2 Must-Have Skills for Leaders

There’s the one you know (critical thinking) and the one everyone forgets (emotional intelligence).

By Paul Glover

It’s not surprising that being a leader today requires different skills than in the past. The workplace has undergone tremendous changes, including increased global competition, a seismic shift in technology that resulted in a knowledge economy, and an employee population more diverse than ever before.

Twenty years ago, we didn’t even think in terms of heads of departments as being “leaders.” They were managers. Their job was to keep things—meaning processes and people—running smoothly. They tackled problems into submission to make sure everything was done properly. And, if they needed to stand over you to do it, well, that was the cost of getting the job done right.

But it’s different now, both in the processes and the people. Instead of sticking to the same conventional approach, companies constantly are searching for ways to improve the process to save time, money, and effort. Customers are more demanding than ever and have little patience for products and services that don’t measure up. Employees have their own demands. They want job satisfaction, a sense of belonging, motivation, and appreciation. They want their employers to see them as individuals and invest in them—and if that doesn’t happen, employees, particularly the younger ones, have no qualms about jumping over to the competition.

Understanding Emotions

What skills, then, does a leader need to effectively move a department or group of employees forward, given these constantly changing demands? The first skill is critical thinking. It’s not a newly recognized skill. In fact, managers and leaders have used it for many years with good results. It provided a structure for work. Critical thinkers would establish the process or procedure, which would be followed by all employees. This was particularly effective for repetitive work, such as on an assembly line.

Now, however, as companies seek to differentiate themselves, they find that one set process or procedure doesn’t do the job. The rules need to be more fluid, allowing individual employees to make decisions based on current circumstances. This ability helps companies gain the flexibility to make customers feel special and unique. Employees need to have the autonomy to act, but more importantly, they need to care. They have to feel invested enough in their work that they feel compelled to step up and correct a problem, not because they fear reprisals if they don’t, but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

To create an environment where employees feel that desire, leaders must have and exhibit a second essential skill: emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand your own emotions—why they occur and how they affect others—as well as having a social awareness of others and being able to manage relationships.

Although critical thinking often is taught in schools, emotional intelligence often is ignored. People won’t get through college or get an MBA without learning critical thinking. But in jobs, we expect better communication, better decision-making, and better teamwork based on the elements of emotional intelligence. And that is a skill set that has not been taught.

I found this to be true as a young trial lawyer right out of law school, where I was taught critical thinking skills but not emotional intelligence. But guess what? In front of a jury, emotional intelligence matters because the jury is not just interested in the facts; they are interested in the story. The story is the emotional intelligence. Successful trial lawyers need to establish a connection with the jury—they need to establish empathy—and if they can’t do that, the facts seldom are going to win the day.


EI doesn’t have to be complicated. I tell people the easiest thing to do every morning when you greet someone is to smile; if you do that, they immediately smile back. It’s involuntary. You immediately have established an emotional intelligence connection.

In performance reviews, EI can be used to create a new perspective of the employee’s work. Instead of creating a negative process, a performance improvement meeting can set the stage for progress. This new process encourages interaction and energy instead of negativity.

EI is particularly effective in conflict management, where the focus goes from you vs. me to us vs. the problem.

Even if EI is not taught initially, it can be learned. It comes easier to some than to others, but anyone can understand its components. People who don’t do this type of self-examination on a regular basis will find it difficult to become effective leaders.

Critical thinking and emotional intelligence are both essential skills for today’s leaders to have. Used together, they can create an environment where employees understand the processes and procedures, know when to go beyond the written rules to do the right thing, and care enough to take that action.

A “recovering employment attorney,” Paul Glover is a business and executive coach, author of “WorkQuake, 76 ways to thrive in the Knowledge Economy,” and a blogger for FastCompany.com. He can be contacted at 630.913.6555 and paulglover@workquake.com. Sign up for “Paul’s Point of the Day” or find out how to schedule a session with the WorkQuake Coach at www.workquake.com.

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