I was visiting with a leader I had respected from a distance for some time. As we talked, he kept looking at his watch and glancing around at other people. He would grunt a few responses and then glance down at his watch or look around again, making eye contact with someone walking by or nodding his head in acknowledgement to them.
It didn’t take me long to realize this person was not engaged at all with me. It felt not just disappointing but deeply off-putting–like I didn’t count or wasn’t important enough to him to pay targeted attention to.
Needless to say, my respect for him plummeted.
This situation illustrates what is fast being seen among leadership experts as the most important quality of effective leaders.
Believe it or not, what determines a person’s success potential as a leader isn’t as much about competence, specific skill sets, or even knowledge–though those are certainly important elements. The most significant factor by far is what is labeled as “social intelligence.”
What is Social Intelligence?
Social intelligence is about specific interpersonal skills–the ability to listen, communicate, persuade, and collaborate effectively to the degree that people believe you care about them as human beings, that you are trustworthy, and that you are willing to pay attention to their needs and the needs of others in tangible ways.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, effective leaders aren’t always the most charismatic, aggressive, Type A, authoritative, and self assured. They don’t always have to have their own way. They don’t always project that they know more than everyone around them. They don’t have to win all the time.
Rather, social intelligence requires an authentic humility that empowers others to be their best, even as the leader steps into her best. Effective leaders have a world view that believes in and operates within a win-win perspective.
Why is Social Intelligence So Important?
Here’s the way Daniel Goleman, the “dean” of emotional intelligence, describes the significance of this quality:
You can be the most brilliant innovator, problem-solver or strategic thinker, but if you can’t inspire and motivate, build relationships or communicate powerfully, those talents will get you nowhere. What Zenger and colleagues call the “interpersonal skills” — and what I call social intelligence — are the secret sauce in top-performing leadership.
Lacking social intelligence, no other combination of competences is likely to get much traction. Along with whatever other strengths they may have, the must-have is social intelligence.
Four Ways to Evaluate Your Social Intelligence
First, do you listen to people more than you talk at them? Next time you’re in a conversation with someone, intentionally observe your interacting patterns: what percentages of time are you listening and talking? You should be tilting the percentage toward listening.
When you’re listening, are you making eye contact? Are you focused on the person in front of you? Or are you distracted–by either other people or events taking place or even by your internal thoughts, trying to formulate your next monologue or response to the person?
Second, are you communicating clearly? Are you wording things in a way that the other person understands what you’re intending? Do you know what you want and are you asking for it in clear and unmistakable ways? Or do you hint around or make passive-aggressive statements?
Do you always have to have the last word? Do you engage in the “I can one-up your story with my story” style? Both of these approaches tend toward basically engaging in monologues–two people talking past each other rather than with each other.
Three, are you persuasive and inspiring? In other words, are you tapping into people’s longings and hungers when you relate to them? In other words, you’re not just about You and what You want and think is important. You relate in a way that tells others that you care about what they think, want, or feel is important.
The most persuasive and inspiring leaders have a high capacity to tailor their approach to what speaks deeply and directly to their audience. Not in a manipulating way. But in an authentically caring way. By being able to “speak other people’s language” they connect in meaningful ways that reveals they truly believe in others and want what’s best for them.
Four, are you willing to collaborate? In other words, do you believe that you have all the answers or at least the best ones or do you believe that success comes from working together? Do you believe that you are stronger by yourself or stronger with others?
Fundamental to this socially intelligent skill is the choice to identify, notice, and empower other people’s strengths. This is about recognizing that you are not omnicompetent but that you need others to complement your strengths with their strengths.
Effective leaders emphasize helping others to know their strengths and play to those strengths more often than not.
So where are you on the Social Intelligence scale?
One of my growth points in this area is the second evaluation issue. I’m learning how to more and more ask for what I want clearly. My tendency is to hesitate to ask others to do something that is important for fear of imposing or being told no. So I subsume my intuition for what I think is the sake of others–which in the end isn’t really helping myself or them.
The good news is, awareness and consciousness is the first step to change. And then we can improve the skills needed for powerful and effective, socially intelligent leadership. It’s time to share our secret sauce.
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