Emotionally savvy leadership

Emotionally savvy leadership

Guiding people and teams through ambiguity and uncertainty

Every leader knows that the days of a slow changing, siloed public sector are over. The world is too complex and fast moving but what will the future hold?

For insights, I asked public sector leaders two key questions while researching my new book First Be Nimble:

  • What will the public sector of the future look like?
  • What leadership capabilities will be most important?

To the first question, the same words and phrases came back time and again: agile, nimble, adaptable, connected, innovative and clever. No surprises there.

To the second question, the almost universal answer was emotional intelligence. Surely there must be more?

As we explored this further it became clear that it didn’t matter whether the leader was state or federal, central agency or front line delivery, they still saw the challenges through the lens of emotional intelligence (EI). Those challenges were about leading through ambiguity, engaging diverse stakeholders, tackling wicked problems and delivering more with less.

Then there was the paradox. Despite the common theme of emotional intelligence, only few could point to breakthroughs in how to really leverage that capability in themselves and their teams (and yet everyone had done multiple EI training courses).

In fact, when the practices of leaders who genuinely drive adaptive change were described, there was a high level of initial resistance to suggestions that emotionally savvy leaders provoke change, challenge people so they build their resilience and instil intensive and relentless debriefing of results and behaviour (so everyone boosts their EI on-the-job). Mostly this resistance was packaged in reasonable sounding comments such as:

  • We must respect our people
  • Engagement is essential to drive any change
  • People are change fatigued, so they need support
  • It’s important to take time to build trust.

No one could argue with these thoughts, but in a time of rapid adaptive change, it seemed that these leaders training in emotional intelligence had promoted a dangerously narrow and out-dated view of the role that emotions play in work, and in particular in meeting adaptive challenges. Certainly they understood the basics of self-awareness and self-management, and could recite the keys to being socially aware and socially savvy. But leaders who guide people through ambiguity do a lot more than that.

Let’s look at five practices of leaders who genuinely use emotional intelligence to develop nimble teams and organisations that can address the challenges of ambiguity, wicked problems and resource restrictions. These practices are all about promoting a nimble culture in which people learn and develop on-the-job with short, intensive coaching and development backed by skilled debriefing.

Let go – welcome the squirm

Emotionally savvy leaders know that their people and organisations are skilled at passive resistance to change, so they provoke change, and see ‘squirm’ as a sign of progress not a signal to back off. Certainly they offer or establish support but they don’t rescue people – they develop resilience and optimism not an expectation that only comfortable, neatly planned change is the norm.

Be brave, not busy

Every agency is too busy, has conflicting priorities, multiple stakeholders and too few resources. Savvy leaders manage the heat from stakeholders and make tough calls that direct resources to where they have impact. They know that keeping everyone happy serves no one.

Co-create – think one team

The public sector is full of experts in silos (as are most large private sector organisations). Savvy leaders respect and develop experts but they also punch holes in the silos by fostering collaborative problem solving and debriefing. They support, guide, challenge and inspire people to break out of traditional boundaries. If that doesn’t work they provoke the change.

Build to flex

Despite the restrictions of out-dated HR practices, the best leaders (including HR) look at every possible way to build flex into their agencies. That includes replacing performance reviews with performance partnering conversations and systems, aligning teams with simple ‘true north’ plans and refusing to let bureaucracy stifle the speed and agility of nimble teams.

Leap, learn and adapt

While the emotionally cautious hold back, the savvy leaders engage with communities and other stakeholders, so they can run experiments together. They refuse to accept the ‘never embarrass the Minister rule’ as code for never try anything that might fail. They’re not politically naïve, quite the opposite, they build trust with stakeholders so they can learn and adapt.

An adaptive public sector

One way or another, the public sector of the future will be nimble, innovative and adaptive. Whether or not the current generation of leaders drive that change, it will indeed be a reflection of their emotional intelligence.

What might help that journey is recognition that the development of leaders will rely less on the lengthy development retreats that have characterised leadership training for the past two decades and more on learning on the run as they inspire, provoke and guide change.

The message is clear. If you are a public sector leader and genuinely want to lead your team or agency through ambiguity and uncertainty then first be nimble.

Graham Winter is the best-selling author of Think One Team (Jossey Bass) and three-time chief psychologist for the Australian Olympic Team. Contact him and his team at Think One Team International or His latest book First Be Nimble (Jossey Bass) has just been released.

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