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The Transformative Leader: Leveraging Emotional Intelligence to Create Psychologically Safe Workplaces

Leaders today must constantly evolve to remain effective and relevant. A divide is forming between those who simply lead and those who lead at a higher level. How can today’s leaders and tomorrow’s aspiring ones bridge the gap to become transformative leaders?

Because a leader’s role is no longer confined to decision-making, setting goals, and managing people, those in leadership positions must learn and embody a vital skill that, when applied consistently and engrained culturally within a team, division, or even across an entire organization, can yield transformative results. This skill is emotional intelligence (EQ).

How Is Emotional Intelligence Transformative?

To comprehend the true value of EQ as a transformative tool, we need to understand the essence, the foundational etymology, of the word “transformative.” Derived from the Latin prefix “trans,” meaning “across” or “beyond,” and the verb “formare”, meaning “to form,” “transformative” means “to form beyond” or “to form across.”

If you are setting goals, making decisions, and managing a team, you are leading on one side of the divide. If you use EQ as a part of your leadership ethos, you are going “beyond” or “across” that chasm. You facilitate greater change by benefitting individuals, teams, and your larger organization. But what exactly is EQ, and why is it so important?

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

EQ is a set of emotional and social skills that influence how we see and express ourselves, recognize the emotions of others, and manage relationships. As byproducts of these foundational skills, we are better able to handle adversity, cope with challenges, resolve conflict, communicate with empathy, and use emotional information productively and purposefully.

Because of the evolving nature of today’s business landscape, from the global interconnectedness of organizations to seemingly endless advancements of technological capability, rapid change, and uncertainty, leaders who wish to become transformative must embody a holistic approach that prioritizes both organizational success and the well-being of their people.

Being present with team members, harboring an awareness of who they are, listening intently to the stories they share, and using that awareness to cultivate healthy relationships marks the success of a transformative leader who models and practices EQ skills.

3 Elements of Emotional Intelligence

1: Self-Awareness

Transformative leaders must harbor the will to learn and practice EQ skills for their own benefit as well as the benefit of others. They must come to know their own triggers and how those triggers influence their behavior. Furthermore, leaders must cultivate the ability to be aware of their emotions, both good and bad, and balance those emotions and thoughts. We call this self-awareness. It is the foundation of healthy EQ. Without it, one cannot go “beyond” oneself.

2: Self-Management

The next component for the transformative leader to master is self-management. As we seek to manage our emotions, we need to understand the science of how emotions affect us. The prefrontal region of our brain is our “thinking” brain and controls our executive functioning (i.e., complex planning, problem-solving, decision-making, etc.). On the other hand, the limbic system, or our “feeling” brain, guides us moment to moment throughout each day (i.e., our emotional memory epicenter and sensations of appetite and thirst, etc.). From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, our limbic system constantly scans our environment and surroundings; it is an open-loop system since we rely on connections with others for our emotional well-being.

If you imagine the various feelings that you encounter on a day-to-day basis, you might imagine the limbic system to look like a roundabout in chaos—some vehicles refusing to yield as they enter, some reversing course in the middle of the flow of traffic, and some entering in the wrong direction entirely! When we are first aware of that emotional chaos, we can then complete the important work of managing it.

Self-reflection practices such as journaling, mindfulness, meditation, and seeking feedback from others are helpful in this regard. Likewise, reframing one’s thoughts is a powerful skill that can empower emotional self-management. When we do these things effectively, our chaotic roundabout becomes an organized interstate freeway with clearly defined boundaries, lanes, and entrance and exit ramps. The flow of the system is in check and running smoothly.

3: Social Awareness

Once a leader’s self-awareness is cultivated and they have firm control of their emotions, they need to develop an awareness of others’ emotions and the ability to effectively manage those relationships. Being aware of the emotions of others, which we can call social awareness, requires practice and a concerted daily effort to improve.

Being empathetic and practicing empathetic listening improves communication, strengthens relationships, allows room for innovation with conflict resolution, and creates an atmosphere of psychological safety. Imagine a leader demonstrating these skills instead of simply delegating or making the decision for the team. Social awareness accelerates crossing the leadership gap, and knowing how to manage relationships lands them safely on that transformative side where they can lead with a higher sense of purpose.

Realizing the Benefits of Developing Emotional Intelligence

So, what does this all mean for leaders today? The bridge from conventional to transformational leadership begins with an unwavering commitment to self-awareness, learning to navigate the emotional chaos within, and cultivating self-management.

As leaders master their internal emotional landscape, they unlock the ability to extend their reach into the emotional landscapes of others, nurturing relationships, fostering innovation, and leading with a higher sense of purpose. By embracing EQ, leaders are not just leading; they are transforming by pioneering beyond the ordinary to forge new paths toward growth and success. In the journey from simply leading to becoming a transformative leader, EQ is the compass, guiding the way across the divide.

About the Authors

Stuart Bonner Jr
Stuart is a former educator and leadership advisor who now works as a consultant in the leadership division of GP Strategies. He is certified in the EQ-i 2.0 & 360 assessments and is the subject matter expert on all things emotional intelligence. His other interests include coaching theory, narrative coaching, and anything having to do with bicycles.

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