Every once in a while a big idea arises in the corporate landscape that captures the fancy of business leaders. The big concept is usually expressed in a popular book with a memorable title. These mega ideas have included insights such as scientific management, management by objective, the impact of culture on corporate performance, the business life cycle, diversification, team building, the value proposition, game theory, fundamental investment analysis, coaching, leadership versus management, the effective executive, and the list goes on. The birth of such concepts sparks debate, stimulates research, initiates experimentation and employs consultants. It also imbues us with hope that the application of a new concept will result in improved business performance and in a better world.
Over the past few years, the idea of “emotional intelligence” has captured attention and spawned a cottage industry of consulting, writing, teaching, speaking and coaching, all aimed at increasing the emotional intelligence of leaders. We all search for the magic key to success when it comes to developing leaders. The idea of “emotional intelligence” seems perfectly suited to unlock the door.
Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) in his 1995 best-selling book of the same title. Goleman’s work struck a nerve with business leaders and consultants. While the popularity of the concept is unquestioned, its utility is less certain. The two researchers who coined the term in 1990, John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Peter Salovey of Yale University, have been public in their expression of healthy skepticism regarding the validity of EI measures to predict and of EI training to influence leadership success. Gerald Matthews, a psychologist at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of “Emotional Intelligence, Myth and Science” (MIT 2002), was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “It’s quite amazing how this kind of movement can take off without any good empirical data to support it.” It doesn’t seem so amazing to me. Ambiguity frequently accompanies intensive empirical analysis where the valid research response is quite often, “It depends.” Most people prefer to hear, “I am certain.” Like many readily accepted ideas, emotional intelligence has the resonance of common sense and enough of an academic ring to add credence.
When I was growing up I heard the story of the high school superintendent who addressed the graduating senior class by asking the A students to rise, and face their classmates. He encouraged the rest of the class to join him in congratulating them on their hard work, achievement and dedication to excellence. He next asked the B students to rise. He indicated that they had tried hard and that while their achievement was not as great as the A students, the race was not over. If they fortified their resolve, great things were possible in the next chapter of the unfolding story. He concluded by asking the C students to rise. He asked all of the A and B students to turn around and look carefully at the C students and to mark them well because in a few years the A and B students would probably be working for the C students.
We all know there is more to successful leadership than raw intellect, but with increasing controversy over the verifiable basis of emotional intelligence, what’s an emotionally intelligent CLO to do? Many CLOs have struggled to get “the soft stuff” into the corporate curriculum and now, just when you have demand for something that addresses the essence of leadership, the spoilers start to question its basis. Should you stand in the way of market demand for emotional intelligence testing, selection methods and development programs?
The answers seem less concentrated in the popular literature than in the more rigorous research of empirical studies like those of David McClelland and David Burnham. Equally powerful is the work of people like Dr. David Morrison based on the affect studies of Silvan Tomkins. With years of research and a more manageable approach than tackling the infinite complexity of compound emotions, these approaches offer hope of unlocking the door we all seek to walk through.
Hoorah for big ideas and for the controversy that they stir up! The idea of emotional competence is a blockbuster. As I have observed the varying effectiveness of leaders, it is clear that the race does not always go to the A students.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.