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The Science of Transformative Leadership: Training Emotional Intelligence to Empower Execution

Anyone can be a good leader if they are willing to train the necessary skills. Good leaders are competent strategists who set clear goals and effectively manage resources to achieve organizational objectives. You can acquire these necessary, trainable skills through learning and practice. In an era where artificial intelligence (AI) is transforming the way we work, perhaps even AI could be capable of providing good leadership to teams and organizations according to these strategy-focused skills.

To be an exceptional leader, in other words, you must be proficient at both strategy and execution. Strategy is an intellectual (IQ) element of leadership, essential for mapping out the organization’s and individual teams’ direction. In today’s rapidly changing and complex business world, however, good strategists are not enough, and unfortunately, there is a scarcity of truly great leaders who can meet the demands. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2023 report, only 20% of employees trust the leaders in their organizations. While strategy relies on intellectual competencies (IQ), a leader's ability to guide a successful execution is grounded in their emotional intelligence (EQ) capabilities—these include fostering trust, cultivating empathy, increasing effective collaboration, listening to understand, motivating teams, building resilience through change, and more. Why? Without these competencies, even the greatest strategies will fail upon execution. That’s because execution relies on collaborative efforts rather than just a single person’s vision, making EQ is critical for exceptional leadership. 

The Gap in Traditional Leadership Training

Many leadership training programs address this essential growth area for leaders and emphasize the importance of “soft skills” (what we like to call “power skills”), yet they often fail to bridge the gap between conceptual understanding and practical application. Leaders understand why these skills are essential but are left without actionable steps to integrate them into their daily leadership practice and grow in these competencies. 

"Leadership is about empowering others to be the best version of themselves. It is about creating an environment where people feel like they can contribute and make a difference."

Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble.

Neuroscientists have discovered that there are indeed practical ways to strengthen and grow your brain’s capacity for cognitive resilience, emotional resilience, convergent/divergent thinking, empathy, self-awareness, resilience, vulnerability, and compassion. Like any muscle, these personal capacities can be strengthened and toned through consistent practice and development— let’s find out how!

Neuroplasticity: The Brain’s Capacity for Change

Neuroplasticity is the essential mental capacity required to develop emotional intelligence. Neuroplasticity refers to your brain’s ability to evolve, change, and adapt throughout your lifetime continuously. Your brain forges new neural connections every single day in response to thoughts, actions, beliefs, events, and learnings. Each time you learn something new, practice a skill, or even reconsider an existing belief in light of new information, your brain’s neurons form a new synaptic connection. These connections are the physical basis for all of your learned behaviors.  

Leadership Habit Formation: Self-Directed Neuroplasticity

So why should you care about neuroplasticity as a leader? Once you understand how the brain works, you can leverage its natural processes to make it work for you! Self-directed neuroplasticity allows you to intentionally shape your brain's functioning through focused, systematic mental activity. 

One of the most effective tools to cultivate self-directed neuroplasticity is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness acts as the bridge between understanding emotional intelligence and embodying it. Not only does mindfulness increase your ability to direct your attention to any object or mental process, but it simultaneously allows you to understand yourself better: knowing your thoughts, emotions, preferences, biases, strengths, and weaknesses. This self-awareness is a critical tool for understanding how you affect those around you, knowing how you can leverage your strengths, and recognizing when you need to ask for help or further your skillset.  

Emotional Contagion: Harness Your Emotions to Influence Your Team

Research on mirror neurons reveals how emotions are contagious, but they are especially influential from those in positions of power. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers discovered that when leaders were in a positive mood, their team members were more likely to experience positive emotions, leading to reduced effort in achieving goals.

“The behavior of a business’s leaders is, ultimately, the behavior of the organization. As such, it’s the foundation of the culture.”

Larry Bossidy, Author, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done

Leaders must consider what they communicate through words and actions and also the unspoken emotional tone they set. The emotional tone can be a powerful driver of team behavior, cohesion, and, ultimately, performance. When you understand and harness this aspect of leadership, you can be more intentional with your influence.

Daily Leadership Habit Skill Building

Let’s explore two practical ways to implement self-directed neuroplasticity through mindfulness to increase your emotional intelligence capabilities based on example case studies. 

Empathy

You hear from someone on your team that another member feels like their voice and opinions aren’t welcome; they’re frustrated but don’t know what to do. Take this as an opportunity to grow empathy through a technique called mindful listening. While you might be familiar with active listening, which focuses on listening to and repeating what was said. Mindful listening involves a deeper level of understanding, tuning into the unspoken aspects and the emotions behind the words, aiming to understand the speaker’s perspective and feelings. Simply by changing your orientation to the activity of listening, you can transform the way team members feel when they interact with you. Modeling this behavior will encourage a culture of mindful listening and enhance your team's psychological safety. 

Practice: Mindful Listening

Self-Awareness

The need for self-awareness grows as your influence grows as a leader. Yet, research in the Harvard Business Review article, “What Self-Awareness Really Is and How to Cultivate It, shows that most leaders overestimate their effectiveness. Self-awareness is the ability to understand your thoughts and emotions and notice how they directly affect your daily leadership abilities. One practice to cultivate a deeper sense of emotional awareness is to notice and name emotions throughout your day. Naming your emotions creates some distance between you and the emotion you’re experiencing. With this distance, you can better understand that the experience is fleeting, offering some perspective that can help give you a little room to breathe. This helps reduce the fight-flight response that you might experience with difficult emotions, and it is a great tool to better understand how you feel moment-to-moment. The more often you practice, the more easily you recognize emotions as they arise, and you can respond wisely rather than react habitually. 

Practice: Naming Emotions

Hope for the Future of Leadership 

Leadership is a lifelong growth path, and emotional intelligence is the skillset that differentiates good leaders from exceptional ones. These core, human-centered emotional intelligence skills are not simply innate talents but competencies you can strengthen with practice by leveraging your brain’s natural processes.

An exceptional leader positively influences others, motivates their team to innovate and achieve impossible goals, listens deeply to team members and customers, and builds teams based on shared values, mutual trust, and well-being. Leaders like these are the future and will build organizations where people and businesses thrive. 

We can help you build emotionally intelligent leaders. 

Find out why SIY Global is the leader in helping organizations develop sustainable emotional intelligence skills for leaders based in neuroscience. Learn more about our science-based suite of programs.