“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” 1 Corinthians 1:20
There are a lot of worldly philosophers commenting on leadership these days. Those who know my work know that I’m critical of them, that I am a strong advocate for timeless leadership – the reality that God made people to live, lead and follow, in a specific way, and that God’s way is timeless. Yet here we are in an era where even Christian leaders too often seem fascinated by what I will describe as a lot of trendy, faddish leadership thinking. It seems almost every week we get a new best seller on the new “best” way to become a better leader. While these trends come and go, some have gained more traction – emotional intelligence fits this category.
Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term in 1990, describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” In the 1990’s Daniel Goleman, a science writer at the New York Times, became aware of Salovey and Mayer’s work, and this eventually led to his book, Emotional Intelligence. And a new multi million dollar industry was born.
So why do I place this in the category of faddish and trendy leadership thinking? It is not because I don’t believe emotional intelligence exists – I believe it does and it is a valuable, likely even an indispensable, leadership attribute. The issue is not with emotional intelligence but rather with the proposition that it is something new or that it can be acquired by simply enrolling in the right course or reading the right books.
Until this phrase was coined in 1990, we simply called emotional intelligence, empathy. The Oxford Dictionary describes empathy as, “the power of identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation. I describe it more simply as the ability to understand how others are feeling and be appropriately responsive to their feelings – think of the heartbreak Nehemiah felt as he contemplated the state of Jerusalem before setting off to rebuild its walls and lead its people. There are really no significant differences between emotional intelligence and what we used call empathy.
Here is the issue: some people have a lot more of it than others. Over a lifetime in leadership, with thousands of people, I have never seen anyone with low levels of empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, acquire more of it. I have seen many try and fail. I have learned to hire and remove leaders with this characteristic in mind.
Pastor and author John Ortberg in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get To Know Them writes, “People who don’t read others well aren’t aware that they don’t. It’s like being emotionally tone deaf.” He continues, “These folks are not aware that they’re doing anything wrong.”
That’s the way it goes with empathy, or emotional intelligence if you will, people who don’t have it don’t know they don’t have it but everyone around them knows. The leader lacking in empathy will constantly say the wrong thing, often the wrong way, as everyone in the room wonders, “How could he have said that?” or “How could she be so insensitive?”
Watch a person with lots of empathy and you’ll see them naturally adjust to a wide variety of people in differing situations. They always seem to know how to approach a situation the right way, even when it seems sensitive or a bit tricky. With strong emotional radar they are tuned in and responsive to the way others are feeling. They not drawing on learned behaviour, they are acting naturally. This is not to say that good leaders don’t work on refining their skills – they do – only that the foundation, the characteristic empathy, must be there for the refining effort to yield results.
A lengthy career working with thousands of leaders has convinced me that empathy cannot be coached. This would be why the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” In naming a variety of gifts and differing roles within the church, he goes on to write, “if it is leadership, let him govern diligently.” Some people have the gifting for leadership, others have different gifts. Experience has convinced me that empathy is a key part of the mix for good leadership and that it must be part of one’s characteristic makeup.
This may not be good news for the industry that’s been built up around coaching emotional intelligence but I am convinced it is a clearer picture of reality. As the president at two large daily newspapers, I had a lot more success hiring and removing leaders to secure the right characteristics than I did trying to convert leaders who lacked emotional intelligence into men and women who related well and inspired their teams. I focused my training resources on the timeless and enduring fundamentals that can be learned, like feedback, communication, coaching, building culture and performance management – the same fundamentals we see evidenced in the bible’s great leaders.
A final observation: people who don’t have lots of empathy are not lesser people, they simply have different attributes. Many if not all people with highly analytical or scientific minds, don’t have lots of empathy but they have the right qualities for other very valuable work. The problems arise when we try to fit them into work they are not well suited to, like leadership.
For more on timeless Christian leadership check out my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders, available in soft cover and in all major Ebook formats.