Managerial competence, expertise and a great track record are some of the key traits that can help get you promoted to the C-suite. So, too, can being well-suited to handle the pressures particular to your industry.
But executives who end up becoming the very best leaders usually bring something more: a high level of emotional and moral intelligence.
That intelligence is what helps them create environments that people want to work in. It’s what helps them hire and retain great talent. And it’s what leads them to handle problems and failures more productively.
One long-term study even found that top executives who possess “high characters” run more profitable companies than others.
What separates the best from the rest
Here are just five of the distinguishing traits that set executives with high emotional and moral intelligence apart:
Attuned to others: They understand employees are people with lives, not just assets with skill sets.
They get to know who their employees are and listen to their concerns, which helps build trust and connection, according to Dr. Karol Wasylyshyn, an executive coach and author of “Destined to Lead.”
Emotionally self-aware: Being conscious of your own emotions and channeling them in ways that help you do your job is common in excellent leaders, Wasylyshyn noted.
Knowing the best time to express anger, for instance, can be very effective. But raging regularly is not.
The best executives also are aware of their own vulnerabilities and fears, she said.
Committed to putting the right people in the right roles: An emotionally intelligent leader is not afraid to fire or transfer people if they’re not the best fit for their jobs. But they do so in a way that lets the person leave with grace and dignity, Wasylyshyn said.
Trying to make something work with the wrong people because you can’t bring yourself to replace them is one of the biggest regrets that retiring CEOs express, she noted.
Able to live with discomfort: Highly evolved leaders are not afraid to act on tough decisions, even though they may involve risk and will invite criticism, said Dr. Ken Settel, a principal at the Boswell Group, a business consulting firm.
Other leaders, by contrast, can get tied in knots by uncertainty or the prospect of displeasing others. Or they can’t tolerate assertiveness or aggression.
“You’re always balancing interests. People can be very critical of you,” said Settel, who wrote “CEO Psychology: Who Rises, Who Falls and Why.”
Strike a balance: Everyone has stronger and weaker tendencies that influence their actions. Successful entrepreneurs, for example, tend to take more risk than most.
But when it comes to leading others, achieving greater equilibrium emotionally and socially can work to your company’s advantage.
The Flippen Group, a corporate talent and team development firm, uses a test to tease out how strongly clients exhibit key traits (e.g., self-confidence, ability to defer to others, dominance, nurturing and criticality or the tendency to look for what’s wrong). Some of the best leaders’ typically score in the middle range, the firm’s researchers have found.
“Those with great social-emotional balance truly care about their people and show it,” said Flip Flippen, the firm’s founder. That, in turn, can boost employee engagement.
By contrast when people score outside the middle range on some important traits, that may constrain their ability to lead well.
Take leaders who score low on nurturing and high on criticality.
“They don’t celebrate or affirm their people. They don’t act respectfully toward them. They don’t know how to apologize. And they want everything yesterday,” said Flippen, a psychotherapist.
It pays to have good character
KRW International, a leadership consulting firm, conducted a long-term study of 84 companies to assess leaders’ character. Researchers measured character based on four principles: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.
In the study, executives scored themselves and a random sampling of their employees also scored the executives.
What KRW found is that the companies with leaders that had the highest average score across all four principles typically had higher employee engagement, reduced financial and legal risk and a much higher return-on-assets than companies with leaders whose scores were lower.
“High-character people tell the truth and have appropriate failure tolerance. That’s what makes people want to run through walls for them,” said Kelly Garramone, a managing partner at KRW.
And having someone at the top who is known for having a “high” character can positively influence behavior down the chain of command.
Interestingly, Garramone noted, a leader’s reputation among employees is more closely tied to business performance than a leader’s self-assessment.
So a CEO may think he has a lot of integrity and compassion. But if his employees don’t perceive that, the company is likely to perform less well than it otherwise might.