When she began her career as a TV anchor in 1976, no one would have predicted that Oprah Winfrey would become an international icon.
She was a young, awkward, black woman in an era where old, white men made and enforced the rules in America. She was set up for failure.
As anyone could have predicted, when the show failed, the blame was placed squarely on Oprah’s shoulders, and none on her white, male co-host.
She was demoted to a writing and reporting position.
But she quickly realised that her empathetic nature was her Achilles heel as a reporter.
On one notable occasion, she was so touched by the plight of a family that had lost their worldly belongings in a fire that she donated some of hers to them, drawing flack from her superiors.
Oprah didn’t give up. She decided to turn her weakness into strength. Her empathy was more suited for human interest stories, which made her a success as a talk show host.
Riding on ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, listening, and desire to help, Oprah has hosted one of the greatest and successful TV shows of all time. Oprah Winfrey is a phenomenal example of the power of emotional intelligence.
In the past, women felt the need to adopt masculine traits, such as aggression, to get ahead in the corporate world and leadership.
The stereotype of the successful leader was often defined in masculine terms. Simply put, leadership was equated with maleness and consequently, women in leadership were often judged harshly.
However, the traits associated with emotional intelligence, such as those that made Oprah a success, are gaining appreciation in today’s more flexible organizational structure.
This explains why “feminine” traits such as collaboration, persuasiveness, and communication have become corporate buzz words.
What is emotional intelligence?
The term was popularised in 1995 by Daniel Goleman, who wrote a Pulitzer-winning book on the topic.
Goleman explained that emotional intelligence was the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions and to use the information to guide one‘s thinking and actions.
Goleman challenged the long-held belief that Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was central to success.
While he recognised intellect and rationality matter as ‘entry-level requirements for executives’, it takes emotional intelligence to navigate relationships for true success in all areas of life.
There are three pillars in emotional intelligence: self-awareness, motivation to rationally look at a problem and find a solution, and the ability to develop social skills.
Experts say that people who excel in these three areas tend to outperform their less emotionally intelligent peers.
According to a study from the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) in the US, poor interpersonal relations and inability to work as a team were two main reasons for executive derailment.
In addition, when the international research firm Egon Zehnder analysed 515 senior executives, they found that those who were the strongest in emotional intelligence were more likely to succeed than those with the strongest IQ and even relevant previous experience.
A woman’s competitive advantage
While anyone can harness and enhance their emotional intelligence, women are naturally more attuned to other people’s feelings and emotions.
Suddenly, something that wasn’t valued in the male-dominated workplace has become a superpower.
In a study on emotional intelligence by Korn Ferry Hay Group in 2016, researchers observed 55,000 professionals in 90 countries.
The results showed that women received better ratings on all competencies except emotional self-control, where no gender difference was found.
Sadly, when it comes to self-rated leadership effectiveness, female managers tend to give themselves lower ratings than their male counterparts.
Meanwhile, despite the myth of the bad female boss, female managers receive higher leadership effectiveness ratings than their male counterparts.
With women being on the rise in decision-making roles, female leaders need to harness and have confidence in their emotional intelligence skills for the betterment of their workplaces and the world beyond.
One survey found that female leaders are more likely to use transformational and relational leadership styles.
Different leadership styles
Transformational leadership revolves around a leader who inspires others and “enhances the motivation, morale and performance of followers.
Relational leadership that focuses on the idea that leadership effectiveness has to do with the ability of the leader to create positive relationships within the organisation.
On the other hand, male leaders tend to adopt “manage by exception” style – where they only intervene when problems become severe. They also favour lassiez-faire leadership, where they can be absent when needed.
These differences in leadership styles mean that female leaders are more likely to attend to the personal needs of their team, be open to new ideas, and reward good performance consistently.
Male leaders are inclined to stress meeting the set standards, wait until problems become severe to intervene, and be nowhere to be found during critical junctures.
Harnessing emotional intelligence
The true power of “feminine” approach in leadership was particularly evident in how female heads of state responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Countries with female heads of state such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, and Slovakia have been globally recognised for the effectiveness of their responses to Covid-19.
The female leaders in these countries were proactive in seeking expert advice to inform health strategies, implementing social distancing restrictions early, and unifying their people around a comprehensive and transparent response.
Sheryl Sandberg, has also had unique impact in her role as Facebook’s Chief Operating Office thanks to leaning into her emotional intelligence.
After losing her husband unexpectedly in 2015, she harnessed her grief to extend the company’s bereavement and give employees more time to care for sick family members as well.
When Sheryl joined the company as COO, she made an effort to connect with each one of its numerous employees on a personal level.
She went to hundreds of people‘s desks and introduced herself. Then she asked lots of questions and listened. Bear in mind that in many large organisations, executives don‘t talk to or engage with team members.
Former US first lady, Michelle Obama, is also a powerful case study in emotional intelligence. A simple search on her name and leadership will bring up dozens of articles extolling her communication skills, relatability, ability to inspire and community activism.
These qualities are in line with transformational and relational leadership styles, which rely heavily on emotional intelligence.
Becoming more emotionally intelligent
You are probably wondering how you too, can take full advantage of your feminine superpower.
Fortunately, anyone can learn and develop their emotional intelligence skills over time. There are a myriad of books, websites, podcasts, You-Tube channels, and gurus that can help you.