There’s a big difference between being a leader, and a great leader, one that leaves behind a legacy and inspires millions of people. Think about it – we can all easily name off a list of CEOs, Presidents and Prime Ministers, but if asked to name a leader that has inspired an entire generation, we tend to think of only a handful of people, such as the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. We may also think of leaders closer to home, such as Barack Obama or Sheryl Sandberg.
So, what makes them such effective leaders?
After all, it only takes a quick glance at leadership in government, corporations, and within the media to know that it is not enough to just be intelligent, powerful or charismatic in order to be called an inspiring leader, or earn the same level of respect as the group mentioned above.
The difference comes down to one common thread that exists between all inspiring leaders: a high level of emotional intelligence or EI/EQ.
Fortunately, EI is a set of skills that can be developed and cultivated over time with practice – read on to learn more!
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence is the capacity to recognize our own feelings and those of others and to manage emotions effectively in ourselves and our relationships. (1) A key characteristic involves the ability to adjust emotions and adapt quickly to a different environment or for a specific goal.
A common misconception is that emotional intelligence refers to being sensitive, or having a high level of empathy. You can have both of those traits, yet not be emotionally intelligent if you are not self-aware of your emotions or know how to manage them.
According to Dr. Daniel Goleman, a world-renowned psychologist, author and Emotional Intelligence coach, there are four competencies of emotional intelligence that are required for effective leadership: (1)
- Self-management (self-control, adaptability, positive outlook, achievement orientation)
- Social awareness (empathy, organizational awareness)
- Relationship management (mentor, influencer, inspirational leadership, conflict management, teamwork)
Adding to the above list of key components of a high EQ, there are several red flags that can offer insight on an individuals lack of EQ.
Interested in measuring your own baseline emotional intelligence? There are a lot of online EI tests you can take as well, like this one found on the popular site Psychology Today.
How To Increase Emotional Intelligence With Meditation
Just as a professional athlete needs to train their bodies for strength, effective leaders need to train their mind for strength as well – and meditation and a consistent mindfulness practice are the most powerful tools to help achieve this.
While meditation alone will not create a well of emotional intelligence, it will simultaneously strengthen the mind across all four emotional intelligence competencies mentioned above, which enables emotional intelligence and effective leadership to take place.
How is meditation able to do this?
Meditation is not just spiritual fluff – this exercise physically changes the structure of the brain, builds new neural pathways and can weaken others. In particular, research has shown that meditation can strengthen the following areas related to emotional intelligence:
Meditation helps to control our immediate reactions. For example, it weakens neural connections to the fear centre of the brain – the amygdala – where primal reactions such as fear and anger are triggered. In contrast, it also strengthens the neural connection to the assessment centre of the brain – the prefrontal cortex – where rational thought and logic reside. (2)
Strengthening these connections allows for more thoughtful responses as a leader and an overall calmer demeanour.
Being able to understand how others feel and tune into their emotional state, helps us become more effective communicators, and therefore more effective leaders.
Research shows that the connection between the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – the ‘me centre’ of the brain that references back to personal perspective and also infers other people’s state of mind – and the insula – involved in ‘gut-level’ feelings – becomes stronger after meditation. This strengthened connection enhances our capacity to understand where another person is coming from, and put ourselves in their shoes. (2)
Meditation encourages greater ‘gut level’ intuition, which is governed by the insula region of the brain. The role of the insula is to monitor bodily sensations and assesses whether they are benign or harmful, and a strengthened insula will be better able to pick up on bodily cues from the muscles, skin, ears and eyes, if something doesn’t feel right. (2)
Together, a strengthened insula and prefrontal cortex (where logic and rational thought reside) help develop the ability to pause, reflect and evaluate how we think and feel on a daily basis.
This greater self-awareness can, therefore, help guide leaders when it comes to making hard decisions.
Effectively navigating a conflict requires the ability to find common ground and understand different perspectives. This is made possible when we approach a conflict with a mindful approach.
As shown above, meditation enables this mindful approach by improving emotional self-control, self-awareness and empathy. It helps us develop the ability to acknowledge that we have our own biases, emotions and sense of distorted perspective. This opens the door to ownership and acceptance of responsibility.
Once we are aware of our emotions and bias, we can prevent them from affecting our decisions or actions, all while being more sensitive to a different point of view. You can read more on how to use mindfulness to improve conflict here.
How To Get Started With Meditation
If you are a beginner to meditation, start with focused meditation. This calls for an object to be the center of your focus, driving all other thoughts away.
To get in the habit, try guided meditation sessions with an app like Muse; this will make the process easier and more enjoyable. The Muse app also pairs with a brain sensing headband that will translate your brainwaves into the sounds of weather, allowing you to understand when your thoughts have wandered. The combination of the Muse app and Muse headband help you keep track of your progress, and provide valuable insights for building a consistent practice.
Start with three minutes per day, and then build up to longer sessions if you want. Make it a consistent habit and you should notice a shift within just a few weeks.
- Conflict Resolution: 6 Common Arguing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- Mindful Communication: How to communicate better using meditation
- Media, K. and WooCommerce, B. (2018). Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies: An Overview. [online] Key Step Media. Available at: https://www.keystepmedia.com/emotional-social-intelligence-leadership-competencies/ [Accessed 21 May 2018].
- Gladding, R. (2013). This is your brain on meditation. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 21 May. 2018].