The Leadership Secret to Supercharging Your Team

UPDATED: August 7, 2014
PUBLISHED: August 7, 2014

So you were first in your MBA class and have the smarts of Jeff Bezos and Marissa Mayer combined. If you want the brightest possible future in business, you may still have a few things to learn.

“During our school years, there’s this fallacious sense that only how well you do academically is going to matter in your life,” says Daniel Goleman, one of the country’s best-known writers and researchers on the subject of leadership. “Once you get into a business, particularly if you’re an entrepreneur, you know that’s nonsense. Lots of people with straight A’s wind up working for people who were B students. I once spoke to a roomful of CEOs; I asked, ‘How many of you were magna cum laude, had the highest grades in your class when you graduated?’ Out of 200 or 300 people, it was about 1 percent. I said, ‘There goes the assumption that how well you do in school determines how well you do in business.’ ”

Then what does determine how well you do? Goleman has spent three decades finding out. He’s written or co-written more than 20 books, including the best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ; Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence; and 2014’s What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters. Through a compelling blend of anecdote and scientific analysis, he has made the case that what sets top businesspeople apart is “EI” (emotional intelligence), which he describes as the sum of self-awareness, self-management, empathy and social skills.

Related: ‘Leadership Leads You to Be Overwhelmed. That’s Just a Fact of Life’

“A higher proportion of the competencies that distinguish the stars among leaders turn out to be based on emotional intelligence rather than IQ-type abilities, by far—like 80 or 90 percent of them,” says Goleman, speaking from his office in the Berkshires. He reached this conclusion after studying data from nearly 200 organizations, large and small, that compared their best performers with run-of-the-mill ones.

“That doesn’t mean IQ is irrelevant,” Goleman adds. “IQ is important in sorting people into jobs they can do. But once you’re in the game, you’re competing with people as smart as you, and you’re competing with how well you can manage yourself and lead other people.”

Luckily, he says, emotional and social abilities aren’t fixed at birth. With diligence, you can “rewire your brain” to push your EI to genius levels.

Take Stock

To figure out which aspects of emotional intelligence need work, Goleman’s What Makes a Leader suggests “imagining your ideal self” five to 10 years from now. What would your typical day be like? Who would be there? What sorts of relationships would you have with them? Consider your “deepest values and loftiest dreams.” How would these be part of your daily life?

Next: Learn how your ideal self compares with your current self. Goleman recommends answering such questions as:

• Are you usually aware of your feelings and why you feel that way?
• Can you manage your distressing emotions well—e.g., recover quickly when you get upset or stressed?
• Can you usually sense the feelings of the people you interact with and understand their way of seeing things?
• Do you have a knack for persuasion and using your influence effectively?

Don’t just introspect. You also need to find out how you make others feel and how they see your leadership style. This can be tough to glean, of course, especially from employees. One possibility is to solicit anonymous written critiques. You also might form or join a support group in which peers who know you well (perhaps outside your company) give you frank opinions about your behavior.

Then there’s “360-degree Feedback,” a process Goleman helped develop. In 360, a certified coach would have bosses, peers, direct reports, clients and sometimes family members critique your “social intelligence”—the empathy and social-skills part of EI. Among other things, they would consider your sensitivity to people’s needs, your mentoring style, your interest in others’ opinions and your tendency (or lack thereof) to bring out the best in people.

Once the feedback rolls in, resist the temptation to dwell only on your EI shortcomings. It’s “just as important, maybe even more so, to understand your strengths,” Goleman writes. He finds, for instance, that most entrepreneurs are resilient and innovative. “Knowing where your real self overlaps with your ideal self will give you the positive energy you need to move forward to the next step in the process—bridging the gaps.”

Praise, Pay Attention, Practice

If you’re like many entrepreneurs, one EI gap will involve your ears. “Poor listening is the common cold of leadership today,” Goleman says. “Very often we want people to keep it short, which often means we cut them off and take over the conversation to get them out the door quickly. But if you want to be a good listener, then you have to actually take time to hear what they have to say and be sure you understand them.”

Another common shortcoming: being a Debbie Downer. “This is a big problem for entrepreneurs,” Goleman says. “Entrepreneurs are typically people who drive themselves harder than most others and who have a very high internal standard of excellence. They do things very well, and that can become a pattern of perfectionism, where you tend to look only at what was wrong rather than what was right. The problem in leadership is when people who have driven themselves to the top that way become managers or leaders and use the same lens with their direct reports. If they give only failing grades, not passing grades, that demotivates people.”

To overcome such weaknesses, Goleman proposes drawing up an action plan. (Ideally, he says, do this with help from a 360 coach or other business coach who can monitor your progress. “Anybody who is at the top in sports or entertainment typically has a coach throughout their career”—so why should it be different in business?) Pick a short list of changes you can make, both inside and outside the office, that target each of your goals.

Related: Rohn: 7 Personality Traits of a Great Leader

To boost your listening skills, you might plan to meet each of your colleagues or employees for lunch, away from office distractions. You might also volunteer at a crisis center, where understanding the needs of others is crucial. At home, for starters, try not to take over conversations and “relax into just listening, being sure you understand before responding,” Goleman says.

To become less critical, constantly remind yourself to notice what others in your life do well. “Praise them; don’t just attack them,” he says. “And make it genuine—our radar for phoniness is just too good.” Here, too, talking to employees away from the office is helpful. “One powerful conversation with the person away from work—about what they want from their life, their career and this job—will give you sound grounds for giving them feedback in terms of where they want to go: ‘When you did X, it didn’t help you toward Y. Perhaps you could work on Z, and here’s how I can help you,’” Goleman advises. “That personal angle builds great loyalty, and a sense that you care about people.”

Above all, no matter which aspect of EI that you’re attempting to build, you should work at it daily and consciously. “The neurology of habit tells us you need to become mindful of the old way, what you’re trying to change, intentionally replace it with the new habit and do it at every naturally occurring opportunity,” Goleman says. “It might be with your kids; it might be with your spouse; it might be with your direct reports.

“All of those are learning opportunities, and you’re trying to build new circuitry in the brain—a foundation of the better way. If you practice three to six months in that way, we find that one day you’ll do the new thing in the right way, at the right time, without having to think about it. It’ll become spontaneous, which means your brain has moved it from the prefrontal area, where it has to make an effort, to the basal ganglia, where all of our habits live.”

Open Your Eyes and Close Them

As you continue your daily practice, Goleman says, you can speed your progress by shadowing leaders known for their empathy and social skills: Observe how they stay cool under stress and adapt. See how they strike a balance between listening and effectively communicating; how—in a group—they help move everyone toward a joint goal, acknowledge others’ contributions and encourage everyone’s strengths.

Because of brain chemistry, you may start emulating these role models before you know it. Maybe you’ve heard of mirror neurons—these fire not just when we do something, but when we see others do the same thing. Many scientists think mirror neurons help us understand each other and learn skills. “Mirror neurons have particular importance in organizations, because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds,” Goleman writes in What Makes a Leader.

Related: 15 Traits of a Terrible Leader

Similarly, even imaginary feelings and deeds could raise your EI. When you picture a happy scenario in detail—listening well to an employee, say, and working with her to solve a problem—it can “fire the same brain cells actually involved in doing that activity,” Goleman writes. “The new brain circuitry appears to go through its paces, strengthening connections, even when we merely repeat the sequence in our minds.”

Speaking of repetition, Goleman believes another key to EI is daily meditation: Focus on your breath and bring your mind back to it when it wanders, for example, and scan your body for points of tension, then relax them.

“Essentially it’s training attentional skill,” he says. “I would try to do at least 10 minutes a day of meditation.” One of Goleman’s favorite things about mindfulness is that you take it everywhere. Say one of your EI shortcomings is anxiety or a quick temper. “When you’re starting to get really mad or overly worried, mindfulness can help you notice that’s happening to you. You can short-circuit the episode.”

Meditation is vital over the long haul, too, Goleman finds: “It’s fundamental, the ability to stay focused on the task at hand or keep going to reach your long-term goal…. Every successful entrepreneur needs this ability.” Small wonder, then, that increasingly, companies such as Google and The Huffington Post are offering meditation sessions for employees. “Not only do you, the leader, need mindfulness, but so does everyone you depend on to get to your goal.”

Savor Face Time

Now more than ever, our EI is under attack. Technology fragments the attention we pay each other with every text-message beep and social-media alert. A company may have employees spread across several offices or even time zones, making it harder to feel empathy or use your social skills to advantage.

Don’t give up, Goleman urges.

If your business involves telecommuters or far-flung offices, aim for informal get-togethers once or twice a year—or at least, frequent Skyping and the like. “The brain was built for face-to-face interaction; that’s always best,” Goleman says. “The social brain is designed to engage the brain of the person you’re with and read visual signals very, very quickly and tell us what to do next.”

Simply being in the same room as someone else may not be enough, as proved by couples in restaurants who seem to be dating their iPhones instead of each other. “Notice when you’re being pulled away from a person by a thing,” Goleman says, meaning a phone, or some other tool. “And then ask yourself, Can I afford this? Is this the best thing to do now? You may say, Yeah, this is a really important text; I can look at it. Or you may say, I care more about the person in front of me.” With luck, caring about those in front of you will generally prevail.

“Chemistry happens when we pay full attention to each other—never when we’re distracted. This is true in romantic relationships and in business relationships.”

So whenever possible, let that call go to voicemail. Close that chat window. And start spreading your emotional intelligence, one rich, face-to-face moment at a time.

Related: How to Figure Out What Kind of Leader You’ll Be