Emotional intelligence

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brian Chellgren
  • 21st Mission Support Group

An often overlooked indicator of leadership success can be found in one’s level of emotional intelligence. While at the Air War College last year, I was able to participate in lessons on emotional intelligence as one of our core courses of study. These lessons were a useful look at how anyone can take their leadership skills to the next level. The study and assessments certainly forced me to look at my own leadership style in a new light, and as a result, I am now convinced that emotional intelligence is a vital aspect of leadership because it enables trust building, team work, and the ability to positively influence others.

A simple definition of emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions and those of the people around you. This is important in leadership because our emotions have a considerable impact on how we interact with people on our teams. 

How many times have you dealt with a supervisor who was always in a bad mood or was so consumed with themselves that they struggled to motivate their team at all? The ability to recognize and manage our own emotions (especially around other people) can have a significant impact on our ability to build trust with those we interact with. The idea is not to hide your emotions, but it is to be able to recognize and understand how they affect others. Leaders with high emotional intelligence levels find ways to respect their emotions and those of others, be authentic and have a positive impact on others.

Some believe emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success in leadership than IQ because the ability to connect with people is vital to building an atmosphere of trust. A leader who is first self-aware of their own strengths and challenges will then be able to add others to their team to complement their skills and compensate for their deficiencies in order to ensure the success of the team. 

I have been fortunate enough to work for some amazing leaders during my career who have truly inspired me. Common traits that each one of these people held were directly related to their levels of Emotional Intelligence. For example, they maintained a positive attitude, actively listened to others, rarely lost their cool, cared about the people around them, displayed empathy and compassion, and never gave the impression that they thought themselves better than anybody else (regardless of rank). I now realize these leaders were emotionally intelligent leaders who understood and managed themselves, empathized with others, and collaborated well with their teams. Leaders with these traits easily inspire the people around them, are able to create effective teams, and easily earn trust from others because their actions are genuine and not just for show or self-promotion. 

Most of us can identify when someone is going through the motions of leadership without being genuine, and those leaders certainly struggle to inspire anyone. If you make the conscious decision to be more self-aware of your emotions and how they impact other people, your social skills will naturally become stronger. More often than not, this leads to being a more influential person, creating deeper bonds with those around you, and becoming a more inspirational leader.

A few tips we were taught at the AWC for improving our emotional intelligence included making a conscious effort to be more aware of non-verbal communication like facial expressions, body language, and gestures in ourselves and others. We learned the importance of recognizing our own signals of rising stress levels so we can attempt to reduce stress as much as possible. It was emphasized that our levels of stress directly impact those we are trying to lead. It is also important to work hard at maintaining a positive attitude, practice effective conflict resolution by choosing words carefully, keep potentially heated conversations centered on the facts, and be ready to forgive quickly and find a way to peacefully end conflict. Finally, it is essential to stay connected to your emotions and strive to not only understand their origins but how they may be perceived by those around you.

For anyone looking for ways to expand on their leadership skills, I recommend looking into emotional intelligence assessments and literature to see if it is a topic that resonates with you. I found it helpful to first analyze my own skills and then add the emotional intelligence model in an effort to improve my own leadership abilities.