Emotional flexibility is crucial to leadership
A view from Sue Unerman

Emotional flexibility is crucial to leadership

Technical expertise and emotional intelligence are not enough to lead a business, warns MediaCom's chief transformation officer.

A recent briefing for a talk at a conference about leadership ran as follows: 

"We want the delegates to understand that what’s got them to the senior level that they are at now isn’t enough to take them to the next level of business leadership."

What’s necessary for the next level?

Technical expertise and being an excellent practitioner are taken as read. Neither of those skills are enough for management, let alone leadership. 

Emotional intelligence is certainly crucial. 

To lead you need to understand your own motivations, and then to share them. It’s not enough to share your targets, your key performance indicators. It isn’t enough, as Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive, just to share rewards financially with your team. You have to share your feelings. You must understand the motivations and feelings of your team. In both respects this requires emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence alone is not enough either though.

You need emotional flexibility. 

To grow a business you frequently need to pivot. A strategy that suited your business five years ago is unlikely to deliver for the next five years. Customers are changing, for example becoming more demanding of meaning and purpose as well as good value. They’re increasingly unwilling to compromise and their impatience with inadequate service levels or slow tech is increasing. Revenue models and sales channels might need to change to make sense of ROPO (Research online, Purchase offline and Research offline, purchase online), meaning a change to how you motivate sales teams. Automotive sales have been step-changed by the growth in lease to own. Other sectors will follow. A good business leader will take advantage of these changes and pivot their strategy. 

To grow a team you need to pivot emotionally too. If you get stuck in a narrative of negativity about a team member or allow negative thoughts to undermine your own abilities to deal with a difficult situation then you can’t be a great leader. 

Take the example given by Susan David, author of "Emotional Agility" in Harvard Business Review. She describes Jeffrey, who gets angry at work, with his boss, with his team, when they don’t behave entirely as he thinks they should. When Jeffrey tries to suppress his anger he’s left feeling that he hasn’t been able to bring his whole self to work. So he’s less effective and of course even angrier.

She advises that Jeffrey needs to detach from the feelings and label them. So "my colleague makes me furious" becomes "I’m having the thought that my colleague is wrong and am feeling angry about it". Detached and labelled, it is easier to deal with. You can even ask yourself, what if I could stop being so angry with them? Or maybe, what if I am just angry because I can’t control my colleague and I don’t like their approach, but they might have a point? 

No-one is suggesting that this is easy. If you can pivot emotionally however, you are more open to pragmatic solutions. You are more likely to accept that your colleagues, bosses, team members can change.

Emotional flexibility is crucial for next level leadership.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer of MediaCom
@SueU

Topics