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By Douglas B. Richardson

Hypatia Society

Senior executives often describe their personal style in forceful terms: "What you see is what you get," "I'm not gonna change the way I behave just to make other people comfortable," "You don't see me indulging in all that political game-playing," or "This is one leopard that won't change its spots."

Their declarations are meant to convey integrity and a commitment to the truth. Instead, they reveal an inflexible or insensitive leadership style that's out of step with the times.

The formula for executive success has traditionally been exceptional cognitive intelligence and expertise coupled with a steely personal style. Successful leaders were calm, cool and consistent. They were rational, dispassionate, analytical and objective. They didn't go in for "situation ethics." They didn't pander, bootlick, vacillate, go with the flow or act like chameleons to build rapport. Above all, they didn't display emotion, sensitivity, vulnerability or other touchy-feely stuff.

But IQ and expertise are no longer considered the best predictors of leadership effectiveness and success. Emotional intelligence or "EQ" -- the ability to understand and manage ourselves and our interpersonal relationships skillfully -- is considered a better leadership differentiator than raw smarts or technical virtuosity.

Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence" (Bantam, 1995) and "Working with Emotional Intelligence" (Bantam, 1998), has emerged as an authority in EQ. He makes the case that sensitivity to emotional states (one's own and others') and effective interpersonal skills are the most essential leadership "competencies." Philadelphia executive coach Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn has coined a catchy acronym for the four major EQ competencies: "SO SMART." It stands for:

  1. Self Observation/awareness;
  2. Self Management;
  3. Attunement (to other peoples' emotions); and
  4. Relationship Traction (that is, interpersonal and social skills).

Combining Head and Heart

EQ doesn't mean being or acting more emotional. It describes the ability to combine rational and subjective factors -- head and heart, thinking and feeling -- in our perceptions and actions.

A variety of personality inventories, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DISC, FIRO-B and Birkman, have shown that while growing up, each of us develops a stable and comfortable "operative style." This "default setting" serves as the set of lenses and filters through which we perceive reality and frame our actions. By and large, one's operative style doesn't change much after the early 20s; it's rare for anyone to undergo a spontaneous personality transplant in mid-life or mid-career.

Mr. Goleman's research shows that these operative styles tend to coalesce into six fundamental leadership styles:

  • Coercive ("Do what I say"),
  • Authoritative ("I'll show you the way to the promised land"),
  • Democratic ("What do y'all think?"),
  • Coaching ("Here, try it this way"),
  • Affiliative ("We're all in this together") and
  • Pace setting ("Just watch how I do it").

Many leaders tend to lock into the leadership style that's most comfortable for them. They transmit this as: "This is the way I do things."

No longer is this monolithic approach considered the best recipe for success. Effective leaders can adapt to fit varying situations and the personal needs and styles of others. They often blend aspects of four or five different leadership styles. "Many studies have shown that the more styles a leader exhibits, the better," says Mr. Goleman. "Such leaders don't mechanically match their style to fit a checklist of situations -- they are far more fluidThey are exquisitely sensitive to the impact they are having on others and seamlessly adjust their style to get the best results."

Make a Style Change

EQ advocates believe that flexibility and fluidity can be learned, with a couple of caveats. First, like learning to throw a split-fingered fastball or mastering conversational Chinese, such self-development can be hard work. It's not simply a matter of deciding to read some books on personality type and adopt a new leadership persona. Such growth requires a constant -- and often uncomfortable -- mindfulness. It requires setting clear developmental goals, conscious focus and practice and the ability to solicit and accept feedback. New styles and patterns don't take hold until their usefulness and comfort feel greater than the prior style they replace. Relapses are common, frustration frequent.

Second, there are limits to how much change is possible. While anyone can learn to be more highly attuned to others' styles and emotions, one can't necessarily realign deep-seated behavioral habits and attitudes without seeming artificial, superficial or self-conscious. Autonomous people can appear decidedly uncomfortable if asked to join and collaborate. Visionaries can develop severe mind-cramp if asked to sweat the details of implementation. Stability or security-oriented people can go bonkers if thrown into constant chaos. It's hard for warm people to appear cold and for cold people to appear warm -- perhaps not for 15 minutes, but probably for 15 days and certainly for 15 months.

This doesn't mean we can't communicate understanding and acceptance of others' needs and styles. As the SO SMART acronym suggests, EQ builds on two distinct types of competencies: 1) awareness of our own and others' emotional states (which some people call empathy and others call sympathy); and 2) managing our interpersonal behaviors. Even if we can't orchestrate wholesale revisions in our behaviors, it's always possible to communicate awareness of how our "default settings" may affect others. Displaying such self-awareness can reduce all kinds of interpersonal disconnects.

An Engineer Loosens Up

Consider a brilliant Norwegian-born systems engineer. As part of an executive-coaching program, he received candid "360" feedback from superiors, peers and subordinates. He learned that his team presentations were "catastrophically boring" and his incredible thoroughness was regarded as "fussy," "obstructive," "risk-averse," "deal-breaking," and even "arrogant." Try as he might, the engineer couldn't deliver a punch line or cut to the chase. Rather than announce his decisions as team leader, he had to explain why he reached them. Feeling his opinionated mind was always made up, team members stopped trying to offer information or they quit.

After planning and rehearsing with his coach, the engineer surprised staffers at a meeting one day:

I have become aware that there are times when my natural, hyper-rational style is screwing us all up. I can see that my tendency to explain everything, elaborate on details, review all contingencies and explain all aspects of my decision-making process can make my presentations drag on and put people to sleep.

I guess this makes me seem more cautious and less excited about a project than I really am. I realize I am very tightly wrapped. Given my upbringing, I probably never will seem as spontaneous and upbeat as some of you. On the basis of my style, some of you justifiably -- but incorrectly -- feel that I think I'm smarter than or superior to you, that I patronize you. Some people have a speech impediment. I guess I have a style impediment.

Look, friends, this isn't my intention. But my intentions aren't the point. Your actions are driven by how you perceive my style. I want you to know that when I fall into those behaviors, it's OK for you to let me know the effect it's having on you. Giving me feedback about my quirks isn't going to get you in trouble. So even if I do have a hard time loosening up, at least we can try to ensure your point of view is heard.

This speech didn't changes things overnight. But at the following staff meeting, he appeared in a T-shirt with a photo of a mummy and the words, "Tightly Wrapped." That broke some ice. The next week, he wore a T-shirt that said, "Garrison Keillor Understands Me." The third week's T-shirt said, "Py Yiminy, dat's some spicey meatball!"

Subsequent coaching taught him to gauge colleagues' reactions, often lightly: "Have I beaten this horse to death yet?" "Anybody want some more detail?" "Wait! Wait! I just felt a flicker of emotion for a second!" His delivery wasn't as colorful as Robin Williams's but his team saw he was trying and began to try harder, too.

Not incidentally, and without realizing it, the engineer began to listen better. He appeared more comfortable in his own skin. Six months later, when a new hire asked a team member what working for him was like, she was told, "What you see isn't what you get. He's real different once you get to know him. He says he's got a 'style impediment,' but don't feel you have to back off. He likes it when you push back. In fact, he's the best manager I ever had."

A harmless hilarity and a buoyant cheerfulness are not infrequent concomitants of genius; and we are never more deceived than when we mistake gravity for greatness, solemnity for science, and pomposity for erudition. 
~Charles Caleb Colton