Matt Tenney, Contributor
Leadership requires a variety of skills. The ability to problem solve effectively, delegate with authority, and handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy, are all qualities people who lead teams should possess.
Leaders should also be strongly committed to the missions of their organizations and able to convey the vision to their teams, uniting them with a shared sense of purpose and facilitating harmonious interactions and collaboration between team members.
How well leaders are able to do these things is tied to how well they relate to and understand those they lead and how authentically they demonstrate to their team members that they care about them and are invested in their success, both at work and at home.
The three most important qualities of a leader are emotional intelligence, compassion, and the ability to inspire greatness in their employees. These qualities are essential for engaging and retaining talented employees and helping those employees thrive in both their personal and professional lives.
In this article, we will explore these three essential qualities that are conducive to strong leaders and high-performance teams.
The Importance of Strong Leadership
Poor leadership has been cited as one of the main drivers of the turnover we’ve seen with The Great Resignation and now quiet quitting.
The duration of an employee’s tenure is primarily determined by the relationship they have with their direct manager according to a 25-year study by Gallup, with about 50-70% of an employee’s perception of their work environment linked to the actions and behaviors of management.
Strong leaders guide employees, model core values that reinforce more of the behaviors employers want to see in the organization, and prevent work environments from turning toxic.
Leadership also has a powerful impact on employee engagement. This is because everything a leader does affects the organization’s culture, and culture influences the employee experience.
The day-to-day interactions employees have with management strongly impact their employee experience, which shapes a worker’s perception of their job over the course of their tenure with a company and builds engagement. This not only affects engagement, but it can also determine the likelihood a worker will stay in that position.
Leaders are responsible for establishing a harmonious work environment that fosters respect, trust, and communication. Leaders help to create cultural buy-in, a shared sense of purpose, and ownership of group goals, inspiring employees to grow and do their best work.
This becomes especially important during times of crisis, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic. From toxic environments to lack of feedback, recognition, or avenues for advancement, poor leadership has been responsible for many workers seeking greener pastures.
To avoid another Great Resignation, leaders have to demonstrate to their employees they authentically care about them. This includes modeling core values and forging trust-based relationships with staff. Leaders are much better at doing these things when they have the soft skills needed to have positive interactions with employees.
There are three important qualities that help leaders forge strong, trust-based relationships with their teams. Those qualities are emotional intelligence, compassion, and the ability to inspire greatness in their team members.
Emotional intelligence, known as EQ, is considered to be one of the most important soft skills a leader can have, and it is one of the strongest predictors of performance, with around 90% of top performers exhibiting high levels of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to recognize, understand, and regulate their emotions and respond to those emotions in ways that allow them to communicate better, empathize with others, and address and overcome challenges in a more positive way.
According to the World Economic Forum, emotional intelligence is the critical factor that sets top performers apart: “Emotional intelligence is the ‘something’ in each of us that is a bit intangible. It affects how we manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.”
Emotional intelligence encompasses personal competence and social competence.
Personal competence includes self-awareness and self-management skills, particularly a person’s ability to be aware of their emotions and govern their behaviors. These skills focus primarily on your individual self rather than your interactions with others.
Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to accurately perceive their emotions and remain aware of them as they occur. This is a valuable skill for anyone, but a surprising number of people actually lack this skill.
Research from Dr. Tasha Eurich, author of the book Insight, found that while 95% of people think that they are moderately or highly self-aware, less than 15% of people are actually self-aware.
Self-management refers to a person’s ability to use their awareness of their emotions to remain flexible and positively direct their behaviors.
Social competence includes a person’s social awareness and relationship management skills and refers to a person’s ability to understand the behaviors, moods, and motives of others. These skills help leaders respond effectively and improve relationships.
Social awareness helps a person more accurately read and understand the emotions of others. Relationship management helps a person use their self-awareness of their emotions and the emotions of others to successfully manage interactions.
A study by CareerBuilder.com revealed that 71% of employers surveyed valued EQ over IQ because employees with high emotional EQ stay calmer under pressure, resolve conflict more effectively, and are more likely to respond to co-workers with empathy.
Emotional intelligence is a useful skill for any employee to have, but it is an essential skill for those in leadership positions because self-awareness fosters good communication, builds trust, and increases accountability. It also helps leaders process their emotions in a more positive way that enables them to address challenges more effectively.
According to Business Leadership Today contributor Laurie Sudbrink, a high level of emotional intelligence won’t just make a person a more effective leader, it also helps them improve the emotional intelligence of others in the organization.
Want to see the people in your organization thrive and excel? YOU are responsible for kickstarting that emotional contagion.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to work for someone who was kind, generous, respectful, confident (yet humble), who genuinely cared about you, made sure you felt heard, appreciated, protected, and valuable, then you were in the presence of a leader with high emotional intelligence!
You know that energized feeling they imparted, and you most likely felt inspired, wanted to bring your best, and would follow them to the moon!
A leader who not only knows themselves really well, but is also sensitive to the emotional needs of others and acts on the knowledge gained through self-awareness and social awareness by leading their teams with tact, diplomacy, and poise will find that they are leading highly engaged employees who feel a sense of purpose in their work and take pride in it.
Sudbrink says, “Developing your emotional intelligence is key to showing up strong and leading authentically. This will be the most effective shift you can make to improve your leadership skills and build strong interpersonal relationships with employees and clients.”
Compassionate people have positive intentions and genuine concern for others. In leadership, compassion creates stronger connections between leaders and their teams by facilitating collaboration, building and maintaining strong, trusting relationships, and improving employees’ loyalty.
Compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent. It is a particularly valuable skill for leaders to have due to the potentially negative effects power can have on us.
Research has shown us that power can impair our mirror-neurological activity, which is the neurological function tied to our ability to understand and interact with others. This leads to a phenomenon known as hubris syndrome, which is defined as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”
Greater responsibilities and the resulting pressure of taking on those responsibilities can rewire our brains and cause us to stop caring about others as much as we used to. We may find it more difficult to empathize with others when this happens.
Leaders should be mindful of this phenomenon and understand that it is possible to avoid it. Compassion is the way we do it.
Compassion takes us beyond empathy. When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Compassion is more proactive because it helps us to actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others.
According to Forbes’ contributors Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Louise Chester, compassion can serve as a compass that directs a leader’s intentions, attention, and actions: “Whenever you engage with someone, ask yourself: ‘How can I be of benefit to this person?’ Ask yourself this every time you meet clients, stakeholders, colleagues, family, or friends. Let it be a mantra that drives your intentions, moment by moment, in meeting after meeting.”
Developing compassion can help us avoid hubris syndrome and helps us maintain authentic relationships with our teams. In short, it helps us to be more effective, more caring leaders. It can help us to engage and retain talented employees because it creates a positive work environment where employees feel truly valued.
The Ability to Inspire Greatness in Their Employees
Perhaps the most important job of a leader is to inspire greatness in their employees. It may sound like a daunting task, but it’s really much easier than most leaders think.
So many people who move into management positions do not realize that being able to inspire their teams is essential to excelling in their role. It’s not just about knowing your job duties and checking management boxes; it’s about being truly driven to help your teams do great work.
This means leaders should work continuously to create the necessary conditions for their employees to do great work and help them identify and remove obstacles to doing great work. Establishing a culture of feedback and coaching/mentoring can help them do this.
Many leaders know that employees need feedback to do their best in their jobs. In fact, a lack of regular feedback ranks high on the list of reasons employees are leaving their jobs these days.
Employees need feedback on a regular basis to excel in their jobs and build the kind of engagement needed for retention. It provides not only job clarity, but also helps employees course correct when needed, develop an improvement mindset, and build confidence in their work.
But, to be most effective, it needs to be a two-way street, with leadership being open to feedback from employees. This gives employees a voice and helps them to build trust with leadership, which increases employee loyalty.
For leaders to inspire greatness in their team members, they must establish a strong culture of feedback within their organizations by providing regular, consistent feedback to their teams that helps them maintain job clarity, stay engaged, and make improvements in their actions and behaviors as needed.
Part of a good system of feedback includes coaching and mentoring employees through regular 1 to 1 meetings to help them do their best work and live their best lives. Leaders can provide actionable steps that help employees improve their work life, maintain a good work/life balance, and improve their well-being.
The goal of this feedback is to help employees to do their best work, do it well, and better serve their co-workers. When done correctly, it should also boost employees’ level of job satisfaction and overall well-being.
Good leaders will also elicit regular, consistent feedback from their teams which they should respond to in a timely manner. The goal is really the same: through feedback, employees help their leaders to do their best work, do it well, and better serve the team.
The next and most important step for leaders to take after they receive feedback from employees is to take action on that feedback as soon as possible.
Taking meaningful actions on the feedback a leader receives from their teams helps them strengthen the perception that they truly care about team members, that they truly listen to their teams, and are truly committed to helping team members thrive.
It is a mutually beneficial system. The feedback that leaders give to their teams is crucial to building and inspiring teams that do great work. Likewise, the feedback that teams provide to their leaders is crucial for helping them lead well.
Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.