The Human Aspect: The Lost Leadership Element

There is a leadership vacancy in the state/country. We have a leadership void. We have a lack of leadership in our community. There seems to be a huge gap in leadership in our organizations. These comments, and comments like these, are being made by people in many different arenas. I hear these kinds of statements at a lot of meetings these days. When I review professional development needs assessments, I see statistics and comments that say the number one or number two need of our group is leadership development.

However, when I reflect on these statements, I don’t see many leadership positions going unfilled and I don’t see any decrease in the number of opportunities for leadership. There seem to be individuals in those leadership positions. So what is going on? While there is a perceived and expressed lack of leadership, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of people to fill the leadership positions. Then what do people mean by these comments?

Perhaps what people mean by “no leadership” or a “lack of leadership” is not that there are no people in leadership positions, but that the people in those positions are unprepared or ill prepared to be able to provide leadership. Perhaps leadership is less about position and more about working with and influencing others. Perhaps leadership is less about technical knowledge and more about understanding human dynamics.

As I reflect upon the vast array of leaders for whom I have worked, studied or observed, I conclude that just being a smart person in whatever field does not qualify that person to be a leader. While knowing one’s field of study or expertise is important, it doesn’t seem to be the key factor in being an effective leader. As recent research indicates emotional intelligence may actually be more important than being intelligent or being an expert in a technical field.

Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence states;   “EI abilities rather than IQ or technical skills emerge as the ‘discriminating’ competency that best predicts who among a group of very smart people will lead most ably.” While being smart or very skilled in a technical field are important aspects to leadership, the critical issue that relates more to being an effective leader is one’s emotional intelligence.

And what makes up emotional intelligence? Goleman identifies a key set of these characteristics. They include the abilities; to motivate oneself and persist through frustrations, to control impulses and delay gratification, to regulate one’s moods and not let distress impact the ability to think, to empathize, and to hope. While these human aspects of leadership are not the elements of leadership we quickly identify, the research clearly identifies them as critical to the effectiveness of leadership.

When you think of effective leaders, do you immediately think of the smartest person or the person with the most skill in that area? Or do you think of the person who can get a group of people engaged around an issue or a vision of where the group needs to be headed? Do you think of the person who knows “the best solution” for a problem? Or do you think of the person who can bring people together to arrive at and own a solution to the problem? Do you think of the person who seems to be able to set aside his or her own needs to do what is best for the group or organization?

Again the research of Dr. James Kouzes and Dr. Barry Posner reinforces the human element of leadership. At least three of their Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership (model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, encourage the heart) speak directly to the human element and emotional intelligence.

So if we have a leadership crisis, it may be because we are not developing our leaders to understand the human aspect of leading and not because we lack people for the leadership positions. The next time you hear someone say we lack leadership, ask them to describe what they mean by the statement.

Until next time, ask yourself what it would take to prepare future leaders to understand and utilize the human element.