Leaders who are trusted, authentic and self-aware use emotional intelligence to promote workforce retention and organizational wellbeing

Author: Susan O'Hare


What qualities make a person an effective organizational leader in any industry? Certain abilities are easy to identify and measure, like intelligence, technical competence, and experience. However, these traits are not compelling enough on their own to support transformational leadership during challenging times. We all have known people who are smart, competent and experienced who do not inspire the confidence or loyalty today's organizations need to retain talent and build organizational wellbeing. Such people reach a career plateau and may never advance. So what do they lack?

Based on Gallagher's decades of executive search and leadership advisory consulting experience and research, the most effective leaders are trusted, authentic, and self-aware — characteristics that make up an individual's emotional intelligence, or "EQ."

In the last decade, a body of research suggests that leaders with a high EQ more often succeed in creating organizations that are more productive, cohesive and high performing than organizations led by leaders without those traits.

Authenticity is closely associated with emotional intelligence

Psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey theorized in 1990 that a unitary intelligence lay behind certain important "soft" skills.Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times, broadened Mayer's and Salovey's theory to incorporate five essential elements of emotional intelligence, or EQ, the shorthand he sometimes uses.2

In our experience, the most successful leaders exhibit these five characteristics of emotional intelligence.

Daniel Goleman's Five Essential Elements of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional self-awareness. Knowing what one is feeling at any given time and understanding the impact those moods have on others

Self-regulation. Controlling or redirecting one's emotions; anticipating consequences before acting on impulse

Motivation. Leveraging emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoying the learning process, and persevering in the face of obstacles

Empathy. Sensing the emotions of others

Social skills. Managing relationships, inspiring others and eliciting desired responses from them


1Peter Salovey and John Mayer. 1990. Emotional intelligence, Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9,185-211. https://scholars.unh.edu/psych_facpub/450/

2Daniel Goleman. 1995.Emotional intelligence.Bantam Books, Inc.https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1995-98387-000

A culture of trust supports a cohesive team

Our executive search team recently worked with a multi-hospital system with a large physician group to conduct a national search for a chief medical officer. The chief executive officer (CEO) was concerned that system administrators did not always view physicians as full partners in the success of the enterprise. The essential element missing was trust. The physicians did not trust system leadership to recognize their contributions, and the executive team did not trust physicians to support organizational goals and priorities.

The CEO knew that to be successful, the next chief medical officer must know how to create a culture of trust. This key leader must demonstrate personal attributes supporting development of the medical staff into a strong, cohesive team that was fully integrated into the organization. The CEO charged Gallagher to look for a particular set of personal characteristics often associated with emotional intelligence.

When the search narrowed to three finalists, each candidate underwent testing for emotional intelligence. We at Gallagher shared the results with the CEO, but not with others involved in the interview process. The candidate ultimately offered the job was the one who scored highest for emotional intelligence. Interestingly, the interviewers were able to identify emotional strengths instinctively, without knowing the results of the measurement process. Also notable, emotional intelligence emerged as only one of several factors influencing the final decision.

What does it mean to be authentic?

The word "authenticity" appears these days in multiple contexts. Many people confuse authenticity with emotional transparency — someone who displays emotions openly is said to be authentic. We believe this understanding is incorrect. Authenticity does not mean expressing one's emotions in every setting; for example, it does not mean that angry people should yell or lash out.

Aristotle once said, "Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy."

Authenticity means building relationships with people and offering to share personal experiences and stories. It means being transparent in relationships with people, sharing information and communicating frequently. Authentic relationships involve both giving and receiving.

Authenticity means being aware of one's own emotions and how they impact others. It means recognizing the emotions of others. It means controlling one's emotions and reacting appropriately in a variety of situations.

Authenticity includes good social skills. Some may believe that reserved people who strictly control their emotions are inauthentic, whereas those who listen to others and respond are authentic. Both introverts and extroverts are capable of authenticity if they are capable of making personal connections.

Creating stability

Recently a large organization faced replacing a long-term CEO who had led the enterprise through a period of substantial growth. The search committee compiled a list of competencies they sought in a new CEO and recognized that many of the traits directly related to EQ. The committee identified EQ as important both because of the success of the outgoing CEO and because some old wounds needed to be healed for the organization to achieve optimal performance.

The search committee worked with a management psychologist to identify attributes of emotional intelligence that would best serve their organization and to screen candidates at the front end of the search process. Thanks to the early screening, all the candidates considered by the committee possessed high emotional intelligence, allowing the committee to focus on other criteria. When the new CEO was introduced, the system's various constituencies immediately and universally accepted the new leader because his style showed a high degree of EQ.

People who possess EQ are likely to be viewed as authentic by others. Leaders with high EQ are able to create a culture of trust and engagement, which leads to a stable and productive workplace. During a time when people at all organizational levels change jobs frequently, creating stability is a critical leadership skill.

What does it mean to be self-aware?

Maya Angelou famously said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but, people will never forget how you made them feel."

A leader who is self-aware recognizes the impact he or she has on the team. This leader knows when to be a strict manager and when to be a cheerleader. This person can adapt the message to the individual or to the team. A leader who is self-aware is flexible and adaptable. Research shows that leaders who are flexible and adaptable are more successful than those who are rigid and inflexible.

The self-aware leader focuses on others and possesses great situational awareness. Such a leader can instinctively "read a room." Self-aware leaders recognize that it is not just what they say, but the tone they use that influences how others respond to the message.

Being self-aware is akin to being able to look into a mirror and see one's naked self, warts and all. Self-aware leaders are introspective, and willing and able to acknowledge their shortcomings. Good leaders know that people will push their buttons. Self-aware leaders recognize when it is happening and moderate their responses appropriately.

Developing trusted, authentic, self-aware leaders

While soft skills come naturally to some people, many can learn such behaviors. Savvy organizations will help people at all levels develop their EQ and their leadership skills through training.

Successful employers use a total rewards program to recognize, encourage and reward behaviors that align with the organization's mission, vision and values. In so doing, organizations can build a healthy culture of trust and overall organizational wellbeing by considering soft skills in making hiring and promotional decisions.

Leaders with EQ promote performance, retention and organizational wellbeing

By honing such soft skills as authenticity and self-awareness — skills associated with emotional intelligence — leaders can create a culture of trust and support employee engagement and retention. Such a culture leads to a more stable, efficient and creative workplace, where people support a vision and feel rewarded for contributing to successful outcomes.

Leaders who rely on EQ and soft skills to lead others inspire their teams to want to do more and to do a better job, improving team and individual performance. Teams led by inspirational leaders are engaged, productive and stable.

To meet future challenges, smart organizations will focus on developing soft skills in employees at all levels. Creating a culture in which individuals work together to accomplish shared goals can foster interpersonal relationships, retain talent and help people sharpen the soft skills they need to be effective leaders.

Contact us to discuss how expert consulting can help your organization to attract, engage and develop transformational leaders.


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This material was created to provide accurate and reliable information on the subjects covered but should not be regarded as a complete analysis of these subjects. It is not intended to provide specific legal, tax or other professional advice. The services of an appropriate professional should be sought regarding your individual situation.

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