Great Leaders Recognize and Value the Power of Emotions

by Diana Drake

The story of a group of summer interns was burning up the Internet a while back for lessons learned in a painful way. The interns working temporarily for a company were distressed about a strict dress code that they felt was unfair — especially since one employee was seen regularly wearing shoes that didn’t fit the code. So, they wrote and signed a proposal asking for leeway under the dress code. After submitting their petition, all those who signed it were promptly released from their internship positions. That’s right — the young interns were fired.

One of the interns posted the following information online at “We weren’t even given a chance to discuss it. The worst part is that just before the meeting ended, one of the managers told us that the worker who was allowed to disobey the dress code was a former soldier who lost her leg and was therefore given permission to wear whatever kind of shoes she could walk in. You can’t even tell, and if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument.”

Business bloggers had a field day with that last line (If you want to read all the details, visit the Related Links section of this article). Why? Because it totally lacked emotional intelligence, at the heart of which is empathy and understanding for the experiences of others. In the end, the interns seemed only to care about themselves, and to care very little about their coworker’s actual situation as it related to the “unfair” dress code.

Emotional intelligence, known both as EI and EQ (emotional quotient), is considered one of the most important skills to have in the workplace. Here’s why, and also how you might develop stronger emotional intelligence…

In June 2016, Edward Yu, a then-partner in the health industries strategy practice for PwC, a professional services firm with 200,000 employees around the world, presented on emotional intelligence during the PwC-KWHS Seminar for High School Educators at Wharton San Francisco. Yu, who mentors many young PwC professionals, talked about what corporate executives want to see in young leaders, and why emotional intelligence tops the list. “What allows young people to be successful is your ability to manage behaviors that promote getting along with others,” said Yu.

Here are a few valuable takeaways from Yu’s presentation on leadership and emotional intelligence:

  • Relationships matter. People who are going to be successful in the job market are those who are able to have live, interpersonal interactions with people. Plenty of people will type at each other. But those who can develop a relationship with someone will be successful. You must have emotional intelligence in order to develop relationships and trust.
  • Empathy is the most crucial leadership skill. Simply put, empathy is the ability to communicate (send and receive messages) and lead by understanding others’ thoughts, views and feelings. To better understand empathy, think of the African word Sawubona, which means “I ‘see’ you,” said Yu. “When you meet somebody, you really see them — not just because you notice them, but because you respect them and understand where they come from.” Empathy – connecting with a coworker or a client on a deeper level than just quoting numbers or business studies – is extremely important to effective leadership.
  • Situational leadership demands both technical and emotional skill. Effective leaders understand the situation and lead accordingly. How well can you read a room? “When you meet with somebody, you have to figure out very quickly how to make connections,” explained Yu. “This extends to how you look at non-verbal cues.” What is the vibe, and how will you adapt your leadership approach to meet it?
  • Emotional intelligence requires self-management. In other words, capable leaders stay calm under pressure and are resilient. Resilience is especially important in that you must learn to persevere through failure. You may want to throw your hands up in despair, but the best approach is to take constructive criticism, learn from your mistakes, and move on. “Rapid failure means rapid learning, and that means refining your strategy. What didn’t work and what would you do as a result?” said Yu. “Students who can fail and learn will be much more successful.”
  • Getting along means getting ahead. Strong leaders don’t command and control, they connect. Relationship-building, social skill, empathy, collaboration and awareness of yourself and others are all key components of emotional intelligence. Laura Guillen, professor of organizational behavior at ESMT in Berlin, says, “EI allows individuals to engage in interpersonal processes, thus promoting getting-along behaviors at work, which in turn impact getting-ahead leadership behaviors.”
  • RULER is a true measure of emotional intelligence. Remember this guide as you work on building your emotional intelligence skills for the workplace:

        R=Recognizing emotions by paying attention to facial expressions, vocal tones and body language.
        U=Understanding emotions by being able to identify the causes and consequences of various emotions.
        L=Labeling emotions and developing a vocabulary to express a full range of emotions.
        E=Expressing emotions and learning to do so with different people, contexts and cultures.
        R=Regulating emotions by developing strategies to manage your own emotions and help others to manage theirs.

Bottom line: it’s not enough in the workplace to choose the right emoji for how you are feeling in the moment. You need to explore emotions – both yours and others – more deeply if you want to begin building your path to great leadership.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

It has been said that emotions are the insight to who you truly are as a person. Ignoring them means that you are denying your true self. In the end, why is it so important to understand yourself and others on an emotional level? How does this make you a stronger leader? Why can’t you just lead with technical skills? What might happen if you discredit the value of emotions as a leader?

An important part of emotional intelligence is recognizing and accepting that not everyone reacts to a situation or expresses emotion the same way. Take crying at a funeral, for example. Some do so openly, while others express their grief in different ways. Do you find yourself judging others for how they express emotion? Create a scenario and discuss in a small group how you might respond to it. What does this teach you about your own emotional intelligence? Remember to focus on the meaning of empathy.

Using the “Related Links” tab accompanying this story, further research the plight of the interns introduced at the beginning of the article. Open a discussion with your class and peers about what happened here. Do you agree with their approach? Disagree? Why or why not?

Choose 10 emojis from your phone or online and identify the related emotions. Now discuss them with a group. Did you identify them similarly? What did you learn about how people perceive certain emotions?

2 comments on “Great Leaders Recognize and Value the Power of Emotions

  1. The conversation starters in this article are great – I’ll approach most of them.

    Emotions are indeed an insight to your true self. However, I don’t agree that ignoring them means you are self-denying. The ability to disguise your emotion, or interchange between different ones when appropriate (depending on the situation you are in) is an invaluable skill. I would classify this ability as the highest end of EI (EQ).

    Take the funeral situation as an example. If you are the leader of the family, or someone with a high status (e.g. respected job compared to other family members), it will be best if you disguise your sad emotions and try to contain them. Instead, you should try to comfort those who are crying. This is suitable as you may be the role model of the family, and everyone should learn from you. It’s ok to cry of course – but family members may see you as frail and delicate, not like the character you are when at work.

    Empathy, also known as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, is very important in leadership. I’ll give an example of myself while addressing some points. I lead a group of musicians who teach migrant children how to play various instruments at my school. It’s impossible for me to lead with technical skills – being a good saxophone player doesn’t mean I’m a good teacher and leader without my EI.

    A lot of the time, there is lots of cacophony in the room due to ‘bad’ music. I can see the expression all the musicians have on their faces – annoyed and want to leave the room. Honestly, I feel the same internally. However, my facial expression stays calm and I address all the matters with patience. As the musicians see my composure, they try to be more tolerant.

    During the teaching session, or after the session, I will usually talk to some of the musicians tutors. First of all, I express how we have similar feelings, and I know how the job of teaching music is really hard. As communication is the key, they instantly feel like they can connect with me. After that, I set the goals for the next session, and tell the tutors to always smile. Research shows that smiling creates positivity and emotional wellbeing no matter how one is truly feeling, so keep smiling!

    If I wasn’t like this, the student tutors may leave the club as no one is encouraging or supporting them, and recognising their predicament. Building personal connections is very important, and can lead to good long term relationships.

    That being said, don’t undermine technical skill. Without the technical skill, a leader cannot lead, because they have no foundation. It’s analogous to someone whose never been in a kitchen being required to teach cooking. No matter how good one’s EI is, they still do need technical skill. EI is just the icing on the cake.

    Oh – and this situation about the interns. I don’t think they should’ve been immediately fired, but should’ve received a verbal / email warning instead. They didn’t communicate with the person who disobeyed the dress code – that is their responsibility as they cannot assume randomly. However, I do understand that there may be hundreds of people fighting for a handful of internship positions (probably not the case, but possible), and the employer didn’t want interns who had poor communication skills. That being said, it is totally up to the employer, unless a contract was signed earlier stating interns cannot be fired within a stated time period.

  2. If our young leaders today and the next generation to come acquire the same mindset of exploring and valuing emotions that are mentioned in this article, I truly believe that workplace environments will flourish.

    Growing up in an Asian background, it has been burned into my head that I must work hard, pay attention in class, and go above and beyond to have spectacular grades to acquire skills which meant acquiring power in the real world. Hearing my mother read out countless articles about successful people in our world always meant a follow-up lecture about receiving a good education in order to become successful was necessary. Bachelor degrees, master degrees, MD’s, and PhD’s – all of which have been viewed by society as fundamental to a person’s success. Apparently, society also thinks that the smartest person in the room must be the most qualified leader as well. I have always believed that that statement was factual, but now I have grown to strongly oppose it. Having this ideology chained to my feet when I was younger, it felt impossible for me to say, “I would like to nominate myself for this leadership position” in social events and the classroom. Scared that I did not possess the necessary skills to lead let alone the skills to tackle the situation, I naturally lost my voice to put myself out there. It wasn’t until middle school that I was able to start building my voice and confidence in the classroom. My spark of confidence first came to light in the 7th grade when my class was tasked with a mini simulation of shark tank. After asking my group who should take the lead, I found myself hearing my own name played back to me. Having little experience in business, I fought back the nervousness and accepted anyway. I thought to myself, hey, if they think I would be a good leader, why am I doubting myself? In the process of designing our product, I indirectly asked my friend why she had agreed with our teammates to nominate me. I guess it’s because you listen well? Hearing that one sentence had changed my perspective on leadership in profound ways. I was no longer attached to the chains around my feet as I discovered that we humans simply do not like not being heard or accounted for.

    As humans, we feel frustrated and upset when we are misunderstood, misevaluated, and left to swallow those emotions alone. A leader cannot simply be the only teacher in the room, we are all teachers, students, listeners, and speakers. If you are a teacher without getting to know why your students are struggling, you both get nowhere. No matter how many times you teach the material, if you teach it the same way, progress will never appear. This is what we as a society, collectively fail to realize. You can’t be the person in the room to look up to if you look down on the importance of observing, exploring, and valuing individuals. Individuals are what makes up the workplace, so downplaying the importance of them only results in the deterioration of not only success, but relationships as well in the long run. If we want successful businesses and relationships, we must first establish the groundwork for relationships, and if we start by embracing the need of collective individuals, we will achieve that.

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