There’s a major disconnect between what companies look for in their top performers and best leaders, and what students learn in school. Why don’t we better align these skill sets?
For instance, among educators there is lots of talk these days about “grit”: the tenacity to focus on working toward a goal despite obstacles and setbacks. It’s been found crucial in many ways – for instance in determining whether disadvantaged kids finish high school. That’s well and good.
Such self-motivation can help make you an outstanding individual performer – an accountant, say, or a programmer. But leadership requires an additional skill set: social intelligence.
In my model of emotional intelligence, grit falls under self-management, one of four essential leadership skills. The others are self-awareness – which is the basis for managing yourself – and empathy plus social skills.
A chronic complaint among companies who promote individuals to a leadership position who are excellent performers on their own is this: if they lack social intelligence, they will fail as leaders.
Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a world expert on hiring, did a study of C-level leaders who were fired. The conclusion: they were hired for their intelligence and business expertise, but fired for weakness in emotional intelligence – usually the social variety.
“The best worker on the shop room floor can fail as a foreman for lack of social intelligence,” is how Edward Thorndike, the psychologist who first developed the concept, put it.
When I looked at competence studies done by companies to identify the skill sets of their outstanding performers – what sets top leaders apart from average – the vast majority fell in the emotional intelligence category.
With a fresh crop of college grads heading into a tight job market, I wish they had had help in developing their emotional intelligence skills during their studies. But with a very few exceptions colleges ignore this crucial skill set for success. Students acquire these abilities on their own time, and rather randomly, depending on happenstance.
As a trustee at MIT told me, when they did a study of the grads who had given the school the largest donations, the conclusion was that these had not been the top-of-the-class whizzes while in college. Instead they were good enough students (after all, they had gotten into MIT), but with strong side interests: often president of a club or sports team. Many had already showed entrepreneurial promise by starting their own small businesses on the side.
There are many successful programs on emotional intelligence for grade levels kindergarten through high school. These fall under the umbrella of “social and emotional learning.” One meta-analysis of more than 270,000 students showed that the courses boost pro-social behavior – e.g., behaving well in class – while lowering antisocial ones like bullying. Bonus: students’ achievement test scores jumped 11 percent.
Maybe it’s time to help all students at all levels get better at these life – and leadership – skills.
What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters: A compilation of my Harvard Business Review articles and other business journal writings in one volume. This often-cited, proven-effective material has become essential reading for leaders, coaches and educators committed to fostering stellar management, increasing performance, and driving innovation.
The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights: Over the last decade and a half there has been a steady stream of new insights that further illuminate the dynamics of emotional intelligence. I explain what we now know about the brain basis of emotional intelligence, in clear and simple terms. This book will deepen your understanding of emotional intelligence and enhance your ability for its application.
Talent Strategy: Claudio Fernández-Aráoz explains the world-class best practices for senior hiring, executive searches, interviewing, committee searches, and EI testing.
Photo: Brian A Jackson / shutterstock
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