What makes a leader?

What makes a leader?

Does emotional intelligence differentiate the star performers from average performers?

By Anna-Lucia Mackay, Managing Director, HCM Global

During the course of my career in management consulting and adult education, there have been two defining moments for me.

The first came when I read the article What makes a leader? by Daniel Goleman circa 1995. In it, he examined what differentiates a star performer from an average performer.

The second moment occurred when I was attending a conference around 10 years later. The speaker made the statement "Leaders must impact the thoughts, feelings and performance of their people."

For me, the second moment answered the question asked by the first!

When you strip away the ever increasing complexities of leadership - how people think and feel about their leader at work will almost always determine the level of performance achieved.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence at work defines emotional intelligence as:

“The capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”

HCM Global and Career Crowd™ has found that there are three core behavioural competencies which impact how people think and feel and therefore, influence their performance.

Leaders in these organisations continually do the following:

  1. Seek to understand why they themselves behave, react and respond in the ways that they do. (Self-Awareness)
  2. Seek to understand why others behave, react and respond in the ways that they do. (Empathy)
  3. Adopt a mindset to override their innate thoughts, feelings and physiological responses to ensure an appropriate outcome is achieved. (Self-Management)

These three competencies underpin all dealings with people and you will typically find that when there is any type of misunderstanding or conflict in the workplace, it is because at least one of these competencies is lacking.


This quality is often described as ‘the cornerstone of emotional intelligence’. If you are not self-aware, how can you be a good leader?

Today’s leader must understand how they are perceived by others and furthermore, how these perceptions will either fuel or undermine the performance of their people.

In order to understand how self-aware you are, ask yourself the following:

  • Do you know exactly what makes YOU tick?
  • Do you know what drives you?
  • Can you articulate what are your hot and cold buttons?
  • Can you identify your values, needs and motivations?
  • Do you know exactly what brings out the best and worst in you - and more importantly, why?

Until you know these things about yourself, research shows you cannot reach your full potential – let alone unlock the potential in others.


Until recent times, empathy has been the most underrated of all management competencies.

Just the word “Empathy” can be enough to put off many people. For some, it conjures up negative images of “warm and fuzzy” people who are more concerned with the feelings and emotions of others, rather than focusing on an outcome or a result.

However the truth is significantly different and corporations are now starting to see the real value of “empathy” and what it means for business.

The research shows that “those with high levels of empathy will typically out-perform those who are equally skilled but who are considered to be less empathetic.”

Empathy has become an essential business skill - as it is critical to any form of persuasion and influence - two critical skills required by people in business today.

For some managers, empathy is second nature. For others, it is a choice they must actively make to observe what is going on around them so as to understand why people behave the way they do. This knowledge then helps them to adapt their responses to better influence the outcomes required.

So how empathetic are you?

  • How would your team describe your listening, questioning and observation skills?
  • Would your team say you are able to “walk in their shoes” and see things from their point of view?
  • Are you able to suspend judgment in order to keep an open mind when communicating with your team?


This competency is believed to be one of the hardest of all to master. Typically, it requires one to override their ‘fight or flight’ response felt in the heat of the moment and select a more appropriate response in order to manage a situation.

So how is this achieved?

Our research shows to be good at self-management (and score in the top five per cent of emotional intelligence assessments), you must first be self-aware, then understand others. In order to do this, you must prepare yourself ahead of time to cope with the likelihood of being put in an uncomfortable situation.

In most cases, it is this competency that distinguishes those who are emotionally intelligent from those who are not – and subsequently has the biggest impact on team performance.

To learn more about Emotional Intelligence, join Anna-Lucia Mackay at a CPD seminar in February.