The Emotionally Intelligent CEO

Want to be a CEO? Want to be a better CEO? It helps to know what it takes. Of course, there are lots of books and opinions one can consult. But what does research say?

An interesting study was recently completed with 76 CEOs of companies in Canada’s Innovators Alliance. Companies in the Innovators Alliance had demonstrated at least 35% cumulative growth over the three years prior to the study. The goal of the study was to identify the role that emotional intelligence, or EQ, plays in CEO success.

According to Steve Stein, Ph.D., who conducted the study, EQ can be defined as “a set of skills or competencies that influence one’s ability to cope with life’s demands and pressures.” The life of a CEO has plenty of demands and pressures. Having the skills to handle them would seem to be a pre-requisite for success. The study identified five specific skills, out of the fifteen skills that comprise EQ, as the ones that differentiate successful CEOs from other people. Fortunately, all EQ skills can be improved with the proper training.

Stein had the CEO members of the Innovators Alliance take the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-I), the first fully validated psychological measure of EQ. The EQ-i measures the fifteen EQ skills that psychologist Reuven Bar-On’s twenty years of research has identified as comprising EQ.

Results: Like measures of IQ, the EQ-i has an average score of 100. The average EQ score for the CEOs was a bit higher - 104. While large enough to be statistically reliable, this is not a huge difference. More revealing, these 76 CEOs did score higher than the average population on five of the fifteen skills that the EQ-i measures - Independence, Assertiveness, Optimism, Self-Actualization, and Self-Regard.

Independence: People who score high on Independence are self-reliant thinkers. They may get consultation from others to be sure that they have all the information and ideas that they need. But, when the time comes, they make up their own mind. People who score low on independence overly rely upon other people’s advice.

You can assess your own independence informally. Are there people whom you believe you could not run your company without? If so, you may not have fully developed your ability to think independently. After all, what if those people get smushed by a truck tomorrow? Will you close your shop?

Assertiveness: People who score high on assertiveness are able to articulate their ideas clearly and with confidence. Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness. Here is the difference: Aggressiveness is an attempt to coerce and usually creates anxiety in the listener. Assertiveness communicates that both parties are safe, i.e., “I’m not trying to hurt you and I won’t let you hurt me.”

Successful CEOs need to be able to articulate their ideas clearly, or people will not be able to follow the leader. However, the stereotype aggressive CEO (“My way or the highway!”) has been shown by extensive research to achieve inferior profitability.

If you find that people don’t tell you all important information, they may be afraid of you. While some of this may be an irrational response on their part, it may also be that your communication style needs modification, i.e., from aggressive to assertive.

Optimism: Optimism includes but goes beyond anticipating a bright future. Having hope for the future is clearly important. Who would want to follow someone who expects doom and gloom? However, disappointments do occur. One’s skill level with optimism will determine the quality of response to set backs. Optimistic leaders will see set backs as temporary, not permanent. (“We have other opportunities, other chances at bat.”) They will acknowledge their own contributions to the failure but also recognize those factors outside of their control. Their self blame is not excessive.

Optimism creates resilience. If you take disappointment hard, that’s fine, as long as you don’t take it hard for long. If it takes you a significant amount of time to bounce back from disappointment, it may be useful to learn more about how to think optimistically.

Self Actualization: A man I talked with recently captured the two parts of self actualization beautifully. It was a Friday afternoon. He said: “I’m a lucky guy. I’m looking forward to going home to be with my family and all that we will do this weekend. Then, on Monday morning, I am almost always excited about getting back to the office.”

People who score high on Self Actualization love what they do. They have a passion for their work and look forward to getting there. However, they also have a balanced life. Other parts of their lives, beyond work, bring them pleasure. This balance contributes to success because taking a break from the job creates real refreshment and, thus, clearer thinking.

Self assessment on this factor may be easy. To what extent can you say what my friend told me?

Self Regard: People with strong self regard have an accurate picture of their strengths and weaknesses. They enjoy their strengths and acknowledge weaknesses with recognition but not shame. Shame paralyzes. Acceptance leads us to correct what we can and adapt to what cannot be corrected. A CEO with high self regard will hire people whose skills complement his own. If the CEO has an unrealistic picture of his own strengths and weaknesses, the chances of hiring the best people are low.

Ask yourself such questions as “How much do I like myself?” “Do I frequently over-estimate or under-estimate what I can achieve?” “Can I accept that people like and respect me despite my flaws or do I feel that I must hide my weaknesses?”

Summary: These five EQ skills contribute to CEO success. You may be able to prepare yourself for success by building your abilities in these areas. There are proven methods to do so.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc.,, which helps individuals and companies perform at their peak. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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