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As the pandemic spikes again around the world, I sincerely hope you and your families are keeping well and safe.

A few months ago, I was listening to a leadership podcast that, as part of their branding and byline, made the age-old dictum that leaders aren’t born, they’re made. Of course, that’s their view. For ages, people have been debating whether this is in fact true, or whether leaders, or at least some of them, are born. As I listened to this introduction in my car, I found myself exclaiming to my non-existent passengers, “No, they mature!”

Over the months since that moment, I have tried to clarify my thoughts around why I believe leaders mature – and what I understand by this term. I thought I would share these thoughts with you hopefully in a provocative way that hopefully will make you think and attract your comments.

The embryo of my thinking goes back to an article by EQ guru, Daniel Goleman, in a 1998 publication of Harvard Business Review. Even though these were the relatively early days of emotional intelligence, nevertheless, the following three quotes still stand out for me today:

  • “When I calculated the ratio of technical skills, IQ, and emotional intelligence as ingredients of excellent performance, emotional intelligence proved to be twice as important as the others at all levels.”
  • “Moreover, my analysis showed that emotional intelligence played an increasingly important role at the highest levels of the company, where differences in technical skills are of negligible importance…the higher the rank of a person considered to be a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities showed up as the reason for his or her effectiveness.”
  • “There is an old-fashioned word for (emotional intelligence): maturity.”

 Age doesn’t necessarily guarantee maturity and so the question arises as to whether EQ, or maturity, can be taught to people, regardless of age.

The answer it seems is yes, but we need to be careful. I remember when the world believed that all skills could be trained. However, since then we have found out (and Goleman makes the point too) that conventional skills training is aimed at the neocortex in our brains. The significance of this is that the neocortex is focused on, and understands, concepts and logic. Significantly, emotional intelligence is found in a different part of the brain, the neurotransmitters of the brain’s limbic system. This system apparently learns best through motivation, extended practice (what neuroscientists now call neuroplasticity) and feedback. As a result, Goleman’s research found that conventional training of emotional intelligence can even have a negative impact on people’s job performance because it’s not aimed at the right part of the brain.

At this stage, I can hear you questioning whether I am not arguing for the leaders are made world view at the moment. Enter the concepts of horizontal and vertical development! Horizontal development is the acquisition of skills, knowledge of and experience or ‘learning’, pretty much the conventional training approach referred to above. Obviously, these things are very important to productivity and performance. However, adult development is an invitation to become more sophisticated physically, energetically, emotionally and mentally. This vertical development facilitates a broader, deeper, more mature perspective. When we expand our awareness in this way it can radically alter behaviour and results. Unfortunately, “very few organisations make this distinction (between learning and development) clearly enough” (Alan Watkins) – but this is a topic for another day.

The point I am making here is that in this VUCA world, exacerbated by pandemics and the like, it is development not learning that will give us true competitive advantage by expanding our capacity and increase our maturity. Again, as Alan Watkins says:

“There is little doubt that vertical development of the leadership cadre is the single biggest determinant of future success and if ignored the single biggest obstacle.’

 So, two of many gurus in the area of adult (and leadership) development, Goleman and Watkins, are effectively saying the same thing – leadership development is about maturity, developed vertically.

Some writers put it another way: not only do we need to “wake up” and “grow up”, but we need to “show up” too. Put another way, we wake up when we become more aware (eg we gain new knowledge and/or understanding); we “grow up” when we notice and accept this awareness and take it on board, when we know we need to be at our best more of the time, that we need to more consistently choose better responses; and “showing up” is when waking up and growing up transforms from cognitive development into embodied development – we actually show up in this new way in our personal and leadership roles. Now that’s maturity! For me, and without wishing to make this a pitch, it is the role of the transformational coach to support their clients in the process of waking up, growing up and showing up.

In conclusion, look at the leaders around you in your environment and in the world. I bet the leaders you see as great are those who show up with leadership maturity; the average leaders are probably those that have only woken up and perhaps grown up; and the lousy leaders have probably not even grown up.

In my next newsletter, I will outline a developmental pathway to this leadership maturity.

PS: A cautionary note: please understand that the examples I use and commentary I provide are largely anecdotal and based on my observations of and experience with numerous clients over 20 years. Although I tend to read extensively, I am not a psychologist and the “theories” contained herein are intended to provoke thought, discussion and awareness. I hope that you enjoy them in the manner intended.


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