Dec. 2009: The Mother of All Leadership QualificationsDecember 1, 2009
Leadership traits are not as clear-cut as portrayed in popular books.
For example, is it possible to make money, do good and raise healthy children even though one cheats, steals and lies?
Moral weaknesses surely mark the functioning of many astute and successful leaders. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon are two obvious examples. Achieving success is not the same as commanding respect.
The problem with assessing traits of great leaders is that one can always find a successful leader without one or more of the “necessary” qualities.
There is, though, one leadership qualification in whose shadow all other traits pale. This mother of all leadership attributes is emotional maturity.
Emotional maturity is better viewed as a family of functional tendencies that govern all of an individual’s beliefs, decisions and interactions.
Because emotional maturity is highly influential, it’s something leaders ought to pay attention to. But what is it?
Here are five important dimensions of emotional maturity:
1. A willingness to take full responsibility for one’s own life, including one’s mistakes, decisions, wants, needs, thoughts, feelings and destiny.
The opposite of responsibility is blame. High-maturity leaders reflect more often on their own part in what goes wrong, instead of blaming or scapegoating others. Emotionally immature leaders are slow to take responsibility and quick to blame others or “the circumstances.”
2. A tendency to respond thoughtfully rather than reactively to life’s challenges and problems.
Over-reactions to problems indicate emotional immaturity. Higher maturity leaders see with greater perspective. Their reflection tends to keep them calmer and more clear-headed. They focus not on the problem, but on their response to the problem.
3. Greater emphasis on courage, adventure and risk, than on emotional comfort and approval.
Emotionally mature leaders care less about comfort than about progress. They take unpopular stands without too much inner turmoil, and are less needy for harmony and being liked. Immature leaders are popularity-seekers who have difficulty going against the crowd. They are driven more by comfort for others and comfort for themselves.
4. An ability, in important relationships, to stay connected without attaching.
Staying connected to key individuals in the group characterizes high-functioning leadership. Emotional maturity helps leaders cultivate regular, one-on-one contact, strategic self-disclosure and a desire to more deeply understand others instead of diagnosing and judging.
Less mature leaders operate with a greater degree of emotional neediness. Their expectations of others are less reasonable and more self-serving. A leader who cannot fire a loyal but incompetent employee and a parent who “cares” too much to let their child fail are examples of over-attachment.
5. Beliefs are based on sound thinking and reality factors rather than magic, superstition or hearsay.
Beliefs are powerful influencers on decisions. Higher-maturity leaders hold convictions that are open to challenge, and constantly subjected to the light of reason. They are able to change beliefs based on new evidence. Lower maturity leaders err at two extremes: lack of clarity (“I don’t know what I believe”) or certitude (“I am right, and I will not change even in the face of new data”).
Whether a leader’s domain is a business, a family or a nation, that leader’s degree of emotional maturity is the most important indicator of the group’s potential for progress.
Emotional maturity does not favor or discriminate. Wide variations in maturity levels can readily be observed in neighborhood gangs as well as elite country clubs, in high school classrooms as well as houses of Congress. (One client, a nuclear physicist, possesses a high degree of intellectual firepower, yet is one of the most emotionally immature individuals I have worked with).
Evolutionary biology teaches that group survival is the primary purpose of leadership.
Helping group members become more mature and responsible ensures the stability and growth of the group. Leaders who are more mature are better able to mentor, groom and awaken the leadership of others.
For this reason, emotional maturity qualifies one for leadership more than any other attribute I can think of.
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