We love intelligence. If I have learned nothing else over the course of my nearly 30 years of professional life, there's at least that. The problem is, we often have a misguided notion of what intelligence actually means.
Plain Old Intelligence Isn't Enough
When I was growing up there seemed to be a big emphasis on someone's IQ, their Intelligence Quotient. You wanted to have a high IQ because, as I understood, it would mean you would be considered capable and smart. It would also lead to a successful career with lots of money and accolades.
Cool!!! I wanted all of those things. So I used my natural intelligence for learning to get good grades in school. Even though I grew up in a state (Massachusetts) with one of the best education systems in the US, and in a town with top-rated schools within the state, I found the going pretty easy. I always killed it on the standardized tests, and I didn't really have to try very hard to get good grades. So I didn't.
While I guess I must've been intelligent as a kid, I'd also say I wasn't particularly smart back then. Many of my gifts were wasted because I lacked direction and motivation.
Technology As The New Intelligence
Eventually I moved on to college. Still lacking any clear purpose, I skated through business school with decent grades and graduated with a BA in Marketing. After a few years of floundering around in ill-suited sales roles, I landed a an IT job in 1997. Aha! This was it.
Technology was just starting to take over as the new engine of the global economy. After getting past the Y2K scare, the boom was on and I was right in the thick of it. Focused on learning how to put data systems together intelligently so that web sites and other systems would fulfill their promise, I was finally excited about using my brain!
Yet the same things always seemed to happen:
Managers would fight over which project should get IT resources, which typically meant everything got less than it needed and the results were underwhelming.
Technologists would sometimes trip over each other to show off how much more intelligent they were than their peers, inadvertently (?) creating internal conflicts that prevented systems from working well together.
Leaders, swimming in a raging new sea of IT possibilities, would grab the nearest life raft when it came time to make a big decision, often relying on the words of the most polished vendor/consultant without fully understanding the impact of such a major decision until years later.
The promise of IT as the savior, of the way to make industry more intelligent, seemed to be failing.
Wait ... We Need Business Intelligence!
When the tide subsided a bit, businesses found themselves with a collection of data and systems that didn't seem entirely intelligent. Nobody was happy and the path for connecting all that disparate information was murky, at best.
Until Business Intelligence systems came to the rescue! "BI" represented a magical system that could read all of those shards and turn them into a beautiful mosaic that would provide the answers: Sales Intelligence! Market Intelligence! Customer Intelligence!
These things came true - I know, I built a few BI systems during the latter part of my IT career. And guess what? Not much changed. Yeah, there were shiny new dashboards and statistics. But, honestly, I never saw much progress. The same old issues of competing for resources, getting lost in ego-based conflicts, and lack of clear communication still stood in the way.
Next Up? Emotional Intelligence
Ok, now we're getting somewhere. Right? Over the past 20-30 years there have been numerous studies and articles explaining why emotional intelligence is important for leadership, and by extension, all of us.
I'm a firm believer in this line of thinking. When it comes down to it, our successes and failures always hinge on our ability to interact productively with other people. Multiple studies have shown that emotions hijack your logical decisions. You might have the best idea on the planet, but if you can't communicate it successfully to other intelligent beings, it will go nowhere.
In particular, people who sit in defined leadership roles have a huge emotional impact on their organizations. Simply put, we "follow the leader", for better or worse.
I spend a lot of my time these days studying emotional intelligence (EI) and helping leaders develop their EI skills. From self-awareness and emotional self-control, to positive outlook and empathy, these are critical human relationship skills that make it so much easier to create a balanced and happy life. When a leader demonstrates these, it creates a much better chance of successful outcomes.
And here's the thing: One person focusing on their EI skills is still not enough. Why? Because we work in systems. Not necessarily IT systems, although those are always prevalent and can be a big factor in our daily lives. Rather I mean that we work in complex, emotionally charged systems of people, especially within the business world.
Bringing It Together: Emotionally Intelligent Business Systems
Intelligence is multi-faceted. It's not enough to know all the facts or have the right data or to be on top of your own emotions. Those will each set you up for a measure of success.
But we need teams of people, ideally all of them, working together across all of those levels in a coordinated manner. We need to listen and communicate and trust and share and lead and follow, intelligently. By taking care with who we are being and what we are doing with each other, we create the conditions for the successful, intelligent businesses we all crave.
Ok, great. How?
Over the past 18 months I've studied numerous organizations, either via case study or as a hands-on coach/consultant/facilitator. In many cases I've coached leadership teams directly on how to build their business into a sustainable and happy place to work.
Here's what I have discovered:
Leaders who commit to building EI skills create organizations in which it's safe to share information and opinions. This is crucial to all of the next elements.
These humble leaders welcome information and data from other areas of the organization. They are willing to share ideas, responsibilities, and success with other members of their leadership team and beyond.
Because they are out of the business of owning detailed information (they can trust others to do it!), these leaders can focus their energy on understanding how the business is running and creating the strategies needed to arrive at their vision of success.
Emotionally intelligent leaders create buy-in by sharing their clear vision for the organization and openly listening to questions & concerns, even at risk of criticism.
Emotionally intelligent and secure leaders more readily provide opportunities for others in the organization to take on "big ideas", including how to utilize business systems and own key data processes.
These strong leaders will openly communicate how their plans for the business impact everyone, so everyone knows their role and what success looks like within it.
People in non-traditional leadership roles seriously engage in taking on major initiatives. They are able to do this because they are given permission to bring their ideas (and IQ's) to the table - and they see them taken seriously. They often bring more powerful energy and more useful, localized intelligence to the process than a leader higher up in the organization, too.
Everyone starts rowing in the same direction when everyone's IQ is respected and valued, when business systems are properly deployed in service of a clear strategic direction, and when a culture of emotionally intelligent engagement is built.
It was purely by accident that I landed in IT. Yet the rest of my journey seems natural to me. I care deeply about people and how they connect. I am a total geek when it comes to learning about leadership and emotional intelligence. Put that all together and I seem to have stumbled onto (worked hard to discover?) a way forward in this complex world of mixed intelligences.
What do you think? Let me know! I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Jim Young is a coach, facilitator, consultant, and improviser. He lives in Western Massachusetts, where he shares his house half the time with two teens and a 'tween. When he's not helping leadership teams find a sustainable - and intelligent - path forward for their business, he can often be found on a stage, making up words with one of his improv troupes.
If you're a leader seeking to bring more intelligence into your business, Jim would love to talk to you. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.