Last year, almost to the date, I published an article on the importance of emotional intelligence using Elon Musk of Tesla as a shining example. At the time, there had been a number of articles written that addressed his concern and response to what was an above-average injury rate of employees at Tesla. Musk had addressed the issues head-on, communicated directly to employees in a meaningful way, and exercised leadership by recognition and promise for improvement. As a reminder of that statement, the following was published via Inc.:
No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing…It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and doing their best to make Tesla successful…Going forward, I’ve asked every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet with every injured person as soon as they are well, so I can understand what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform…At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.
What has happened since this article is a fascinating example of how leadership, and the emotional intelligence required to exercise it, are dynamic and ever-changing. You see, emotional intelligence is absolutely necessary to provide effective leadership; without it, things become messy, as it has with Musk and his ventures.
Once a case study topic for exemplary emotional intelligence, Musk has now become every compliance officer’s worst nightmare – a leader who has gone rogue on social media and become seemingly unaware of the consequences resulting from his decisions. If emotional intelligence is awareness of ourselves and those around us, Musk has recently become an example of the opposite.
Using Our Emotional Intelligence for Good
A contributor for Inc., Justin Bariso, wrote a piece at the beginning of this year entitled, “It Only Took Elon Musk 10 Words to Reveal Why You Should Never Want to Work for Tesla.” In it, Bariso addresses an email that was sent to employees from Musk in the middle of the night. The email speaks to accomplishments achieved in the past year with a call for continued dedication to the company’s mission. Bariso then highlights the phrase that, to him, was extremely problematic, “We must do everything we can to advance the cause.”
Bariso goes on to state, “Musk’s personal goal to save the planet may be admirable, but what he’s implying here is not. In fact, these 10 words are a perfect example of what is known as the ‘dark side’ of emotional intelligence.” He links to another article that speaks to the powerful tool emotional intelligence can be, for good or bad.
In the referenced article published by Time, the dark side of emotional intelligence is characterized as, “using one’s knowledge of emotions to strategically achieve self-serving goals. Much as a person possessing a brilliant intellect could become an accomplished detective or a criminal mastermind, one with a superior emotional quotient has a choice between two very different paths: using their influence to help or to harm.”
Perhaps Musk is merely channeling his ability in emotional intelligence to persuade and manipulate; however, his recent communications with employees and the public (and consequently investors), might suggest someone who is not necessarily focused on emotional intelligence to further his cause.
Why It Takes More Than Being Brilliant
The contrast in communications displayed by Musk in the last year exemplifies how one’s leadership approach can significantly impact an organization. Musk’s brilliance is what initially propelled Tesla and his other ventures at the forefront of innovation. However, that brilliance – which is manifested by his “hard” skillset – must have the equivalent “soft” skills in order to be truly effective. The yin and the yang.
I teach a course at Columbia University called, “Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace.” In this class, I beg the question, “Are you managing your emotions or are your emotions managing you?” It’s an intriguing question to ask considering my audience: masters students in engineering – quite possibly the next generation of Elon Musks; they are highly intelligent and accustomed to precision and metric-based evidence typical of any science discipline.
Consequently, helping them to become aware of and develop soft skills, which seem fuzzy and even touchy-feely, is a big leap for many of them. The fact is though, their soft skills will be just as necessary as their brilliant engineering skills – as it will be for anyone in any discipline or industry.
Additionally, the focus on these skills is increasing, especially in light of high-profile leaders who seem to not be leveraging them in crucial moments. Effective communication, personal habits and motivation, emotional intelligence, time management, leadership ability – these are all considered soft, yet necessary, elements of a successful individual.
The Hard Truth About Soft Skills: Workplace Lessons Smart People Wish They’d Learned Sooner, by Peggy Klaus is a book that is on my top ten of recommended reading and one that I frequently refer to when stressing the importance of “soft” skills. In her book, Klaus shares insights gained through coaching some of the seemingly most capable and skilled individuals who experience a plateau in their careers. The reason for those plateaus? Often a shortcoming in social, communication, and self-management behaviors.
Overcoming Our Weaknesses
Even those we consider amazing leaders can experience plateaus in these areas, which is why we shouldn’t vilify Musk but learn from him. Intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, is dynamic – we must be vigilant in seeking out opportunities to continually improve.
How we accomplish this is just the same as one who is just beginning on the path to improved leadership and increased emotional intelligence – through self-awareness. Before you can be aware of anyone else around you, you must be aware of yourself, which requires serious self-reflection. The result can be uncomfortable and challenging since it will likely require change. And, while it’s not fun to focus on the negative, understanding your weaknesses is critical for improvement and true emotional intelligence.
In an article written by Minda Zetlin for Inc., she explores this idea that instead of focusing on our strengths, perhaps we take more interest in our weaknesses. “Our strengths help us get where we’re going, but if we don’t fully understand and account for our own weaknesses, we won’t be able to sustain success over the long term.” When we begin to recognize what’s getting in our way, we can get it out of our way.
Most will agree, recognition is the first step to recovery – or more generally, change. How could we possibly expect to improve ourselves if we ignore the very behaviors and habits that hold us back? We can’t. One question that Zetlin asks in her article that I found particularly interesting was, “how would things be different if you could let it go?” How would your life be different if you could overcome or “let go” of certain weaknesses? What would change? How would things improve? Can you visualize how you and those around you would be positively impacted?
When I’m coaching clients who want to become more effective public speakers, one of the most revealing experiences is taping a speech of yourself and then having to watch it back. Watching oneself “perform” is one of the most challenging exercises in self-awareness for developing speakers. It’s not easy to be pushed outside of your comfort zone and be forced to see yourself as you truly are—flaws and all. But the amount of wisdom that can be gleaned from these sessions is often profound.
The same can be said for a leader who takes self-awareness seriously. Those who desire to reach their optimal self are willing to take a thorough look at themselves and learn from both the good and the bad. Being willing to take an honest look at yourself and how you interact with your environment leads to greater emotional intelligence. At times, self-assessment may require the input of those around you, which can be eye-opening, yet extremely beneficial.
The Biggest Mistake a Leader Can Make
Harvard Business School hosted a symposium, Imagining the Future of Leadership and asked several established leaders in business and academia what they thought was the biggest mistake a leader could make. Bill George, Professor at the Harvard Business School believes the biggest mistake is when leaders put their self-interest ahead of the best interest of the organizations and stakeholders they are responsible for.
This, and each of the answers given conjures up thoughts of not only Musk, but so many other leaders who have made these mistakes while initially seeking to inspire, persuade, and motivate people to accomplish a certain purpose. What may start as a worthy goal or vision can become the very cause of a leader’s downfall. Gianpiero Petriglieri, Affiliate Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD, spoke to this in his belief that being overly enamored with one’s vision could result in negative consequences. “It’s the flip side of good leadership, of inspiring leadership, of passionate leadership…sometimes you can get caught up in becoming absolutely, completely…focused on the pursuit of a purpose. That moves from being a passion and purpose, to become an obsession, and at that point, perhaps when you’re the most inspiring…you can also be the most vulnerable because, in fact, you might lose the capacity to look at…the consequences.”
In the end, brilliance and self-absorbed passion are not enough to be a true leader – regardless of how impressive they may be. Instead, we must seek to become the best versions of ourselves by overcoming personal weaknesses, seeking to understand those around us, and leading others to accomplish worthy goals through personal example.
Perhaps a year from now, we’ll be discussing the miraculous leadership events of Musk and his organizations. In the meantime, let us learn from the public mistakes of others and strive to be the best versions of ourselves.