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Resonant leadership and high EQ

By Lena Wilson - Posted on 14 March 2019

In her second blog post following her Leading Forward lecture on soft power at Strathclyde Business School, visiting professor Dr Lena Wilson CBE looks at resonant leadership.

We’re all familiar now with the desire of organisations to balance out IQ with EQ – not just brain strength but emotional strength – and the ability to relate to and interact with others.

I was a believer in the power of emotional intelligence before I even knew what it was to be honest – probably because, growing up as one of five kids, you had to be extremely skilled in your communication and relationship techniques to be heard and find your place.

Excellence in leadership can be easy to talk about but really hard to describe and embed. I wanted not just to set the aspirational leadership bar high for Scottish Enterprise but to make it something which was also identifiable. We hit on the notion of resonant leadership.

Being resonant is the power to evoke positive emotions, a way we used to describe the emotional intelligence we were looking for in our leaders. Early on we worked with the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University who are world leading experts in the field of the link between emotional intelligence and outstanding leadership.

Once the top executive team had mastered the subject and had been trained in how to facilitate learning in others, we stopped using any outside help and began to be our own teachers, layer by layer working through the organisation.

It took time but eventually every single people manager had been through the programme and we embedded it in how we assessed performance, identified talent, promoted people and recruited leaders. The idea was not for all leaders to be automatons but it absolutely was the intention to set high performance leadership standards which would eventually be 100% consistent throughout the organisation. Leaders changed from bosses to coaches, mentors, performance enhancers and servants of their teams. They were equipped not just to motivate better but also to have honest, tough conversations, deal with conflict and address issues head on which made the whole place just feel more honest.

This work took completely relentless effort but the focus was to build a strong cohesive leadership group that was empowered to take action to make things happen. This wasn’t an end in itself – the aim was to drive up performance, transform staff engagement and the working environment to help achieve Scotland’s economic ambition.

We spent a lot of time crafting a plan and communicating that with positivity, clarity and honesty. Even if not everyone agreed with it or felt threatened by it, we wanted to make sure that at the very least they completely understood why we had to change and what it might mean for them.

It’s often glibly said but people really were our only asset and we needed to be an employer of choice – we needed to both attract fresh talent and let it thrive. To change and to deliver we had to compete with the top professional services firms who could pay more but not necessarily give people the level of challenge early on in their careers.

We set about making sure we had the right people in the right place so they could be transformational and actively encouraged risk taking. We removed as many barriers and boundaries so we could be more collaborative and responsible and focused on embedding an international mind-set so we were able to proactively identify new opportunities.

We could only really drive the change needed with a strong, effective leadership team so we needed to take people out of their comfort zone and challenge ways of working.

We needed to inspire and motivate our leaders – instil a sense of authority, responsibility and accountability and adopt principles based on emotional intelligence. For us, resonant leadership eventually worked its way into the DNA of how we expected all colleagues to act.

This was a relentless day in, day out effort over a few years, not a consultant-led change initiative. I’m not against consultants but it was important that we did this ourselves. A milestone was when we became one of the Sunday Times Top 100 Best not-for-profit places to work in the UK – a rare accolade for a Scottish organisation. There were numerous other success factors – grievances were down, sickness was down, staff turnover was down, and fresh talent attraction was up, including 80% from the private sector.

However, the most important success factor of all was the positive staff feedback on changes being implemented across the organisation and how much better the place ‘felt’. Proving my ‘hard impact’ theory, a few years into this journey Scottish Enterprise delivered its best ever performance with its lowest ever budget.

This environment wasn’t for absolutely everyone – whilst we gave all leaders the chance and the support to get there, not everyone survived. I can’t stress how important that was in establishing believability and trust and in some cases it was the first time that unacceptable behaviour had been tackled. Tackled, of course, in an ethical and fair way – any power, hard or soft, when abused is dangerous.

Leadership is a subject which provokes a huge amount of debate.  Are leaders born or made? Is leadership and management the same thing? Do you have to have the “right” personality to be a leader? I would advocate that effective leadership, where everyone is equipped with the appropriate skill set and “lives” the values day in and day out true to the organisational purpose, builds not only more effective organisations but gives those in leadership roles (and indeed everyone in the organisation) confidence and a sense of liberation. I’ve found resonant leadership to be an effective route to this and have witnessed the benefits first hand.

The Leading Forward lecture series is hosted by Strathclyde Business School in association with Royal Bank of Scotland. In the next blog post, Lena will address authentic engagement in the workplace. For further information and to book the next in the Leading Forward lectures, please click here

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