Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

While the first connection between the leader and the team is based on a purely instinctual component, the subsequent reinforcement of the ties depends on subjective factors, especially empathy and emotional intelligence. The reinforcement step is very important as it sets the quality of the relationship between leader and team, the group’s commitment and ultimately the performance on both sides of the relationship.

The reason I don’t like the word ‘follower’, but I prefer to use ‘team’ or ‘participants’ is because in fact there is no such thing as a follower with a high-profile leader. The leader actively transforms the chosen team by transferring them inspiration and knowledge and bringing them up to a level where they can operate independently from the leader. This is the most effective leadership and it draws high performance levels. Unfortunately, it requires a truly high leader, because only a very strong leader with a strong inspiration and control can afford to promote and actively teach the development of inner independency by the team. The team will feel the ownership of the project and eventually contend choices and decisions of the leader as to how to manage the project. A strong leader will always be recognized as such, even by an inspired team with knowledge. The separation between the leader and the team will always be there as everybody recognizes a sort of superior inspiration and robustness in the leader, a deep understanding of things that only the leader has, the capacity of the leader in difficult times to control and manage the unexpected, the certainty that the leader will reach the objectives no matter what. All these elements put the leader in a positively superior position and bring respect from the team, whose abilities, even though of high profile, still recognize the leader as the original inspirator of the project with a superior capacity to reach the target. In conclusion, the leader here is handing over inspiration and knowledge to the team because the leader’s strength, inspiration and respect affords him to do so. Such a team has a high performance because each individual is working supported by his or her own inspiration and believes in the project to the extent of making it a personal endeavor. This is the team which is available to work overtime when circumstances require but this is also the team that openly raises to contend a move of the leader, but again this is the team that constantly recognizes the leader’s charisma and inspiration and while contending a move for the sake of the project is also ready to shut up and give the last word to the leader, positively convinced that the leader has the final word because the leader knows better.

Growing up such a team requires considerable effort and management by the leader but ensures exceptional results. In my experience these have always been the best performing teams. And don’t forget that if you want to understand the quality of a leader at any level, often just look at the first level of people the leader chose to work with him or her and you will have a pretty clear idea.

Empathy is the projection of the self onto the others so that you can almost identify with the other’s feelings and thoughts in a sort of emotional communion. It is a deep understanding of the other and it requires a certain capacity of compassion and humanity. Empathy is typical of a high leader. Because the leader has gone through a number of experiences – investigating the self, understanding life and inspiration, fighting for a change, believing in a project – the leader usually has a broad empathic capacity. A leader missing this feature should be looked at with suspect. Empathy is used by the leader as a tool: firstly, to choose the team and secondly to understand the team (if the leader is not given the faculty to choose the team, then empathy is used to ‘change’ the team). 

Empathy defines the bonding of the team, it is introduced by the leader who sets the example by demonstrating the worthiness of this attitude, and it should be used, at least to a certain extent, by each participant of the team. There will clearly be differing degrees of empathy in each member of the team or differing degrees of engagement to use empathy. Nonetheless an empathetic approach, in a high-profile team, should always be looked for and promoted. 

Empathy takes us to emotional intelligence, a wider approach to the understanding of things and setting of relations. Emotional intelligence, broadly defined, is the ability to use not only reasoning or to follow known patterns in thinking but to involve also instinct and emotions in this process, thus expanding your knowledge and understanding of situations and hence extending opportunities and possibilities. There is a direct relation between emotional intelligence and leadership: the high leader uses intelligence and uses emotions to the same degree.

Intelligence comes from the Latin verb intelligere which means ‘reading inside things’, not only observing life and its innumerable phenomenon but also understanding life in all its aspects. Emotional intelligence is, in a way, a redundant concept as intelligence, being the reading and understanding of life, already encompasses the various aspects of life: an intelligent individual would never rely exclusively on reason to comprehend life but would obviously involve emotions and much more. ‘Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it’ said French philosopher Blaise Pascal. So, when we talk of emotional intelligence, we are basically saying that in our comprehension of life we are including emotions.

Emotional intelligence was defined, by researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer, as ‘the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior’. This definition was then further split in perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions. I tend to give much relevance to emotional intelligence, as long as it is considered part of the basic empathic behavior of an intelligent individual. Emotions should be accepted as a standard requirement in leadership.

Emotions should never be left out of an organization and a project. Technical proficiency should always be balanced with interpersonal competence and emotions. Additionally, it is only a strong emotional relationship that can develop higher leadership and team effectiveness and that can solidly withstand, and above all recover from, difficult times or failures that may be encountered during the various stages of a project.