Blame Others: Nobody but yourself should be the master of your emotions. If people aren’t responding the way you want, instead of blaming them, consider how you might alter your approach—taking into account their emotional states and tendencies—to the situation to make them receptive.
  10. Practice Breathing: Breathing exercises can both help you clear your mind and stimulate you for the work ahead. Here are two great ones from Andrew Weil to get you started:
    • The Relaxing Breath: This breathing technique will clear your mind and put you at ease. Start by pressing the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth, right behind the front teeth. Exhale through the mouth. Inhale for a count of four through the nose. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale, making noise, for a count of eight through the mouth. Repeat three times.
    • The Stimulating Breath: You’ve cleared your mind, now it’s time to stimulate your mind for the creative work ahead. Close your mouth. Rapidly inhale and exhale through your nose. Aim for about three breaths per second. Continue this for fifteen seconds. With time, you can increase the duration.12

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  1. Susan Krauss Whitebourne, “Unlock Your Emotional Genius: How emotionally intelligent are you, and why should you care?,” PsychologyToday.com, 2013.
  2. Jay A. Conger, “Developing leadership capability: What’s inside the black box?,” Academy of Management Perspectives, 2004.
  3.  Robert J. Sternberg, “The Theory of Successful intelligence,” Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 2005.
  4.  John D. Mayer, Peter Salovey, and David R. Caruso, “Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications,” Psychological Inquiry, 2004.
  5.  Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader?,” Harvard Business Review, 1998.
  6.  Rob Kendall, “How to Manage Your Emotions: The life lesson we should have been taught at school,” PsychologyToday.com, 2017.
  7. Goleman.
  8.  Travis Bradberry, “Emotional Intelligence – EQ,” Forbes.com, 2014.
  9. Conger.
  10. Zafrul Allam, “Emotional Intelligence At Workplace: A Psychological Review,” Global Management Review, 2011.
  11.  Malcolm Cowley, “A Portrait of Mister Papa,” LIFE, 1949.
  12. Andrew Weil, Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing, 1999.
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