Tapping social intelligence to lead
Hilary Armstrong, director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching
There's a growing understanding among the business community that the way you relate to people - rather than merely your technical prowess - is key to effective leadership.
It's a notion leadership experts are calling "social intelligence" (which joins intelligence quotient, IQ, and emotional quotient EQ among favoured buzzwords).
“Social intelligence is about being smart about relationships, having empathy, sensing other people's feelings and understanding their point of view,” says Dr Hilary Armstrong, director of education at the Institute of Executive Coaching.
Joanna Davison, Colonial First State Global Asset Management’s regional managing director for Australia and New Zealand
Armstrong says social intelligence is all about going beyond self-awareness to be attuned to those around you. It's an idea that came out of social neuroscience research, which explores how our brain chemistry gives us the ability to sense and feel what others are feeling.
In their 2008 Harvard Business Review article 'Social intelligence and the biology of leadership' researchers Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, explore how a leader's behaviour can energise or deflate those around them through what they call 'mood contagion'.
The idea is that if you laugh frequently as a leader, you'll trigger an easygoing work environment. The reverse is also true.
Goleman and Boyatzis suggest the ability to be socially intelligent by being able to read emotional cues, understand the reactions of those around you and genuinely empathise, can be learned.
Colonial First's Davison
For Joanna Davison, Colonial First State Global Asset Management's regional managing director for Australia and New Zealand, effective leadership is something she first started learning during her childhood in England.
Davison is one of four children of a GP and nurse. She says being the daughter of people involved in caring professions taught her about the importance of integrity, doing what you say you're going to do, finishing what you set out to achieve and caring for people.
“So my leadership style was dictated from an early age,” she says.
After graduating from Cambridge, Davison started working as a stockbroker in London. “This had a profound impact on me because there were very few female stockbrokers in the early 80s. I had to be tough to survive”.
When she married an Australian and came to Australia to work, Davison had to eschew the aggressive leadership style she had developed to tough it out in the broking world in favour of a more conciliatory approach.
“The really important thing for me was to be open to feedback. To paraphrase Darwin, evolution isn't about survival of the fittest and strongest, it's about the ability to be adaptive. As a leader it's important to ask for feedback, otherwise people will just tell you what they think you want to hear. You need to project openness.
“And to be socially intelligent you have to enjoy and like people and want to get to know them. You have to show you are interested in people by remembering someone has a golden retriever called Sasha or that one of their children is doing the HSC”.
Davison says when she first moved from a trading to a managerial role she drew on the insights of her mentor, Peter Scott, who is the current chairman of Sinclair Knight Merz Management and who Davison met when she was first in Australia working for MLC.
“He advised me to trust my instincts and if I look back over the last 15 years, especially when it comes to big decisions, if I haven't trusted my instinct often I've made bad decisions”.
Hilary Armstrong agrees leadership should be redefined as a social relationship. “It's clear to us through our research that leaders who consider relationships are successful in transforming their organisations”.
“People are often promoted on their technical skills because they are easy to quantify. But then after a while, it becomes apparent the person isn't right for the job because they don't have relationship-building skills”.
It's a sentiment with which Davison also agrees. “Often people who are technically strong don't make good leaders because they don't know how to manage people. A great school teacher might not make a great principal”.
Armstrong also agrees with Davison that key to being an effective leader is the ability to deliver constructive feedback.
“Research shows leaders who use a coaching approach, show empathy and are socially attuned exhibit lower stress levels than leaders who don't use a coaching approach. It's a really important element in the way leadership needs to be reframed”.