What makes a great leader?

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The emotional and social intelligence competencies of highly effective leaders

Want to be a successful leader?  Want to be a better leader?  It helps to know what it takes. Of course, there are lots of books and opinions one can consult.  But what does research say?

Emotional intelligence has become a major topic of interest in scientific circles as well as in the lay public since the publication of a bestseller by the same name in 1995 (Goleman, 1995).

The early definitions of social intelligence influenced the way emotional intelligence was later conceptualised. Contemporary theorists like Peter Salovey and John Mayer originally viewed emotional intelligence as part of social intelligence (Salovey &Mayer, 1990), which suggests that both concepts are related and may, in all likelihood, represent interrelated components of the same construct.

The Bar-On ESI (emotional and social intelligence) model (1997) describes a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that impact intelligent behaviour, measured by self-report within a potentially expandable multimodal approach including the 360 multi-rater assessments.


Increasingly, companies are recognising that leadership factors are crucial to their organisational effectiveness. Why? Because ultimately it is the people within the organisation – leaders, managers, and individual contributors at all levels – who must translate corporate strategy and business goals into action. They must understand the organisation’s vision and make it their own. They must become its champion by influencing others to follow them and help them implement. This is the essence of leadership.

Because individuals in organisations can rarely be successful alone, they must influence, lead, and coordinate their efforts with others in order to achieve their goals – to translate vision into action. A leader success rests in large part upon his or her ability to influence the different groups he or she must relate to in the organisation: the superiors, peers, and direct reports.

From the ongoing longitudinal research by Centre for Executive Education (CEE) we believe that leadership is all about envisioning the future and energising the organisation including the team to achieve that vision. This includes the ability to impact and influence on your followers with ontological humility and leveraging on the right leadership styles underpinning by the relevant emotional and social intelligence competencies resulting in achieving your organisational goals (Bawany, 2014).



The emotional and social intelligence competencies of effective leaders

The life of a leader has plenty of demands and pressures. Having the skills to handle them would seem to be a pre-requisite for success. We have identified several specific skills from a wide array of emotional and social intelligence competencies, as the ones that differentiate successful leaders from other people.  Fortunately these skills can be improved with the proper training and coaching.


"“IQ and technical skills are important, but emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership performance.” – Daniel Goleman"



Self-awareness is the skill of being aware of and understanding your emotions as they occur and as they evolve.  It is wrong to think of emotions as either positive or negative. Instead, you should think of them as appropriate or inappropriate.

For example, anger is usually associated with being a negative emotion.  However, it can be a completely reasonable and appropriate emotion in certain circumstances – emotional intelligence allows us to recognise our anger and understand why this emotion has occurred.

Effective self-assessment of feelings and emotions will help to improve your confidence and self-esteem. People with strong self-awareness or self-regard have an accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses.  They enjoy their strengths and acknowledge weaknesses with recognition but not shame.  Shame paralyses.

Acceptance leads us to correct what we can adapt to what cannot be corrected.  A leader with high self-awareness will hire people whose skills complement his own.  Of the leader that has an unrealistic picture of his own strengths and weaknesses, the chances of hiring the best people are low.

Ask yourself such questions as “How much do I like myself?” “Do I frequently over-estimate what I can achieve?” “Can I accept that people like and respect me despite my flaws or do I feel that I must hide my weaknesses?”




Assertiveness is the ability to express one’s feelings, convictions, and opinions non-destructively in a manner that generally fosters open communication. This may include pushing boundaries in order to evoke a more open and creative forum among team members.

People who score high on assertiveness are able to articulate their ideas clearly and with confidence.  Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness.  Here is the difference.  Aggressiveness is an attempt to coerce and usually creates anxiety in the BUP_DFT_DFT-15-2listener.  Assertiveness communicates that both parties are safe. i.e., “I’m not trying to hurt you and I won’t let you hurt me.”

Successful leaders need to be able to articulate their ideas clearly, or people will not be able to follow the leader.  However, the stereotype aggressive leader (My way or the highway!) has been shown by extensive research to achieve poor organisational climate and low employee engagement resulting in inferiority profitability.

If you find that people don’t tell you all-important information, they may be afraid of you.  While some of this may be an irrational response on their part, it may also be that your communication style needs modification, i.e., from aggressive to assertive. This could be achieved by having a balance and demonstrating the competency of empathy.




Empathy is the ability to be aware of and understand how others feel. It is a key component of people-oriented and participative leadership. This would include being sensitive to the feelings, concerns, and needs of the co-workers and is able to see the world from their perspective.

Empathy can also be seen as demonstrating an active concern for people and their needs by forming close and supportive relationships with others.

Leaders who lack of empathy may be perceived by others as cold, uncaring, and having little interest in them as people. Leaders, who score high on this competency, work to develop close bonds with others. They spend time getting to know people, and are able to give their colleagues the feeling that they are personally involved with them. They tend to emphasise the importance of being generous and kind and displaying a sincere interest in the well-being of others. If carried to extremes, however, this closeness may cloud a leader’s objectivity and result in decisions which do not properly consider the organisation’s best interests. Hence it would be crucial for the leader to bear in mind the saying ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’.




People who score high on Independence are self-reliant thinkers.  This competency emphasises the importance of making decisions independently; looking to themselves as the prime vehicle for decision making. They may get consultation from others to be sure that they have all the information and ideas that they need.  But, when the time comes, they make up their own minds.  People who score low on independence overly rely upon other people’s advice.

You can access your own independence informally.  Are there people whom you can believe you could not run your company without?  If so, you may not have fully developed your ability to think independently.  After all, what if that person gets smashed by a truck tomorrow? Will you close your shop?  

Individuals with lower scores are less likely to feel that they have the only answer to a question. They are less likely to follow their own hunches or make independent judgments. Those with very low scores may appear to lack confidence or to be overly influenced by the strong opinions of others when making decisions. These leaders may be perceived as yielding too much without attempting to influence outcomes.

Individuals with higher scores believe that, in the final analysis, they have to please themselves. They display strong self-confidence and are likely to believe that they are in the best position to know what is really needed. Those with very high scores may be perceived as self-centred or even arrogant; they may not acknowledge the merit of others’ observations. Hence, it would be prudent to ensure that these leaders would need to exercise self-restraint so as not to be perceived as such.




Communication is the ability to state clearly what you want and expect from others; clearly expressing your thoughts and ideas; maintaining a precise and constant flow of information.

Leaders who score low communicate in a more discreet fashion – they tend to work on a ‘need to know’ basis. They are less likely to thoroughly present or explain their ideas and viewpoints or to pass along information. These leaders may underestimate the importance of communication. They may not recognise that inadequate communication can reduce effectiveness and cause ambiguity and unnecessary anxiety.

Leaders with higher scores sincerely believe in the importance of keeping others informed. These leaders will spend time clearly defining expectations and articulating their ideas, thoughts and views. Very high scores may indicate a tendency to talk indiscriminately; these leaders may not recognise that overburdening people with information may actually make it harder for them to accomplish their work. Hence it is critical for the leader to ensure that the message is delivered in the manner and the most effective medium or channel to ensure that it is well received.




Feedback is the ability to let others know in a straightforward manner what you think of them, how well they have performed. This is a crucial competency for all leaders who needs to demonstrate the managerial coaching competency.

Leaders who score low are likely to give others little direct information about their performance. They may be concerned about hurting others’ feelings, or they may assume that people know how they are doing and need no critique. Or, the feedback they provide may be so indirect that their message is not understood by the recipient. They may find that they have neither encouraged good work nor addressed performance problems.

The effective leader realises the need to give positive feedback when appropriate, but also to address inadequate performance or inappropriate behaviour. People who score high provide frank and direct feedback to others. They let others know what they really think. Individuals with very high scores may be seen as overly critical and blunt; they may create defensive reactions or find that their message is discounted because of the way they deliver it.




Therefore, leaders need an array of emotional and social intelligence competencies to be successful, and the good news is, that these can be developed with the right development support including training and coaching. The earlier described emotional and social intelligence competencies can contribute to a leader’s success. You may be able to prepare yourself for success by building your abilities in these areas. There are proven methods to do so.


(The writer is the CEO and C-Suite Master Executive Coach of Centre for Executive Education (CEE Global). He can be reached at [email protected].)

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