Emotionally Intelligent Leaders and Strategic Agility

The truth can be uncomfortable…leaders shouldn’t avoid that.

Achieving strategic agility is difficult because it’s based on shifting your mindset and rooted in emotional intelligence. But cultivating that mindset is worthwhile: Research shows that strategic leadership—which strategic agility falls under— is the most important leadership trait.

​Seeing an article talk about emotional intelligence as strategic agility in the same breath surprised me at first. As a military officer I feel that I have had to cultivate and grow both of these traits…and continue to do so.

But this is HARD.

Heck it was only in the past couple years I could even verbalize my career lessons in to terms like these.

I love this last point too.

When leaders consistently practice habits rooted in strategic agility, they empower their teams and organizations to do the same.

​Amen to that!!

Three things I can guarantee:

  1. Your organization will only survive if you empower your team
  2. Seek their feedback often, act on it, and you will move faster than you think
  3. As the leader, you must focus on making them better people – not just better employees – and all the goodness will follow.

The 4 management styles of emotionally intelligent leaders

How Do We HEAL Society? Understand THIS Brené Brown Advice FIRST

This will change you for the better…

I was inspired after listening to a recent podcast by Brené Brown to help bring awareness to the unconscious Dehumanization we do every day. Brené does a fantastic job talking about how recognizing our bad patterns of doing this, is one of the factors that can help our country heal in 2021.

It is an incredible half hour of real introspection on why America has a feeling of some societal divides that reared their ugly heads higher in 2020. I cannot recommend this highly enough to anyone interested in how we can better ourselves by recognizing our own potential blind spots and hopefully how to avoid them in the future.

Letting it Out in the Time of Staying In

You ever try to hold your breath underwater for as long as you can?

Social distancing, school cancelations, and teleworking have created this cloud that workers can’t seem to escape.

Here’s how to change that.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The State of Affairs

At first working from home was novel. Working in your sweatshirt, using your home computer for high tech Zoom calls, grabbing a snack whenever you want…this is great right?!

But it got old…fast.

With connectivity and system access that is not the same, kids demanding attention for home schooling needs, an ever present “funk” seemed to hang over all of these workplace and social restrictions.

I’ve had my staff on a half-on/half-off rotation for the past couple months to minimize people in the building. While this seems to be beneficial in allowing folks to social distance as well as to help at home more, it seems to be chipping away the family environment that I have worked hard to create.

As a leader, good communication, workplace rhythm, and co-worker socialization is important to me. A unit is most cohesive when one department can anticipate the needs of another…and this “togetherness” is essentially halted when telework is predominant.

Communications are not the same via chat or email, rhythm is lost, and socialization…is (of course) distant.

The Question

Photo by Ilkka Kärkkäinen on Unsplash
Photo by Ilkka Kärkkäinen on Unsplash

How are you feeling about all this?

As a leader, it can be difficult to pull this kind of thing out of your people. At least for me it is.

Now that I am the person that signs evaluations, makes decisions on big ticket items, and is overall responsible for the health and well-being of everyone…it feels awkward walking up to an individual and asking him/her “How are you feeling about all this COIVD19 stuff and all the social restrictions right now?”.

Or maybe it’s easy and that just an issue specific to me.

For a while I thought that might be the case… a me issue. But my staff lead and I were talking about day to day operations when we ventured to this “funk” we had been sensing. I am fortunate to have someone I can be so open with…and after just a minute or two of talking about this dark cloud hanging over our staff…we began brainstorming.

The Next Steps

Photo by Nic Low on Unsplash
Photo by Nic Low on Unsplash

Over my years as a leader in the military, I can say that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that humility and honesty go a VERY long way with those you lead.

I was fortunate to learn this lesson early and to this day it is both surprising and satisfying to hear junior folks tell me how refreshing it is to have someone so open and honest in charge. Not to say that I don’t have things to keep learning, but I feel like I worked those attributes in to my leadership style and it has seem to work well.

With that, I decided that if I feel awkward asking my folks directly how they feel, that I will have a forum of openness…and I will kick it off with my own struggles.

What followed was more emotionally charged than I had expected.

The Opening

Photo by Amy Lister on Unsplash
Photo by Amy Lister on Unsplash

I dove straight in.

I kicked our weekly meeting off with the reality of what we had been sensing,

“I feel like there is some sort of cloud hanging over us” I stated, “and I do not know how everyone is dealing with this or feeling about it…so I’m going to go around the room and if you want to talk you can. You don’t have to…but I want you to know that we’re here for you and potentially hear what others are feeling too.”

It was pretty quiet and I saw questioning looks…not surprised…but unsure.

Without giving them too much to overthink it, I led off with the slightly depressive feeling that I had been sensing. I talked about how hard it has been for me not to see them everyday at work, and how difficult it is for me to work at home while also helping homeschool my kids.

I often consider myself an extrovert with some strong introverted tendencies (I need time alone to recharge, etc)…but this has been different.

As we went around our conference room table, some folks I didn’t have much to initially say so I tried asking some open ended questions to challenge them a bit…push folks a bit out of their comfort zone.

Some of my staff are “geo-bachelors”…live away from their families.

– “How do you feel about not being able to see your family?”
– “How is your family doing?”
– “How do you feel about all this?”

At a couple points folks got choked up. As we opened up you could really feel the emotional toll this social isolation was taking on some of us.

“This has been hard”
“It’s been tough for my kids…they don’t understand”
“I’m hanging in there”

The Other Side

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash
Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

You ever try to hold your breath underwater for as long as you can?

Then you have experienced that feeling of intense pressure that is lifted when you surface and take a deep breath.

That is almost what it felt like at the end of our meeting. All of the pressure wasn’t gone, we are all still treading water in these uncertain times…but it felt like some pressure had been lifted.

It’s one thing to know that “we’re in this together”, it’s another thing to hear it from other people in the same room as you (albeit socially distant by 6 feet).

Opening up in this time of staying in is more liberating than you may realize…if you have the chance, ask someone that question:

“How are you feeling?”

Both of you will appreciate it more than you know.

Quote to Live By (Maimonides)

Anyone in leadership should embody this…

Teach thy tongue to say, ‘I do not know’, and thou shalt progress.


If there was one thing I would say I’m proud of that I learned very early on as a leader, it is that I have never been afraid to tell someone I do not know something. If you pretend otherwise, then you’re going to hit a wall as a manager and leader…quickly.

Quote to Live By (Schwarzkopf)

What matters more…

Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.

Norman Schwarzkopf

One thing I see from well-known leaders is how important character is to them over almost anything else. If you are not a man or woman of character, then skill, knowledge, power, and influence do not matter in the long run.

4 Reasons Good Leaders are Hard to Find

22 years old and I was in charge of 40 people…what the hell do I do?

22 years old and I was in charge of 40 people…what the hell do I do?

Even though I had been preparing for this moment for the past 4 years, I had so much to learn. I had taken leadership and ethics classes, read books about leaders past, attended lectures by well known industry pioneers…and I still had no clue what I was doing.

I know what you’re thinking. Big surprise. I was 22.

So you already know my first point…

1. You Can’t Teach Experience

All the training, books, or lectures in the world cannot substitute time spent circling the sun in a leadership role. As a leader there are lessons you learn that cannot be taught, growth you experience that cannot be absorbed from a book, and wisdom you gain that cannot be arrived at by the end of a 1 hour lecture. You have to make my own mistakes and hope that there are people around you that are experienced enough to give you room to err.

Fortunately, I had such people in the earliest parts of my career. Not to say that I was a bumbling idiot who relied 100 percent on his more experienced co-workers…I wasn’t that person…but I do count myself fortunate.

You’ve probably heard the stat that 9 out 10 small businesses fail. This is commonly exaggerated and actually closer to 50-70% depending on time measured. Per a Washington Post article:

“About half of all new establishments survive five years or more and about one-third survive 10 years or more. As one would expect, the probability of survival increases with a firm’s age. Survival rates have changed little over time.” – Small Business Administration

source US Bureau of Labor Statistics
source US Bureau of Labor Statistics

After about 6 years in the workforce, I made my first attempt at a career change. I was one of those entrepreneurs, that tried and failed to open my own business. Again…big surprise. A bank didn’t want to loan me $300k with only a few years of experience under my belt. No matter how many people I had led in the past.

2. “Self-awareness” is Not Common

The best leaders that I have worked for, had an uncanny ability to know when they lost their cool, pushed too far, supported a bad call, or just made a mistake that affected people. This self-awareness always manifested itself in an apology from my bosses to the leadership team or even, in rare cases, to every employee in our organization.

Apologizing is a skill not everyone learns well, regardless of age or experience.

There is something truly powerful that happens when your boss says, “I’m sorry. I messed up and I’ve learned a lesson. Let’s fix this together”. That admission of humanity, especially by very senior leaders, does a lot to bring people together to support not only the organization, but also to support the person that was willing to admit his or her faults in hopes of wanting to get it right, vice just wanting to be right.

(shout out to Colin Cowherd for that adage)

3. Balancing Emergence vs Effectiveness is Tough

Emergence vs Effectiveness is best explained by giving the extreme examples of each.

A purely emergent leader might be someone who is dynamic, knows everyone, stands out due to their personality, great persuader….”plays the politics” well. BUT may not know much of the true workings of the organization and, many might say, their skill level is low.

On the other end is the solely effective leader who is very knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the daily mechanics, works well with everyone, seen as a technical expert….can lead every small team in the organization. BUT may not “play the game” well or “doesn’t do” office politics.

Ring any bells?

I learned about these two extremes from the CEO of Hogan Assessments while at a conference and it struck a chord. How is a company supposed to develop leaders that have that balance? This is a huge topic being tackled in the human resources realm right now and it’s not an easy nut to crack.

image via jasonkallen.com
image via jasonkallen.com

4. Trust

If a company is hiring someone to a management/leadership position, one of the the unspoken questions that company is trying to answer is “Do we trust this person?”. Interviews and resume verification can help…no-one will hire a person who’s last boss said they were “sort-of a good worker”. While there are also very few job fields that come with an inherent sense of trust when seen on a resume. Law enforcement and military are among the rare professions that typically come with an inherent sense of social trust due the nature of the work.

I believe trust must be built through honesty, practicing what you preach, and learning how to be vulnerable – but that’s an entirely different topic to be tackled another time, and honestly cannot be determined in an interview or written on a resume. Therefore, unless one of those in your company’s applicant pool is an experienced veteran, a known internal hire, or vouched for by someone else you already trust, hiring a potential leader directly in to a position of responsibility is a complete gamble.

image via Wikipedia
image via Wikipedia

This list could (and should) be a lot longer than four reasons why good leaders are hard to find. I’m sure there’s 50 reasons. Yet, these four seem to be the things I have seen over and over in my 15 year career. I have led many people, and been led by many leaders, seen good versus bad, experience inspirational and cautionary.

If you can be humble enough to learn from those with experience while you gain your own, strive to be more self-aware today than you were yesterday, strike the balance of political maneuvering vs efficient work, and learn how build trust…then you’ll be one of the rare ones.

A Good (if not great) Leader.

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