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One Must-Have Skill for Today’s Leaders

One Must-Have Skill for Todays Leaders

“Leadership is the art of accomplishing goals through other people”  -Anonymous


By leadership we refer to the activity of leading a group of people or an organization or the ability to do this. Leadership involves establishing a clear vision; sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly; providing the information, knowledge and methods to realize that vision, and coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders. So much has been written and talked about the qualities that a leader should be made of. However, there’s no unanimity as such about one quality that’s a must for leaders to succeed and take the organization forward in its drive towards excellence. And more so in a contemporary world of today with severe competition round.

Social Intelligence: One Must-Have Skill for Today’s Leaders

Daniel Goleman has written with his colleague Richard Boyatzis, that technical skills and self-mastery alone allow you to be an outstanding individual contributor. But to lead, you need an additional interpersonal skill set: you’ve got to listen, communicate, persuade, and collaborate. In the book “Making Yourself Indispensable,” John H. Zenger, Joseph R. Folkman and Scott E. Edinger, argue that a leader’s competencies are synergistic. The more different competencies a leader display at strength, the greater his/her business results. But some competencies matter more than others, especially at the higher levels of leadership. For example, technical expertise matters far less than the art of influence for C-level executives. In other words, you can hire people with great technical skills, but then you’ve got to motivate, guide and inspire them.

One can be a brilliant innovator, problem-solver or strategic thinker, but if he can’t inspire and motivate, build relationships or communicate powerfully, those talents will get him nowhere. While Zenger and colleagues call them “interpersonal skills” Daniel Goleman refers to them as social intelligence, i.e., the secret sauce in top-performing leadership. The notion that effective leadership is about having powerful social circuits in the brain has prompted Daniel Goleman & Richard E. Boyatzis (Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, HBR,Sep,2008) to extend their concept of emotional intelligence, which they had grounded in theories of individual psychology. They found that, to get the best out of their people, leaders should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams. For assessing leadership they used a more relationship-based construct called social intelligence and defined it as a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits (and related endocrine systems) that inspire others to be effective.

How One Can spot this skill set?

We should watch carefully to see if he/she talks to everyone at the party or a dinner, not just the people who might be helpful to him/her. Does the candidate ask about the other person or engage in a self-centered monologue? At the same time, does he/she talk about himself/herself in a natural way? At the end of the conversation, you should feel you know the person, not just the social self he/she tries to project. The only way to develop your social circuitry effectively is to undertake the hard work of changing your behavior (see “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance, Dec 2001 HBR).

Social intelligence is very important especially in crisis situations. For instance, at a large Canadian provincial health care system, which had gone through drastic cutbacks and reorganization, it has been found that workers whose leaders scored low in social intelligence reported unmet patient-care needs at three times the rate (emotional exhaustion at four times the rate) of their colleagues who had supportive leaders. At the same time, nurses with socially intelligent bosses reported good emotional health and an enhanced ability to care for their patients, even during the stress of layoffs.


In 1950s, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott advocated play as a way to accelerate children’s learning. Similarly, British physician and psychoanalyst John Bowlby emphasized the importance of providing a secure base from which people can strive toward goals, take risks without unwarranted fear, and freely explore new possibilities. But hard-bitten executives may consider it absurdly indulgent and financially untenable to concern themselves with such theories in a world where bottom-line performance is the yardstick of success. But as rightly put by Daniel Goleman, with new ways of scientifically measuring human development start to bear out these theories and link them directly with performance, the so-called soft side of business begins to look not so soft after all.

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