Developing Leadership Emotional Literacy

In our last chat, we discussed how emotional wellbeing is just as important as its physical and mental counterparts, particularly as we commemorate (if we want to use that word) the one-year anniversary of the pandemic.

And what a year it has been. In that time, several vaccines have been created and rolled out around the World. However, variants of the virus have already begun to appear, causing many to wonder as to any efficacy (far less, hope) the vaccines bring in the fight against the disease.

Nevertheless, cautious or regular optimism aside, we kept marching on. All of us, in this struggle together. At various levels and of various means, yes, but we kept on keeping on together. Such an effort clearly exacted a toll on our business, our communities, and our wellbeing and lives. Against such a sombre backdrop, it’s no wonder that our stress levels are higher than ever. Not just for leaders who must continually make the tough and the right calls, but for everyone called upon to navigate their lives in a time of challenge and opportunity.

Stress may be a natural part of life. However, if we are unable to control it, or more accurately, our responses to it, then we stand to lose more than the pandemic can even dream of taking.

Increasing our emotional literacy may provide answers to the questions we ask and to those we will come to ask ourselves in the immediate future.

The Pursuit of Emotional Literacy
Now, before we get further into our discussion, I want to quickly add this discussion is by no means intended to be a self-help exposition. I am no expert in this field.

All I can do is share my personal experiences and tips that I practice daily, in the hope that you find some help in them. And, if you do, all I can hope is that you share it with others.

Now, let’s deep dive into what constitutes developing our emotional literacy. In his book, Achieving Emotional Literacy, Claude Steiner describes emotional literacy as the ability to “understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and empathise with their emotions, and the ability to express emotions productively.”

Unlike emotional intelligence, emotional literacy has to do more with increasing our awareness of emotions in general and then applying this knowledge in meaningful ways to improve our personal and professional relationships, through careful management of our emotions, compassion, and communication. (Think of it as Applied Emotional Intelligence, if that helps.)

So it stands to reason that if emotional intelligence is the natural precursor to emotional literacy, then as we better understand how things make us feel, we better understand how they affect our actions. The better we understand that, then the better we understand how they (both our emotions and our actions) affect our teams.

This is a powerful starting point because it calls for us, as leaders, to ask ourselves those harder questions we try to avoid, or worse, drown beneath deadlines, meetings, and quotas. Emotional literacy calls for a mastery of the storms raging within so that, as effective leaders, we can better weather the storms outside.

As leaders, our words and actions do more than determine bottom lines. They influence our teams and their emotions as well. And this relationship is by no means one way since their emotions and actions directly affect us. If our teams are beleaguered by stress, then we can expect that stress to come back at us tenfold. If we lead with a cold heart, an iron fist, and a tin ear, we sow seeds of angst, wrath, fear, and worry. What can we expect to reap but a full harvest of intimidation instead of loyalty; uneasy servitude instead of commitment; and reduced productivity instead of true buy-in from our people.

As a person sows, they shall reap. As a leader sows, so shall he or she reap.

Steps to Developing Emotional Literacy
The first step calls for an honest and thorough self-assessment of what you bring to the table as a leader. This step is the hardest because, quite frankly, everyone sees themselves through a lens that makes character traits appear larger or better than they really are. At this juncture, we must be able to recognise our true emotions, strengths and weaknesses. We have to understand what drives us and know that just because they move us, they may not necessarily motivate our teams. We have to better appreciate that which motivates our people.

This step is key to understanding and defining who we are as leaders, why we make the decisions we do, and how and why we succeed and fail. If we can begin to master this step as leaders, we can build upon our strong suits and improve the weak points. Moreover, we can position ourselves to meaningfully help others (team members and peers) to do the same.

The next step is Discipline.

Show me an undisciplined leader and I will show you a disaster in the making. This is not a hyperbole. If we cannot control, deflect or constructively redirect disruptive emotions and behaviours, both within ourselves and our teams, we are courting chaos. And this world is already chaotic enough without compounding it with a lack of discipline.

The most effective leaders, whether in business or everyday life, are the ones who are able to focus on the important and separate all the white noise surrounding. Former US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a great leader in his own right, is often quoted as saying, “I have two kinds of problems – the important and the urgent. The urgent are never important and the important are never urgent.”

In fact, his quote has been adapted to form the Eisenhower Decision Principle, a popular time management matrix. The point I want to drive home here is that, regardless of whether or not something is urgent, important, both or neither, leaders must exercise discipline and not lose our cool in the process. If anxiety and panic are contagious, then leaders, through emotional literacy, can work hard on making calmness and levelheadedness even more contagious.

When leaders are disciplined enough to say stay calm and positive, we find ourselves in a better position to think and communicate more clearly with our teams. In a better position to lead them. After all, we cannot get the best of our teams or ourselves if we are distracted. Of course, many of us have families, a tonne of pressing obligations, and jam-packed to-do lists, but a disciplined approach to building and maintaining healthy and productive relationships is essential to developing our emotional literacy.

The last step is Compassionate Empathy. And for this to even have a shot at working, we need to rely on the first two tips heavily. Empathy is defined as the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes to really understand how they may feel or react to a certain situation. It is the first real way that we can connect with our teams. It is the first real way that we can communicate with them. Leaders must have the ability to connect and communicate effectively to properly manage relationships and motivate our people in the desired direction. In order to do this, we must have an empathic relationship with them.

When we develop empathy, as leaders, we can relate better with our teams. The more (or better) we can do this, the better we become at understanding what motivates or upsets them. Having said that, a good first step is to acknowledge that we can never really put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes. As much as we would like to. That “truth” is probably as important as the nevertheless efforts that we must make to have the compassionate empathy.

The Emotionally Literate Leader: A Continual Work in Progress?
Self-Assessment, Discipline, and Compassionate Empathy are my 3 keys for building emotional literacy, for training ourselves to be better able to recognise the nuances in our emotions and for getting the most out of our teams. They were not always my keys, but time brings experience and experience brings wisdom. What we do with that wisdom is up to each of us.

In my practice, this has opened meaningful and sustainable pathways to better communicate with my teams, my peers, and my community. It has not always been a smooth path as there have been many obstacles along the way. In fact, it remains one of the most difficult tasks that I have set for myself.

But I honestly believe that this path, less travelled as it were, has led to better communication, with fewer conflicts and a much more open, honest and supportive workplace across the network.

Emotional Literacy is something that I actively encourage throughout and wholeheartedly endorse as the bedrock of my organisation’s success. Of course, in the financial services industry, as some would quickly tell you, it is often regarded as being about profit margins and risk management. But behind those numbers and figures are people. People working hard and working together. Most of all, leading and serving those people is you, their leader.

Without active and practiced emotional literacy, we cannot lead ourselves. And if we can’t lead ourselves, how can we expect to lead others? How dare we?

What are some of your tips for developing emotional literacy? What strategies are you employing in your organisations? I would really love to know.

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