Why emotional intelligence will be key to dealing with the uncertainty of Brexit

EI defines the quality and character of a modern business leader

We are living in a period of constant uncertainty fuelled by factors such as globalisation, worldwide economic challenges, climate change and, here in the UK, we now have a snap General Election. Many organisations and senior level executives are struggling to stay afloat and aligned in what is increasingly being referred to as the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) nature of today’s global business environment and as we move towards a post-Brexit era, the effects will only become amplified.

Last year saw Chancellor Phillip Hammond abandon his predecessor’s aim to ‘balance the books’ by 2020.  He also told the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016, that the Brexit vote will undoubtedly cause “turbulence” and business confidence would be on a “bit of a rollercoaster”.  With Article 50 now triggered, opinion is as divided as ever on the impact of Brexit on the UK’s economic outlook.  Barely a day goes by without someone proclaiming the ‘golden opportunity’ that Brexit represents, only to be countered by a gloomy prediction of economic decline, with some of our mainstay institutions reputedly drawing up plans to move their operations to other, European countries in the near-term. Some of the implications for the UK economy of Brexit do appear to be crystallising, with inflation on the increase and the Bank of England revising its UK growth forecast downwards, but I think the truth remains that no-one really knows how Brexit will play out in the long-term.  What is clear, however, is that business leaders are going to face volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity at unprecedented levels and the way in which they deal with this will play a large part in defining the scale and resilience of the UK’s post-Brexit economy.

We’ve previously explored the attributes that business leaders will need to possess in order to succeed in these increasingly turbulent times, but there is arguably one factor, above all, that defines the quality and character of a modern business leader – high emotional intelligence.  Given the stresses and strains that Brexit is likely to impose, it is the growing sense of self-awareness, derived from a high emotional intelligence, that is likely to determine how well leaders cope with and adapt to, the VUCA characteristics of the new business landscape.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capacity of individuals to recognise their own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings, label them appropriately and filter emotional information to guide one’s thinking and behaviour. High levels of EI and the ability to let go of outdated measures of success, enable leaders to be open, faster, and more embracing of new performance imperatives from both the market place and within the organisation. Yet despite this, recent research overwhelmingly shows that, today’s leaders are lacking in emotional intelligence and analysis of the evidence suggests the problem is two-fold.

Firstly, many leaders find themselves in senior positions as a result of being the best at what they do technically, rather than because they have the necessary people leadership experience. In a hierarchical system, often the only opportunity for progression is to go into leadership. Great accountants often become CEOs and good technologists become operational managers and then CIOs, and so on. But at the end of the day, your top finance person does not necessarily have the attributes needed to lead and motivate teams of people, nor might they want to.

Secondly, most individuals are yet to discover a development process that actually works for them – one that is effective in changing behaviour and improving their performance as people leaders.  At the heart of it all, do they really understand the traits of good leadership and what this actually involves? And, do they have the EI to really engage with their teams at the level required?

While the stereotypical image of an all-powerful, dominant, character running a company persists, the days of the autocratic chief executive are perhaps coming to an end. There is an increasing sense that leaders should be more inclusive in their approach, less critical and more ready to embrace the strengths of their staff rather than point out their weaknesses. After all, it takes all personalities to make a well-rounded team.

But, this is just one part of the equation.  It is also easy for senior leaders to fall into the trap of trying to be superheroes, believing they need to be the font of all knowledge and unwilling to admit to any failings. Strong leaders demonstrate an inclusive-style of modern management, are great learners and understand and accept that it is impossible to have all the answers.  Those able to function at this level will view themselves as members of a team, where their value is to facilitate that team to high levels of sustainable performance, whatever the business landscape throws at them. Ultimately, it is the emotional strength displayed by the leader, particularly in difficult circumstances, that is most likely to establish his or her credibility and earn the respect and buy-in of others.

Many are speculating, but right now most businesses are unable to foresee all the changes that are likely to impact them. For or against Brexit, this is now a mute debate.  What matters now is that we leave behind the hubris and spin that sadly monopolised the EU referendum discourse and push ahead with confidence to embrace the new VUCA landscape.  Higher levels of emotional intelligence will be demanded of all UK business leaders to achieve this. If you are interested in reading our full theme briefing on this topic, please click here.

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