Emotionally savvy leadership

  • Date:01 Feb 2014
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
Graham Winter reveals the five practices emotionally savvy leaders use to guide their teams through ambiguity and uncertainty.


Every director knows that the days of a slow changing, siloed private sector are over.

The world is too complex and fast moving, but what will the future hold? For insights, I asked private sector leaders two key questions while researching my new book First Be Nimble:

  • What will the private sector of the future look like?
  • What leadership capabilities will be most important?

To the first question, the same words and phrases came back time and again: agile, nimble, adaptable, connected, innovative and clever. No surprises there.

To the second question, the almost universal answer was “emotional intelligence” (EI). Surely there must be more? Maybe.

But as we explored this further it became clear that it didn’t matter where the leader was situated. He or she still saw the challenges through the lens of EI. Those challenges were about leading through ambiguity, engaging diverse stakeholders, tackling wicked problems and delivering more with less.

Then came the paradox. Despite the common theme of EI, few could point to breakthroughs in how to really leverage that capability in themselves and their teams (and yet everyone had done multiple EI training courses).

In fact, when the practices of leaders who genuinely drive adaptive change were described, there was a high level of initial resistance to suggestions that emotionally savvy leaders provoke change, challenge people so they build their resilience and instil intensive and relentless debriefing of results and behaviour (so everyone boosts their EI on the job). Mostly this resistance was packaged in reasonable sounding comments such as:

  • We must respect our people.
  • Engagement is essential to drive any change.
  • People are change fatigued and need support.
  • It’s important to take time to build trust.

No one could argue with these thoughts, but in a time of rapid adaptive change, it seemed that these leaders’ training in EI had promoted a dangerously narrow and outdated view of the role that emotions play in work and in meeting adaptive challenges.

Certainly they understood the basics of self-awareness and self-management, and could recite the keys to being socially aware and socially savvy, but leaders who guide people through ambiguity do a lot more than that.

So what are the practices of leaders who genuinely use EI to develop nimble teams and organisations? The following five practices are all about promoting a nimble culture in which people learn and develop on-the-job with short, intensive coaching backed by skilled debriefing:

1. Let go and welcome the squirm

Emotionally savvy leaders know their people and organisations are skilled at passive resistance to change, so they provoke change and see “squirm” as a sign of progress, not a signal to back off. They offer or establish support, but they don’t rescue people. They develop resilience and optimism, not an expectation that only comfortable, neatly planned change is the norm.

2. Be brave, not busy

Every agency is too busy, has conflicting priorities, multiple stakeholders and too few resources. Savvy leaders manage the heat from stakeholders and make tough calls that direct resources to where they have an effect. They know that keeping everyone happy serves no one.

3. Co-create and think as one team

The public and private sectors are full of experts in silos. Savvy leaders respect and develop experts, but they also punch holes in the silos by fostering collaborative problem solving and debriefing. They support, guide, challenge and inspire people to break out of traditional boundaries. If that doesn’t work, they provoke the change.

4. Build to flex

Despite the restrictions of outdated HR practices, the best leaders look at every possible way to build flex into their agencies. That includes replacing performance reviews with performance partnering conversations and systems, aligning teams with simple “true north” plans and refusing to let bureaucracy stifle the speed and agility of nimble teams.

5. Leap, learn, adapt

While the emotionally cautious hold back, savvy leaders engage with other stakeholders, so they can run experiments together. They refuse to accept the “never embarrass the Minister rule” as code for never try anything that might fail. They’re not politically naïve. Quite the opposite. They build trust so they can learn and adapt.

An adaptive team

One way or another, businesses of the future will be nimble, innovative and adaptive. Whether or not the current generation of leaders drive that change will indeed be a reflection of their EI.
What might help that journey is recognition that the development of leaders will rely less on the lengthy development retreats that have characterised leadership training for the past two decades and more on learning on the run as they inspire, provoke and guide change.

The message is clear. If you are a leader and genuinely want to lead your team or agency through ambiguity and uncertainty then first be nimble.