Why the Speed and Beauty of Emotional Intelligence Matters
Emotional intelligence was not a widely used term prior to the late 1990s. Why has it, since then, become so well-researched, discussed and revered as a critical component of effective leadership? And what do I mean by the speed and beauty of emotional intelligence?
Emotions convey important data. We rapidly translate this emotional data into information that helps us understand how best to respond to human situations, or whether to respond at all.
The beauty of emotional data, rests, to some degree, on how quickly it’s conveyed, understood, and utilized.
Side note: I believe someday we’ll have tools that allow us to see emotional and thought energy. We’ll measure their intensity and speed the same way we currently measure the speed and intensity of light and sound. Until then, we can trust that this energy exists, by our ability to feel and respond to it.
The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership
To understand the speed and beauty of emotional intelligence, and the role it plays in leadership, consider the following vignette about Robert Kennedy.
When Martin Luther King was murdered, Kennedy was campaigning for President and happened to be speaking to a largely black audience. Kennedy’s campaign staff and security officials thought the crowd was volatile and urged him not to announce King’s murder. But Kennedy saw, and knew, some things his aides didn’t. He had lost his own brother to an assassin’s bullets. He had an empathetic and intuitive sense of what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
According to Gloria Steinem, in My Life on the Road,
“Kennedy stood quietly at the microphone until the crowd understood something was wrong - and quieted, too. Then he announced the death of Martin Luther King. Over cries and shouts, he just kept on talking in a low voice - about King’s legacy as a man dedicated to ‘love and justice,’ about the white man who shot him and had been caught, and about the country’s choice now between revenge and healing. Finally he said,
For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust…I had a member of my family killed…by a white man.”
Silence ensued. Followed by almost unending applause. The best speech writers could not have written a more perfect script, because they were not in that moment, in that room, reading the emotional energy.
How Did Kennedy Know What to Say, When and How?
Let’s dissect Kennedy’s response. First and foremost, he had empathy - the foundation of emotional intelligence. His first action was silence - to convey a sense of seriousness. The crowd read his cues and they too became silent. After he stated clearly and simply that Martin Luther King had been murdered, Kennedy read the emotional upheaval in the room. Then he sang them a lullaby of assurance and understanding. Lullabies soothe and calm us. He sang to them of love and justice. This conveyed respect for Martin Luther King and what he stood for. Then, when they were ready to listen beyond the music, he connected with empathy. His own brother had been assassinated. Only then, after connecting, could Kennedy lead the crowd to a different emotional state. He asked the people not let hatred and revenge guide their actions. The people listened, because Kennedy listened first.
3 Questions to Lead with Emotional Intelligence in Tense Moments
Ask these 3 questions when you find yourself leading in moments of tension,which are also moments of opportunity:
- What is, or will be, the emotional experience of the group? (Imagine what the room might say if it could speak for the group.)
- What is, and how can I show, my connection/empathy for the group’s emotion?
- What emotional state would be most helpful to the group and how can I lead them there?