The #1 Core Competency for Leaders

Jan 24, 2019

By Sander A. Flaum

I suppose that over the years I have met a few natural leaders—but it is a rare occurrence. Most of the really successful leaders I know work hard at it. They read three or four newspapers a day, consume books on leadership, devour business news from magazines and online sources, and debate business imperatives all the time with friends and colleagues. They also attend seminars and workshops, develop advanced interpersonal skills, and they practice. Every now and then they look in the mirror—not to admire that new suit, but to ask themselves: Would you follow me?

Think about it. If you can’t lead yourself, why should anyone want to follow you? Writing in the June 2011 issue of Leadership Excellence, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, currently Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and the author of numerous books about leadership, recalled a mentor who tried to coach upcoming leaders by saying “Be more like me.” But where’s the value in that? Bill George knew that to grow he needed to learn how to bring out the unique leadership skills that were inside him; that he’d never get anywhere imitating others. He knew he had to become authentic.

According to George, the critical factor for all leaders is Emotional Intelligence, or EQ.  As he puts it, “I’ve never seen anyone fail for lack of IQ, but I’ve seen hundreds fail who lacked EQ.”

In discussing EQ, George cites Daniel Goleman, author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. According to Goleman, EQ has four distinct domains, which I’m paraphrasing here:

  • Self-awareness. You must be able to understand your emotions and appreciate their impact on your performance. (“Know yourself.”) If you are angry or fearful, you’ll be prone to making bad decisions and becoming the boss that everyone hates.
  • Self-management. By becoming aware of your emotions, you can learn to stop acting on impulse and start using your reason and intelligence to perform on a higher, more intelligent level.
  • Social awareness. To communicate effectively and efficiently, you must be able to look outward and understand and feel the emotions of others. You must be able to empathize.
  • Relationship management. Instead of maneuvering people as though they were pawns in a chess game, you must learn to influence their emotions, which in turn will modify their behavior. When you are a team leader, people look to you for cues as to how they should feel and act. A positive mood can work wonders; a negative mood hurts everyone.

Developing your EQ

One way to develop self-awareness is to assess your life stories and reflect on how they shaped you as a leader, then extend these insights. For example, Dan Welch, CEO of InterMune, remembers making pocket money as a teenager by fixing bicycles. He suggests that this experience may have sown the seeds for his career as a turnaround specialist.

As for me, waiting tables in New York’s Catskill Mountains (does the film Dirty Dancing ring a bell?) for four summers during college was formative. Trying to provide A service to a demanding and diverse clientele taught me invaluable lessons in the importance of organization, timeliness, and most essential, the skills needed when interacting with others. By reflecting on your particular leadership capabilities, you create the foundation for a leadership style based uniquely upon who you are—not a simulation of someone else.

Another way to hone your leadership edge is to recall situations where you have missed the mark. Have you ever lost your temper with a subordinate, only to realize later that you initially didn’t make your objectives clear? Have you ever neglected to sincerely thank the people responsible for a major success? Do you repeat your mistakes? Or learn from them? As you develop greater self-awareness, monitor yourself. Set aside time to reflect on what’s gone well and what needs improvement. Record your thoughts and re-read them every month.  Keep a journal or perhaps simply meditate.

George’s final recommendation for developing EQ? Seek honest feedback from everyone. This includes subordinates, superiors, and peers. The former mayor of New York, Ed Koch had a trademark phrase: “How am I doing?” What made Koch such a great mayor is that he actually listened to the answers.

As you seek feedback from others and yourself, you’ll find it easier to stay on course during challenging times. You’ll also find you rarely need to exert your power or insist that others follow you. Because once you learn how to lead yourself, you’ll become a natural leader.

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at