Chain Reaction Foundation

Benefiting from Social Intelligence: A Vital Leadership Quality

by Margaret Bell | September 4, 2018

Image source: Progressive Women in Leadership

There are many words and phrases which crop up on job descriptions time and time again. 'Highly motivated', for example, or 'able to work independently'. Among the most common is 'people skills', which roughly translates to an ability to work with people in a variety of situations, and to bring about positive outcomes from these interactions.

People skills are, in other words, examples social intelligence, or SI.

There are different definitions of social intelligence, and various theories surrounding its usage. One of the most pervading theories, however, has been put forward by Dr. Karl Albrecht, a management consultant and founder of the Karl Albrecht International Academy.

He describes the social intelligence of people as existing somewhere between nurturing and toxic. We have probably heard someone described as having a 'toxic personality' before, but this is a little wide of the mark. The toxicity does not stem from personality as much as from understanding - 'toxic' people simply fail to understand the social needs and considerations of other people. To put it differently, toxic people have a very low level of social intelligence.

Let's think about this in terms of leadership. Someone on the toxic end of the spectrum will find it difficult to be a strong and inspiring leader in any capacity - whether this be as the head of a corporate structure or a community group, or as a leader in a classroom or a family unit.

Certainly, someone with low levels of social understanding may have many of the attributes required to be a good leader. They may be calm and unshakeable under pressure. They may have the strength of conviction necessary to see actions through to their conclusion. They may have the expertise and experience required to navigate problems and challenges.

But are they inspiring to the people they are leading? Are they able to motivate and to bring about changes necessary for a group to develop and to evolve? On a fundamental level, are they able to make people feel good and positive about themselves? 

No. They lack the understanding necessary to nurture and to support other people. They are not able to consider the feelings of others, and how their actions might affect these feelings.

Fortunately, however, social intelligence is an intelligence like any other. This means it can be developed and learned. A 'toxic' leader is not doomed to be stuck this way forever; through effort and personal growth, they can change.

Of course, the benefits of being at the 'nurturing' end of the spectrum are immense when it comes to leadership. Having a high level of social intelligence and nurturing those you are leading will foster inspiration, it will harness a desire for team members to go above and beyond what is expected of them, and it will cultivate healthy emotional states and solid levels of psychological well-being.

There is biological evidence which supports and underpins theories of social intelligence. Research into neurological processes has demonstrated the existence of mirror neurons - cognitive hardware which literally mirrors and reflects the stimuli fed into them.

For example, one subset of mirror neurons will detect the facial expression and demeanour of a person, reflecting the person's smiles and laughter in smiles and laughter of their own. As a leader, if you project a positive outlook, this positive outlook will be shared among those you are leading.

By understanding these mirror neurons, we can begin to act as leaders in a positive way, nurturing the right mindsets and emotional states necessary to be an effective unit, whether in the workplace, in a school, or in the home.

This is social intelligence in action – and without it, our leadership efforts are doomed to failure.

Margaret Bell, AM - Founder and CEO of Chain Reaction Foundation.

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