Going 'soft' isn't a bad thing for good leaders

Emotional intelligence - being able to manage your own emotions to nurture relationships - is key in today's diverse workforce

Every year, Ms Indra Nooyi, chief executive officer of PepsiCo, sits down to write a letter… in fact, she writes 400 of them.

In each one, she tells the parents of her senior executives what their child is doing for the company and why they are a gift to the company.

The response from her colleagues: "This is the best thing that has happened to my parents. And, it is the best thing that has happened to me."

Needless to say, Ms Nooyi is enjoying a high approval rating in her 11th year as CEO.

Why is that?

Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence (EI) theory would say that it has everything to do with her mastering "the soft stuff".

Before this new paradigm hit business schools and boardrooms, strong leadership was top-down, empirical and calculated, emotionally invulnerable.

Bedside manners and empathy were optional.

But business is waking up to the idea that intelligence quotient (IQ) and Ivy League-splattered resumes won't necessarily translate into running a tight, productive and happy ship.

It will take more intuitive, fluid forms of leadership that can leverage the power of human connections and the ability to inspire others.

If you want to build anything great, you are going to have to get it the hard way. Soft skills are the hard skills inside the glass walls of today's organisations.


You have only to listen to Jeff Bezos' self-deprecating laugh, or reference Mark Zuckerberg's dress-down wardrobe, to agree that today's best leaders are not gunning for superhero status.

But their genius (aside from the fact that they are geniuses) lies in the fact that they are not trying.

Where they have chosen to throw their weight is in their own emotional regulation, so that they continue to model something sustainable and replicable to the organisation.

More than a sunny disposition or extroverted confidence, EI is about discerning and managing your own emotions, so that you can nurture the relationships around you.

And considering that teams are now far more disparate, the ability to lead a diverse workforce is now indispensable.

Vendors, freelancers, offshore teams and contractors sit around the same virtual tables these days, and today's leader must have the empathy, communicative savvy and interpersonal skills to synthesise these into a cohesive healthy brand.

Today, leaders are expected to go first - to be transparent and approachable - and to model teachability to their workforce.

An emotionally intelligent leader turns mistakes into learning opportunities and operates within healthy boundaries of their finite capacity.

Leaders who are emotionally self-regulated and self-aware know how to pause, think and step into another person's shoes before acting.

Those with high EI know how to keep growing and redefining their contribution to society, even as the business world is disrupted.

That is how they keep winning.


Unlike IQ that is fixed - signed and sealed into your DNA - EI can grow with time.

So, for us not-quite-Einsteins, how can we leverage the plasticity of EI to stay relevant?

For one, we must get better at listening. It is a rare but critical skill in the modern workplace.

If leaders can learn how to get others talking and create safe, engaging environments where the smartest one in the room isn't necessarily the highest paid, innovation will pop.

If empathy is an articulated goal, and we make it our aim to see the story from someone else's side, we will sidestep a lot of time-and-energy-guzzling conflict.

We will be able to relate better to our clients and teams.

And, if we can get honest with our strengths and weaknesses, we can probably have the insight to tolerate others' limitations and oversights.

The good thing is - it is never too late to grow up. No leader, no matter how renowned, has it together on all fronts.

So, what does your EI inventory look like? Maybe it is time for a stocktake.

The writer is global chief people officer at Aurecon. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.