Emotional intelligence, fact-based leadership and followership lead to better teamwork

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif.. -- Emotional intelligence, fact-based leadership and fact-based followership are perhaps the most basic techniques that both leaders and followers can use to drive teamwork and superior mission accomplishment.

I recently observed an exchange between aspiring senior noncommissioned officers and junior Airmen. Master sergeant selectees attending the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Professional Enhancement Seminar interacted with a panel of four senior airmen in an "Airman's Panel." It began innocently but evolved to something that reminded me it's sometimes the simple things that have the greatest impact. This exchange caused me to re-evaluate my own leadership style and share the experience with anyone who would listen.

The first simple question to the Airmen: "What trait, in your opinion, makes a good leader?"

The Airmen answered:  "A leader is even-tempered and never freaks out. Airmen don't have the level of knowledge or worldliness that you do. We're going to have challenges. We need to know that we can come to our leaders with challenges and that those leaders will offer solutions in a calm, unemotional manner. If we think our bosses are going to go off the deep end every time we come to them with a problem, we just don't trust them."

Lesson learned - Airmen want to be led by professionals who have emotional intelligence; supervisors who act in an unemotional manner; leaders who base their decisions and recommendations on fact and deliver them in a calm, professional manner. This fosters trust between supervisors and subordinates, and it builds a confidence that facilitates an uncompromising, healthy work environment. As you conjure up images of your favorite, and not-so-favorite, supervisors, I would venture to guess the good ones were emotionally intelligent.

Tables turned, the Airmen ask the master sergeant selectees a question:  "What traits does a good Airman possess?"

To my surprise the answer was almost unanimous:  "Good Airmen tell us their challenges in a clear, concise manner, without emotion and present their challenge in a fact-based way."
Epiphany!

Supervisors and subordinates demand the same things from each other - straight, honest feedback. Cut to the chase and leave out the emotional embellishment.

This is not to say leaders and subordinates need to act robotically. On the contrary; empathy, understanding and the ability to develop a "feel" for a situation are what distinguish good leaders and followers from machines. Unfortunately, these are also the very traits that lead us astray. Snap decisions based on emotionally charged issues have a high probability of being the wrong decisions. Allowing discussions to turn into full blown arguments only causes hard feelings and often results in all sides losing perspective of the real objective. Consider this: Discussions remain productive when all parties are allowed to present their point of view. The ensuing decision results in all participants feeling they have a vested interest in the outcome. On the other hand, discussions allowed to escalate into emotional arguments turn into contests where the results must have a winner and a loser. Only the "winning" side feels they have any stake in the outcome.

Hold the line on emotional encounters and disengage when you begin to lose objectivity. Leaders must allow subordinates the opportunity to discuss alternatives.

Subordinates also have the responsibility to choose the right time and place. Emotionally intelligent leaders listen carefully to suggestions and recommendations without a "my-way-or-the-highway" bias. Subordinates present professional opinions behind closed doors and sell the resulting decisions to their teams as if it were their own idea. A sure way to lose the trust of your teams is to appear closed to any input or idea other than your own. When teams feel they have a say in how to accomplish a task, they are more likely to perform at a higher level because they feel they have a vested stake in the outcome. They also develop a trust in leaders that transcends mission accomplishment and develops into an atmosphere of camaraderie. All the team members will do their absolute best because they don't want to let the rest of the team down.

I feel very fortunate to have witnessed this exchange. I was moved, I was reinvigorated, and I was impassioned to share these insights with others. I thank the members of the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Professional Enhancement seminar and the Airmen on the panel. Your innocent, honest interaction reminded me that it's the simple things we most often overlook but most desperately need to be good leaders and followers.