Sir Keir Starmer is struggling to match his acumen with the levels of emotional intelligence essential in an era when high EQ is not optional for successful leadership. He is undoubtedly a brilliant advocate, but his legal and advocacy training has not prepared him for leadership.
I see this time and time again in my board consulting practice when board members with impressive track records in their area of expertise find themselves in leadership positions that demand skills in which they have no training or worse, as in the case of Starmer and all lawyers, their training has actively discouraged high emotional intelligence. I know this because I have advised hundreds of lawyers as leaders over the last 15 years.
At the heart of Starmer’s—and equivalent board members’—problem is their difficulty connecting with their feelings before they speak. Their default position is to advance a cold logic to the matter at hand, which, though accurate, leaves listeners, er, cold.
Leaders must do three things: create an environment where the people they lead thrive, grow their business or organisation, and please stakeholders. Creating an environment in which people thrive requires more than logic. It demands emotion, inspiration and “feel-good”.
Encouraging feelings in leadership
In advising clients on boards, I use a tool—FEEL/NEED/DO—which is my paraphrasing of a concept developed by others, most notably Marshall Rosenberg in his book Non-Violent Communication, to help people work through three steps:
- What do you feel about the issue at hand?
- What do you need in relation to that feeling?
- What can you do, ie, what are your options to meet your need to address your feelings?
Frequently people in power under stress will act viscerally. They will not assess all their options based on needs derived from an agreed shared purpose and having connected with their deeper feelings.
For example, anger is a shallow feeling frequently masking more profound feelings of fear, anxiety, or hurt. The classic situation of a furious CEO “letting rip” is well known.
Other CEOs use psychological tactics such as shame. I once worked in an organisation where the CEO had to use the “D-word” with menace to exert control when “disappointed”. Public shaming was their control instrument of choice.
Many CEOs believe that the behaviour that “got me here” will get them through and “get me there”. Why wouldn’t they? They know no other way of behaving. So many forget that getting to the top is different from the processes required to succeed at the top.
This argument hangs on what one means by successful, which in ordinary times is open to debate. But in a crisis, success is about sustainable survival. Anything less means the CEO’s legacy and reputation will be “they weren’t a great leader in a crisis.”
Even the most ruthless of CEOs and board members tend to care about their legacies. This might be an incentive for them to make at least a slight change in their levels of empathy, self-awareness, and ability to meet their needs productively.In a crisis, success is about sustainable survival
For most CEOs and board members, though, just a few minor positive improvements in their EQ will have a significant impact on their sustainable fulfilment and on that of the people they lead, especially in a crisis.
So my advice to Keir Starmer is not to stop and think, but stop and feel. You overthink, Keir. We need to hear how you feel, about your vulnerability, hopes and fears. Then, and only then, might we be tempted to follow you.
Ciarán Fenton is a leadership and board consultant (www.ciaranfenton.com).