Stephan Ott

Why do so many cognitively intelligent pastors and other leaders flounder, while many of lesser intelligence enjoy success? The widespread push for achievement in the 20th century often asserted the basic importance of cognitive intelligence, yet we see that people with high IQs are not always successful in relating to spouse, parents, or offspring; dealing with people at work; or living well and happily in a demanding world.

The concept of intelligence was scarcely mentioned in psychology books until the late 1920s. An early researcher in the field, David Wechsler, wrote in 1940 about the nonintellective factors in general intelligence. Although he went on to concentrate on the cognitive branch of intelligence research, he recognized the importance of noncognitive aspects of general human intelligence. Howard Gardner in 1983 expanded Wechsler’s concept of general intelligence and wrote of “multiple intelligences,” and specifically of “personal intelligence.”

The exploration of personal intelligence—involving self-awareness and interpersonal and emotional competence—represents another direction and branch of psychological research. It is from this lineage that Reuven Bar-On (who coined the phrase Emotional Quotient [EQ]), Daniel Goleman, and others write, examining successful functioning in the workplace and in interpersonal situations, clarifying how applications of EQ lead to excellence in performance. They have explained why some people are able to exercise emotional competencies to make a profound positive difference in their work and in their organizations, while without it others stumble.

Traits and Competencies

Bar-On defines emotional intelligence as “an array of non-cognitive abilities, capabilities, and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures” (paper presented to the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Chicago in 1997). It is commonly agreed that emotional skills and intelligence develop over time. They modify and can grow throughout life, tending to peak in one’s 40s; they can be taught through skills training and therapy experiences. It is important to distinguish between an inborn trait, like perfect pitch or a sharp sense of taste or an aesthetic sensibility, and a competence like that of a composer, a chef, or a painter. The competencies build on existing traits, but are the result of focused training, learning about applications, and practical experience. Competence is a valuable set of skills and habits that lead to more effective performance, and to a greater likelihood of success.

Learning Emotional Competence

According to Goleman, some research indicates that emotional competence matters twice as much as raw intelligence or technical know-how in contributing to outstanding performance in work (Fortune, Oct. 26, 1998, p. 293–298). Strong technical knowledge and intellectual ability, coupled with high emotional intelligence, are thought to characterize a person well along in the process of self-actualization. Scoring high in emotional intelligence does not automatically make a person superb at work or in relating to people; it means he or she has a high potential to learn the emotional competencies needed for outstanding performance. In a subsequent article, Goleman indicates that emotional intelligence has a genetic-nature component, along with the nurture-learning that accumulates with age and experience. How much of each is a factor is not known, but research demonstrates that while each individual has different capacities for growth and adaptation, emotional intelligence can be learned (Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1998, p. 93–102).

Research indicates that the thinking part of the brain learns differently from the emotional part. The centers for rational thought are located in the neocortex, the thin layer that covers the top of the brain. It learns by adding new information to the existing networks of association and understanding, thus expanding them, depending to a high degree on sensory input in visual and aural form. But learning an emotional competence engages our emotional circuitry, involving our social habits and emotional memories. These are located in the limbic structures, deep in the middle of the brain, with the amygdala playing a key role. It is the site where emotions and affective memories are stored. Neural circuitry runs from the limbic system to the gut, giving new meaning to the term “having a gut feeling.” Learning emotional competence involves a process different from that of learning multiplication tables. The limbic system learns by repetition, experimentation, and practice, all of which involve emotion. It takes a limbic connection to change an emotional skill.

Going to a lecture or a typical training program on interpersonal competence isn’t likely to get the job done, for people won’t automatically know how to apply and practice emotionally what they have heard, and the lessons have been aimed at the wrong part of the brain. Many of us have gone to workshops and brought home great materials in notebooks that were never looked at again. EQ isn’t about information; it is about taking information and combining it with motivation, self-awareness, and vision, and striving for a new application, a new way of living. Emotional learning involves growing new pathways at the neurological level, not just adding more input to the existing (status quo) web. New ways of living, responding, and understanding oneself involve creating new circuits and replacing older, less adaptive ones.

EQ and Leadership

Emotional competence is crucial to the leadership role. Leadership is closely linked to helping others accomplish their tasks efficiently and to building confidence, satisfaction, and productivity among employees or volunteers. Problematic leadership lowers the morale and productivity of the work group and has a negative impact on individuals in the group: it blurs the focus on accomplishing tasks, raises frustration and hostility levels, decreases group cohesion and cooperation, and contributes to lowered motivation and loyalty to the organization. The effects of chronic distress on individuals in such environments may include increased distractedness and a permanent dulling effect on intellectual functioning.

Unskillful leadership also contributes to lowered retention rates of valuable workers or volunteers, and to a loss of customers and thus lower profits. Reuven Bar-On suggests that EQ is emotional and social intelligence, concerned with the ability to understand oneself and others, to relate effectively to people, and to adapt to and cope with one’s immediate situation—in the process increasing one’s ability to deal successfully with environmental demands. Leadership based on these self-aware abilities and skills uses active self-management and empathy, aiming at relational management, which in turn can catalyze needed cooperation and resonance in organizations. “Resonance,” in organizational terms, is the joining together of people in a vital common mission and in cooperative anticipation of their shared future.

The Making of Visionary Leaders

Visionary, innovative leadership is built spiritually on a sense of vocational calling in one who exercises self-awareness and congruence with one’s deepest motivating values. Such leadership is both cognitive and emotional in its wisdom; it is based on core motivating values. A new idea or insight needs people of emotional competence to refine it, initiate it, and put it into effective practice and follow-through. People can lose their calling by just doing the same thing over and over, failing to hear changes in their dreams and values as they move through cycles of life and vocation. Awakening to one’s spiritual values and one’s source of hope and renewal are of paramount importance to becoming a visionary leader whose skills and character join hands. It is an example of emotional intelligence vocationally focused.

Many denominations today are aware that a significant proportion of their churches have plateaued or are losing members, a complex political, social, and religious trend measurable for more than 40 years. More than half the congregations of the American Baptist Churches are in this situation. Identity and ministry are being challenged by a more secular society whose new generations show a decreasing interest in denominational life. Fewer church leaders now have the confidence that they know how to lead congregations effectively in mission and servanthood during such a time of change.

Pastorally managing an organization that has been stable and orderly in the past, and has avoided the chaos of drastic change is a job far different from leading an organization, which involves working with the volatile changes and shifts of the present. Leading sometimes requires inoculation of the organization’s system to increase a sense of urgency to address needed change, as well as an ability to remain steadfast in the face of the resulting conflict and stress. Average EQ skills are unlikely to be sufficient to transform a “stuck” congregational system, which may resist the change it needs.

Training for Renewal Ministry

Among American Baptists in the northeast there is a new program built upon the anticipation (“prolepsis”) of God’s calling the church into renewal and vitality for the future. The Nehemiah Leadership Network (NLN) is a cooperative program of 10 American Baptist regions that nurtures and encourages visionary pastors who choose to lead congregations in renewal. The program identifies candidates with a high potential for success with renewal ministry, and helps them to develop the spiritual vitality, emotional maturity (EQ), and leadership skills needed for leading congregations in renewal. Such pastors attend a vocational evaluation program at the Center for Career Development and Ministry in Dedham, Massachusetts, aimed at measuring the extent to which the pastor has the leadership traits and skills for revitalization work. The center and the pastor devise an individual plan for learning, strengthening and deepening the integration of the pastor’s emotional intelligence, leadership training, and spiritual grounding in a transformation ministry.

As the meltdown of old denominational forms continues, and the importance of teamwork, cooperation, and collegiality increases, the need for superb people skills grows in ministry leadership. Learner-directed, the NLN is one form of church renewal, providing an appropriate environment for the experimental, repetitive learning required for focusing on emotional growth and self-actualization (EQ). These experiences are combined with systems knowledge and change theory, interdependence and mutual learning in a small group, and a vital personal spiritual practice.