How the Most Emotionally Intelligent CEOs Handle Power

As you climb the ladder to the corner office, you know you’ve got to figure yourself out. Ask yourself key questions to aid emotional intelligence development.

Most of the CEOs I’ve met and worked with had years to prepare for their jobs. As they entered middle management, most of them learned that being a good leader is more important than being a good employee. Many have stories to tell about stumbling along the way — about micromanaging people, about destroying a team’s morale with unreasonable demands.

Most survived these types of difficult experiences and, more important, learned from them. They learned to let go of control and instead support people in doing their jobs. They learned to read people well. They learned tricks for building stronger teams, for dealing with conflict and for negotiating.

You would think that all of this would have prepared them well to step into a CEO role, right? Well, maybe not.

I’ve noticed that the power of the role can blind CEOs to a lot of things, especially when it comes to themselves and their relationships at work. In essence, two key emotional intelligence competencies, self-awareness and empathy, often disappear from CEOs’ tool kits.

Why? There are several reasons. First, power really does corrupt us, including our judgment. Second, people treat us differently if we are powerful. Sometimes they love us more; sometimes they hate us more. Either way, it’s easy to get caught up in and believe the hype.

Finally, a lot of people get to the top without doing a lot of personal introspection or growth. While they seem to have learned emotional intelligence along the way, it’s often fairly superficial.

What can prospective CEOs do to be better prepared to deal with our complicated and complex human responses to power in the workplace? To truly learn to be a better leader, you’ve got to figure yourself out. To start, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How do you feel about power? How do you react to people who have power over you or who have authority and can make decisions that affect your life? Where do you think your reactions to power and authority originated?
  • How do you feel about the trappings of power, things like money, cars, homes, vacations? Do you measure yourself with these yardsticks? How do you feel when you “measure up”? How do you treat people who don’t measure up?
  • What is more important to you than power? Is it family, health, well-being, happiness, ethics? Being aware of this and letting your values guide your choices will go a long way toward helping you navigate your behaviors and thoughts at work.

Most leaders have come to accept that emotional intelligence is key to their success. But we still have a long way to go before we realize that developing emotional intelligence is a lifelong quest, not an exercise. And for senior leaders and CEOs, who hold people’s careers and livelihoods in their hands, it’s a responsibility.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program.

This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review on Dec. 14, 2016.

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