What Makes a Leader?

This article is an adaptation of an article by the same name, found in the book, On Leadership. It is an excellent article and a great book. Many leaders I have interacted with over the last 50 years have either been highly motivated or greatly skilled or very intelligent, some even have been very mature with obvious godliness and spirituality. Some have had all these characteristics. But once they were promoted into a higher leadership position, some of these same leaders failed.

Why? What makes the difference? What makes an effective and successful leader?

There are five qualities that are essential to successful leadership... and all of them can be learned to one degree or another.

  1. Intelligence
  2. Skills
  3. Character
  4. Wisdom
  5. Emotional intelligence

All the leaders I have met over the last 50 years have varying degrees of the first four characteristics, but of those that were highly effective and highly impactful only those that excelled in the fifth leadership quality – emotional intelligence – were greatly effective leaders. If they themselves did not possess emotional intelligence, then someone on their team did. Conversely, most of the leaders I know who have not been effective have lacked this fifth characteristic.

It’s not that character and intellect and competence are not important. These qualities do matter a great deal and character is certainly a crucial ingredient for servant leaders. But a leader can be godly and still be ineffective in leading others. And one can be highly educated and very well read, but still fail to connect to people.

So why is emotional intelligence the most common quality of highly effective leaders? Emotional intelligence is the ability to relate well to people. It is healthy self-awareness with an ability to read social signals and adapt one’s behavior to the needs of others – without losing one’s self in the process.

Without it a person can have the best training, be the most traveled, have an incisive, analytical mind, and possess an unquenchable passion for spiritual things, and still not reach their potential for greatness.

Emotional Intelligence Defined

In short, emotional intelligence is the ability to connect to a wide variety of people in a wide variety of situations. It is the ability to identify, accurately name and manage one’s own emotions in relation to other people.

Those leaders with emotional intelligence have all of the following five skills in a high degree, which enables them to maximize their own and other people’s potential.

People without emotional intelligence react easily to others when disappointed or criticized. They withdraw or attack when they feel rejected or left out of a change process. Their first concern is their own feelings and not the feelings of others. They often feel “left out” of decision. They isolate themselves through inability to ask questions, listen and understand what others are feeling or thinking about the decisions being made.

A person without emotional intelligence is characterized by the following:

  1. Lack of self-awareness, that is how they come across to other people. A lack of self-awareness is a lack of understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses and how they impact others.
  1. Lack of self-control, especially under stress, when criticized, or tired. A lack of self-control manifest itself in outbursts of emotion, reaction to others, easily offended, or misunderstanding others; disruptive emotions or moods.
  1. Lack of self-motivation, inability to create structure and make decisions for oneself. Lack of ambition or drive to achieve for it’s own sake.
  1. Lack of empathy, not able to understand and connect to other people’s emotional makeup. This often causes a leader to react to other’s decisions. Or withdraw into an introverted process of thinking through a situation.
  1. Lack of social skill, which is defined as the ability of building rapport with others in order to influence them to move in a particular direction.

Emotional Intelligence Further Evaluated

In a faith community, those who lack emotional intelligence may be highly intelligent, or spiritually mature, or highly skilled in particular areas of leadership or Christian service. Lack of emotional intelligence does not imply a lack of intellect, or an inability to think strategically or see the big picture.

To give perspective, one leadership expert rates emotional intelligence to be twice as important as other leadership capacities or abilities (See What Makes a Leader? by Daniel Goleman, On Leadership, published by Harvard Business Review Press).

I agree. When leaders with high levels of impact are compared to impacting leaders, it often comes down to emotional intelligence.

We need look no further than the life of Jesus to see an example of a leader with an ability to relate to people with a wide range of personalities, social backgrounds, gender differences, educational levels and professions. Jesus connected to the Samaritan woman drawing water as well as the Roman centurion.

Jesus could read a crowd. He knew how he was coming across to people. That didn’t change his responses, but he knew. He was aware. He discerned. He had emotional intelligence.