In today’s rapidly evolving business environment, the traditional norms of leadership need to be revised. The boardroom, a focal point for strategic decision-making, requires a fresh leadership approach that underscores authenticity, self-awareness, and a careful equilibrium between challenging and supporting CEOs.
Identifying Authenticity Gaps
While gauging a leader’s authenticity and self-awareness isn’t an exact science, certain tools help shine a light on these essential traits. One way to measure authenticity is to assess the alignment between a leader’s self-identified values and their colleagues’ perceptions. When these do not overlap sufficiently, it could indicate a disparity between a leader’s intention and others’ perception, revealing potential authenticity gaps.
Similarly, self-awareness can be evaluated by contrasting a leader’s understanding of their strengths and weaknesses against feedback from their peers. This contrast fosters critical conversations about the role of self-awareness in potential CEOs and how a self-aware leader’s strengths and weaknesses might serve the company’s strategic needs.
Key Qualitative Attributes
Our work with boards, CEOs, and C-suite teams across various industries gives us a first-hand view of the evolving definitions of effective leadership. It’s becoming increasingly clear that quantifiable metrics doesn’t solely determine a leader’s success. Instead, it lies in understanding the qualitative attributes that result in success. This includes a leader’s behaviour, their ability to build teams and develop talent, and fundamentally, who they are—not merely the numbers they produce.
There are powerful psychological foundations behind this shift in leadership paradigms. The Big Five personality traits—Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism—have been found to correlate with leadership effectiveness (Judge et al., 2002). In a meta-analysis of 222 correlations from 73 samples, Extraversion emerged as the most consistent correlate of leadership across various settings and leadership criteria, while Neuroticism showed a negative correlation. Overall, the Big Five traits had a multiple correlations of .48 with leadership, providing strong support for the leader trait perspective when traits are organised according to this model (APA PsycINFO Database Record, 2016). Leaders scoring high in conscientiousness and openness often exhibit heightened self-awareness and authenticity, underlining the value of incorporating these psychological elements into leadership evaluations.
The Role of the Boardroom
However, the success of this new leadership approach largely hinges on the practices adopted within the boardroom. Boards must expand beyond the conventional focus on governance compliance, cultivating an environment that encourages performance excellence. This strategy rests on diverse leadership styles, effective board structures, stakeholder engagement, and fostering a positive organisational culture. Central to this is the board’s ability to model ethical behaviour, uphold core values, and promote equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Moreover, soft skills, such as empathetic listening, clear communication, and emotional intelligence, emerge as a vital element in this context. Assessing these skills through methods like board process simulations can be particularly beneficial. These simulations mimic high-pressure environments, enabling the development and refining of these essential soft skills.
A critical aspect of the board’s role is striking a balance between challenging and supporting CEOs. This dynamic greatly influences the company’s overall performance. Boards must ensure optimal decision-making and performance while also providing a supportive environment for CEOs who often face high-stress roles. Yet, care must be taken to avoid falling into ‘support’ or ‘challenge’ traps. Cognitive biases can lead to overemphasising CEOs’ successes or difficulties based on initial perceptions, often creating a negative cycle of escalating tension and deteriorating performance.
In conclusion, the complexities of modern leadership necessitate a shift away from traditional boardroom practices. Embracing an approach centred on authenticity, self-awareness, and balanced dynamics between the board and CEOs can foster better conversations, higher-quality decisions, and stronger organisational foundations. As we continue grappling with an unpredictable world, it’s critical that our leadership frameworks evolve in tandem, ensuring a more effective and modern boardroom.
Judge, T. A., et al. (2002). Personality and leadership: a qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 765–780. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.87.4.765
The role of a CEO, once defined by strategy charts and bottom lines, is undergoing a sea change. With constant technological advances, changing business complexities, and societal expectations, CEOs are required to expand their expertise beyond traditional business acumen. Today, a truly great CEO needs to master the art of social skills, demonstrating a keen ability to interact, coordinate, and communicate across multiple dimensions.
As the business landscape continues to grow more complex, the ability to navigate this intricacy has become a defining factor in effective leadership. This holds true for large, publicly-listed multinational corporations and medium to large companies operating in a rapidly evolving marketplace. As a result, leaders must possess the skills and acumen to navigate this complex landscape, make informed decisions, and steer their organisations toward success.
Top executives in these firms are expected to harness their social skills to coordinate diverse and specialised knowledge, solve organisational problems, and facilitate effective internal communication. Further, the interconnected web of critical relationships with external constituencies demands leaders to demonstrate adept communication skills and empathy.
The proliferation of information-processing technologies has also played a crucial role in defining a CEO’s success. As businesses increasingly automate routine tasks, leadership must offer a human touch—judgment, creativity, and perception—that can’t be replicated by technology. In technologically-intensive firms, CEOs need to align a heterogeneous workforce, manage unexpected events, and negotiate decision-making conflicts—tasks best accomplished with robust social skills.
Equally, with most companies relying on similar technological platforms, CEOs need to distinguish themselves through superior management of the people who utilise these tools. As tasks are delegated to technology, leaders with superior social skills will find themselves in high demand, commanding a premium in the labour market.
The rise of social media and networking technologies has also transformed the role of CEOs. Moving away from the era of anonymity, CEOs are now expected to be public figures interacting transparently and personally with an increasingly broad range of stakeholders. With real-time platforms capturing and publicising every action, CEOs need to be adept at spontaneous communication and anticipate the ripple effects of their decisions.
Diversity & inclusion
In the contemporary world, great CEOs also need to navigate issues of diversity and inclusion. This calls for a theory of mind—a keen understanding of the mental states of others—enabling CEOs to resonate with diverse employee groups, represent their interests effectively, and create an environment where diverse talent can thrive. (See our article on the Chief Coaching Officer for an alternative solution to this issue)
Given this backdrop, it is essential for organisations to refocus their hiring and leadership development strategies. Instead of relying on traditional methods of leadership cultivation, companies need to build and evaluate social skills among potential leaders systematically.
Current practices, such as rotating through various departments, geographical postings, or executive development programs, aren’t enough. Firms need to design a comprehensive approach to building social skills, even prioritising them over technical skills. High-potential leaders should be placed in roles that require extensive interaction with varied employee populations and external constituencies, and their performance should be closely monitored.
Assessing social skills calls for innovative methods beyond the traditional criteria of work history, technical qualifications, and career trajectory. New tools are needed to provide an objective basis for evaluating and comparing people’s abilities in this domain. While some progress is being made with the use of AI and custom tools for lower-level job seekers, there is a need for further innovation in top-level searches.
In conclusion, the role of the CEO is more multifaceted than ever. The modern world demands executives to possess exceptional social skills, including effective communication, empathetic interaction, and proactive inclusion. Companies need to recognise this change and adapt their leadership development programs accordingly to cultivate CEOs who can effectively lead in the 21st century.
In a rapidly evolving socio-economic landscape punctuated by significant disruptions such as the global pandemic, the concept of emotional intelligence, specifically empathy, has become increasingly relevant within professional environments. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is now viewed as a key leadership trait and an essential component of effective team dynamics.
Data from a series of international surveys conducted in recent years (Meechan et al., 2022 ; Holt, 2022) underscored the importance of empathy in the workplace. An overwhelming majority of respondents endorsed the idea that increasing empathy would contribute positively to societal improvement (EY, 2021). This perspective resonated with a significant segment of the European workforce, where empathy was deemed critical for employee satisfaction and retention (Chrousos, 2021). A UK study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD, 2021) showed a rising trend in companies investing in empathy and interpersonal skills development.
Impact of empathy
Empathetic individuals play an instrumental role in an organisation, fostering effective communication, nurturing relationships, and enhancing social cohesion. By gaining an understanding of their colleagues’ lives, they create an environment where people feel confident to share their ideas, leading to increased teamwork and innovation. Empathetic leaders can respond more effectively to individual communication styles, thus motivating productive contributions.
Implementation of empathy
However, the implementation of empathy within organisations has its challenges. Creating an organisational culture of empathy requires more than just superficial changes. It involves a shift in mindset at all levels of the organisation and a commitment to aligning company policies, structures, and procedures with empathetic values. Additionally, empathy is often wrongly perceived as a sign of weakness, which can be an impediment to its acceptance in the workplace. Overcoming such misconceptions and creating a supportive environment where empathy is valued and practised is crucial.
Empathy and gender
Research has shown a correlation between empathy and gender, with some studies suggesting that women might inherently possess more empathetic traits than men (Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). This does not imply that empathy is exclusive to women but rather that empathetic leadership styles could be more prevalent among women leaders. This observation can be used to encourage greater gender diversity in leadership roles, thus fostering a more empathetic organisational culture.
From an employee perspective, empathy in leadership is highly valued. Employees tend to feel more engaged and committed when they believe their leaders understand and care about their feelings and perspectives. This can increase job satisfaction, improve morale, and reduce employee turnover.
However, there is a fine line between empathy and over-involvement. Excessive empathy can lead to emotional exhaustion and blurred boundaries between professional and personal life (O’Connor, 2021). Thus, it is essential for organisations to strike a balance between fostering empathy and maintaining professional boundaries. The sustainability of empathy over time has also proved difficult in some sectors and needs to be managed accordingly (Yu, et al., 202).
Performance impact of empathy
The impact of empathy on performance is also worth examining. While empathy can improve interpersonal relationships and communication within a team, its direct impact on performance metrics may be more complex. An overemphasis on empathy could distract from performance-oriented goals if not carefully managed.
In conclusion, empathy is far from being merely a “woke” concept, as some critics portray it. It holds significant potential for enhancing the workplace environment, promoting effective communication, and improving job satisfaction and retention. However, a balanced approach is necessary. Organisations should encourage and cultivate empathy but must also be aware of its potential pitfalls and educate their employees accordingly. As with any other organisational strategy, the key to successful implementation lies in the delicate balance between empathy and performance.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). The empathy quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism
Holt, S. (2022). Nurturing empathy. Innovative Leadership in Times of Compelling Changes: Strategies, Reflections and Tools, 117-131.
Meechan, F., McCann, L., & Cooper, C. (2022). The importance of empathy and compassion in organizations: why there is so little, and why we need more. In Research Handbook on the Sociology of Organizations (pp. 145-163). Edward Elgar Publishing.
Yu, Chou Chuen, Laurence Tan, Mai Khanh Le, Bernard Tang, Sok Ying Liaw, Tanya Tierney, Yun Ying Ho et al. “The development of empathy in the healthcare setting: a qualitative approach.” BMC Medical Education 22, no. 1 (2022): 1-13.
What if we approached mental fitness the way we approach physical fitness? That is to say, conceiving it as necessary and making it a priority. What would that regime entail if it were a daily act, and what might be gained as a result? What if we resituated emotionality in our profession as a catalytic force, not a disruptive one? Thus, shifting the workplace from a rational environment to a place of outward feeling and engagement. The answer to all these questions is related to the development and implementation of emotional intelligence.
The science of social dynamics
Emotional intelligence is ‘the ability to understand and manage emotions’ (Cavaness et al., 2020). Crucially, within this definition, knowledge and application are linked by awareness. Being self-aware and aware of others’ emotions are similar, albeit different skills. Both are equally valuable, and today’s leaders should use each to their advantage to manage the people they are in charge of and the projects they are tasked with completing.
Research affirms that emotional intelligence and personality are critical factors for achieving organisational goals and adapting to an ever-changing professional landscape (Eby et al., 2000). This outlook is self-explanatory as well as scientific. Emotional intelligence, or emotional quotient (EQ), has been a source of theory since the 1920s. However, it was only in the 1990s that we came to have a broader awareness of it through the work of psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who first coined the term. Notably, Daniel Goleman (1995) established a framework for its analysis and posited that EQ is, in fact, a better predictor of success than IQ, which had been the dominant metric of excellence. In truth, standardised tests cannot accurately measure any form of intelligence; therefore, EQ or IQ scores are arbitrary.
Nevertheless, the significance of Goleman’s postulation is that we need emotional intelligence to succeed. He is certainly not alone in reaching this conclusion. For instance, Forbes magazine has written about the topic no less than twenty-seven times since 2019 and deduces, again and again, ‘emotional intelligence has become a prized trait in leadership’ (Santilli, 2022). Seeking marginal gains from every angle, many companies now enlist psychologists to create ‘competency models’ to identify, train and promote employees.
Conducting later research for the Harvard Business Review, Goleman studied two hundred large global companies to decipher the role of emotional intelligence in the workplace. His data suggested that those traits traditionally associated with leadership—e.g., mental intelligence, determination, fortitude, and vision—were insufficient diagnostics of success. He concluded, ‘To be sure, intellect was a driver of outstanding performance. Cognitive skills such as big-picture thinking and long-term vision were particularly important. But when I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others for jobs at all levels’ (Goleman, 2004).
Signs of emotional intelligence
Granting that emotional intelligence is ostensibly incalculable or more substantive than measurable. Some tests can give us a baseline for where we stand. The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) is one example and can be taken online by answering prompts for around 30–40 minutes. For some, this may be a useful starting point.
More fundamentally, a point of sincere reflection is the primary means to begin. The commitment to do so, and follow through with filling your gaps, will positively impact your professional and personal life. Some characteristics that may reiterate one’s emotional intelligence include (but are not limited to):
- Knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses and being able to identify and express emotions.
- The ability to regulate and utilise a full spectrum of emotions.
- Self-motivation to achieve goals while filtering out negative self-talk.
- Having empathy for and comprehending other peoples’ emotions.
- Effective communication skills.
- Being curious about the feelings of others.
- Managing relationships and responding appropriately to conflicts.
Goleman’s framework for evaluating emotional intelligence lists the first five bullet points as core metrics that reveal a truer EQ. The last two are subsidiary qualities. It can be argued that the others constitute investment and follow-through and gesture to a sense of emotional credibility that is indispensable.
Maybe the most surprising finding in Goleman’s research is the value of emotional intelligence at the highest leadership levels. In a subset of the data, he compared star performers against average ones within senior leadership positions. The numbers revealed that almost 90% of the differences between those who stood out and those who did not trace back to deficiencies in emotional intelligence and not cognitive abilities. Hence, not only is emotional intelligence relevant to performance at all levels of the corporate sphere—it is one of the most significant ways that strong leaders distinguish themselves.
Social awareness and authenticity
Embedded into any serious discussion of emotional intelligence is a secondary conversation regarding social awareness, which is ‘your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on with them’ (Bradberry et al., 2009). In practice, it is the ability to read people around you and respond with empathy. Accordingly, it combines components of Goleman’s framework but emphasises the relationship of the self to others; and, critically, deprioritises the first and prioritises the latter.
Some industry leaders profess social awareness is the most significant facet of emotional intelligence (Golis, 2012). It is invaluable insofar as it is instrumental toward the ability to positively effect change in the emotional drives of others, leading to improved performance. Others avow that social awareness contributes to authentic leadership and is communicated through:
- Intonation allows us to reconcile the grey spaces that exist in digital communication. Through tone, we leave little room for interpretation and can project confidence in and consideration for others.
- Checking in may seem like inconsequential small talk, but connecting with your team displays concern, if not empathy, and potentially builds trust in cooperative situations.
- Active listening means pausing the monologue in your head to listen to others with your body and brain. If your mind is preoccupied with constructing your reply, you cannot hear what is being said. Nor are you able to pick up minor verbal signals or diction that may reveal concerns, doubts, or any emotions beneath the surface.
These skills may seem basic, and they are, yet many of us fail to realise how we may appear or come across to those around us. In this regard, empathy is not performative. Paying greater attention to these granular social details provides the foundation for communicating genuine concern for others.
At the top, social awareness relative to emotional intelligence equates to efficacy. That is a statistical and intuitive fact. Those with social awareness are likely to have the other fundamental skills that make up a strong EQ and will be more able to execute essential leadership tasks such as dissecting groups and interpreting how individual personalities work (or do not work) together, delivering feedback and conveying personal investment to those who play a part in determining whether you succeed as a leader. Remember, their success is your own. In this regard, social awareness is ultimately relationship management.
The importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace—and especially in leadership circles—cannot be overemphasised. It is vital. Without it, the power of cognitive intelligence risks dilution if you are less able to communicate your ideas and coordinate their execution. In daily social situations, it is everything. ‘A high IQ, coupled with high EQ, is an optimum combination for individuals to excel in meeting organisational objectives’ (Cavaness et al., 2020).
Transformational leaders are credited with high emotional intelligence, while those who do not display it perform worse on evaluative metrics. Although EQ’s impact on personality and leadership is widely accepted, it is less certain whether emotional intelligence can be learned or is innate. Scientific research points to a genetic component involved; be that as it may, psychological development research contends that nurture is a factor. Ergo, emotional intelligence is indeed something that can be acquired with time and effort. What is more, it may even increase with age.
As an intangible, emotional intelligence encompasses communication skills, conflict resolution, and successful collaboration. As a tool, it provides a range of methods through which we can better manage our behaviour and the behaviour of others. It should inform our words and decisions and help us to bridge across disparate personalities to foster a collective social climate. The benefits are readily apparent, and relatedly, harmonious workplaces notably have fewer conflicts and decreased absenteeism (ibid).
Building relationships across an organisation is intrinsic to success, but knowing how to do this is increasingly difficult within a corporate landscape that is continually changing due to globalisation, diversity, generational shits, innovation and evolution. Against this backdrop, the interpersonal skills associated with emotional intelligence are not new age. They are a necessity.
Reflecting on his observations, Goleman (2004) surmises that ‘to enhance emotional intelligence, organisations must […] help people break old behavioural habits and establish new ones. That not only takes much more time than conventional training programs, it also requires an individualised approach.’ EQ cannot be learned or boosted in seminars or training courses alone. It is experiential and requires a personal commitment. The power, then, is well and truly within us.
Bradberry, T., Greaves, J., & Lencioni, P. M. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (31565th edition). TalentSmart.
Cavaness, Keith, et al. “Linking Emotional Intelligence to Successful Health Care Leadership: The Five of Personality.” Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery, vol. 33, no. 4, July 2020, pp. 195–203, https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0040-1709435.
Eby, Lillian T., et al. “Perceptions of Organizational Readiness for Change: Factors Related to Employees’ Reactions to the Implementation of Team-Based Selling.” Human Relations, vol. 53, no. 3, Mar. 2000, pp. 419–42, https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726700533006.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 10th Anniversary edition, Random House Publishing Group, 1995.
Goleman, Daniel (2004, January 1). What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader
Golis, Christopher. (n.d.). Emotional Intelligence For Managers.
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Santilli, M. (2022, March 24). What Is Emotional Intelligence? Forbes Health. https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/what-is-emotional-intelligence/
Ugwu, L. I. (2011). Emotional and general intelligence: Characteristics, meeting points and missing links. Asian Social Science, 7(7), 137-140.