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Developing Emotionally-Intelligent Leaders – Learning the lessons

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Writing 10 blogs on emotional intelligence over the Christmas break, I was intrigued to see which of these would have current relevance to work in the new year.

One topic stands out for me:Developing Emotional Intelligence

“Challenge #8: people are better motivated by positive emotions, but leaders prefer to motivate with the negative. Negative drivers, such as ‘burning platforms speeches’, or ‘carrot and stick’ methods are poor motivators – but seem easy and immediate.  According to  Daniel Goleman “We’re better motivated by positive emotions: it feels more meaningful and the urge to act lasts longer.”

What I discovered this week is that some senior leadership development professionals are still working to the outdated premise that we learn better under pressure and in states of anxiety.

Now, I don’t mean not stretching people, or preparing them for senior positions by giving them big challenges with multiple solutions.  I’m talking about the belief that ramping up peoples’ anxiety helps them learn.

Over 20 years ago I worked in the City of London for an insurance broking company.  Like many people I did the usual management development process of working in each department.  We’d get cover for ships, satellites and even footballers and racing drivers.

Getting cover in each situation meant taking a detailed proposal to an Underwriter.  These people have minutes to calculate the odds and decide whether or not to accept, amend, or refuse cover.

I was always impressed because this requires all four of the Schroder leadership behaviours in a very short period of time.

  • Get the right data (‘Information Search’)
  • Influence others to share in the financial risk (‘Inspiring’)
  • Build trust – the Lloyds’ of London system relies on the premise of ‘our word is our bond’ (Facilitate interaction)
  • Deliver rapidly if a claim is needed (‘Taking action’)

But most importantly, it requires mental agility or ‘flexible thinking’.  Because there’s a queue of other Brokers, all with proposals worth consideration.

By contrast, I’m one of those people who freezes when put on the spot around numbers and finances.   I prepare carefully with all calculations in writing and make sure it’s double-checked by the finance people.

So, guess what?  I ended up in the planning & procurement department, not front-line broking.

So I know what too much pressure and anxiety can do to the brain.  And it’s great to know that the neuroscience is showing that this approach is not the best.

Creating a learning environment of positive emotions has the more enduring benefit.

In a leadership development team meeting yesterday, we discussed the importance of creating safe learning spaces through good course design.

We took the perspective of engaging people, encouraging them to try out new leadership styles and approaches, without putting them under unnecessary pressure.

We started with a consideration of the ‘multi-layered’ approach: good design before, during, after the module or programme.

But when we added up all the different facets, we concluded it was more like the ‘Rubik’s Cube’ or something from ‘The Matrix’.

We explored what’s needed before, during and post-modules, plus paying attention to –

  • Each individual participant’s needs
  • The group
  • The Facilitators

Plus the multiple delivery methods.  Today we have so many affordable options: from traditional workbooks to real-time global video interaction.

And we’re in a better position to design programmes to meet everyone’s needs.  Just because someone is ‘different’ or learns differently, doesn’t make them an ‘outlier’.  It just makes them different.

One conclusion we came to was that Pareto’s 80:20 rule no longer applies.  We can create great learning environments for the 80% and the 20%.

The other conclusion that I reflected on afterwards, was that this makes it so much easier and affordable to develop everyone as leaders.

Thinking about the ‘Distributive Leadership’ model, this delights me – because what’s important for me is that people feel confident and equipped to deliver on the responsibilities they have for their projects, processes and their people.  I really enjoy it when the lessons from neuroscience research, emotional intelligence and leadership behaviour scholarship can be applied in the real world – to the benefit of real people.  So, if you want to experience our approach for yourself, just get in touch at


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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