Caution: Trendy “Emotional Intelligence” Can Cause You to Fail Your People

I was born with an amazing gift: emotional intelligence. Empathy, intuition, and discernment have always come so naturally to me that, from some views, it borders on telepathy. I can see where a person is at in their life-journey, communicate with them in a way that makes them comfortable, and make them feel understood and enabled. Often, I will reach out to check on one of the few people in my inner circle at the exact point of a tragedy, which shocks my closest friends most of all because of the consistency at which it occurs over the course of a decade. 

I was also born with a terrible curse: the self-same trait. For the majority of my life, I have read peoples’ emotions so well – have been so connected to them – that I never wanted to disagree, say no, or let go of their problems. Instead of carrying the weight of my emotions exclusively, I’d stay up well into the night just trying to digest everything I’d perceived throughout the day…and throughout the months and years preceding it.

I carried pain not only from the people I’d met, but from the articles and books I’d read, from stories I’d heard, or even from strangers only seen from a distance. And I didn’t only carry their pain, I also carried their guilt. If a complete stranger didn’t act in a way that was “right,” I perceived it as a collective human failure – as my failure. I was also so concerned about peoples’ comfort level during communication that I developed an intense social anxiety by trying to read every conversational tone and interpret every subtle movement during interactions.

I’ve read dozens of articles of late – many with studies and science to back them – which say that emotional intelligence is more important than any other leadership attribute. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s amazing that many (often introverted) unrecognized leaders are being given the chance they deserve to grow into leadership roles. But unchecked – unbalanced – emotional intelligence can quickly lead to personal burnout while also preventing us from making our people undergo uncomfortable but necessary growth.

The key to being a great leader isn’t one definable trait, but a balance of many traits. It’s not about understanding and placating people – it’s about understanding where they are now, where they need to go next, and how to get them there in a way that is most impactful to the individual in question. Sometimes you have to confront hard truths. Sometimes you have to operate outside of your box. Then again, sometimes qualities are so engrained in people that it isn’t productive to try and force them to operate outside their nature.

A holistic approach to leadership is more effective than exulting a single quality. Emotional intelligence is profoundly important, but we also need to know how to develop future leaders who have that attribute as a defining strength. Teaching them self-care and delegation are a large part of that. Emotionally intelligent people are givers with no boundaries – but you can’t take care of your people unless you know how to take care of yourself first. In order to properly build a team, we have to consider every person on that team – which includes ourselves.

In short, Emotional Intelligence is an attribute that will largely contribute to the success of modern leaders. But unlike the trendy articles going viral of late, I don’t believe that it’s going to be the most valuable currency in the human landscape moving forward. Leaders still have to have grit, authority, and presence to balance their empathy, and they have to learn to funnel the emotions they perceive into focus in a way that does not overwhelm them.  

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