How To Continue to Build Your Leadership Intelligence

For this article by Jo Ilfeld, Executive Leadership Coach on leadership intelligence the image shows the hands of two people dressed in suits playing chess

This article originally appeared in Forbes

I teach leadership intelligence in an executive MBA program. Every year as I say goodbye to another cohort of graduating eMBAs there is still so much I wish I could have taught them. The truth is that if you’re growing and shifting throughout your career, your leadership intelligence is constantly being tested, and hopefully, developing and leveling up. Yet often, once students leave an MBA program, they tend to rely on on-the-job growth. And they’re not alone; in my career as an executive leadership coach, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders, and the biggest differential in success I notice is a continued focus on developing more leadership intelligence.

Taking the time to develop your leadership intelligence is always valuable: navigating leadership is navigating change, navigating different personalities and motivations, essentially learning to navigate life.

Although I don’t give a graduation speech to my eMBAs, I would encourage them, and you, to keep furthering your leadership journey to allow new possibilities to open up for you.

Dr Jo’s Top Five Recommendations For Growing Your Leadership Intelligence

1. Read at least one article a week 

Read articles weekly on leadership, teams, emotional intelligence, difficult conversations, etc. During school, you are continuously reading and experimenting with new ideas and theories. Yet oftentimes once you settle into a career, your learning focuses on your functional area and industry. I encourage you to subscribe to Harvard Business ReviewForbesMcKinsey’s newsletter and Strategy+Business. These are my favorites but find others that speak to you as well. Just pick one of their articles each week that seems interesting and relevant to what you’re facing at that moment.

If you read just one 5-minute article per week while waiting for your favorite caffeine beverage, in just one year you’ll have almost 50 new ideas and voices of thought leaders circulating around your brain. Over time, this adds up and gives you a true edge over many other leaders who stop paying attention to honing their craft of leadership.  

2. Find a way to reset during your day

As my students know, taking a conscious pause where we allow our more rational brain to come online can be invaluable during high stakes conversations. And a conscious pause can be just that, a few deep breaths, a few sips of your water, or just truly feeling your feet on the floor and noticing your toes in your shoes and on the ground. While a conscious pause is invaluable in a triggering moment, try weaving this into your workday to help moderate the daily stress that most of us experience at work.

Depending on your level of stress, you might need several resets in a day. Recent research points to the toll of accruing micro stresses throughout our day. It impacts us and it impacts those who work (and live) with us. The best antidote I’ve found is to create intentional breaks in your day where your nervous system can reset closer to normal. The best way is to go outside and take a short walk. Even walking between buildings or to get coffee can be effective if you look around you as you walk and breathe in the fresh air – that means not just looking at your phone the whole time! You can find other shorter times to take a few breaths, do some tension-relieving stretches, or even just shut your eyes. A few moments like this sprinkled throughout your day allow you to come back to center regularly throughout your day so you’re starting from that centered place before getting pulled into your next fire drill.  

3. Notice how you make others feel

A key part of leadership is how you communicate ideas, plans and emotions with others. Whether or not you have a team reporting to you, work requires that we consistently negotiate with others to make bigger things happen than we could do on our own. It’s not enough to have the best ideas in the room if you can’t convey them in a way that gets others on board. Emotional intelligence does matter and the first step is regularly taking stock of how you impact others. Do others agree to help you even though it adds to their long to-do list? Do you get quick responses to your emails and Slacks? When you speak in meetings do you see nods and interest or crossed arms and inattention? One of the biggest signs that your leadership intelligence needs attention is when you struggle to enroll others in your vision and plans, big and small. So start looking around you during your work day and noting, how are others responding to you at work and is that working for you? If not, pay special attention to recommendations 2 and 4.

4. Continue to invest in your network

Your network is your personal gold. Your network can give you feedback when you’re struggling, help you to brainstorm new ideas, and provide a new set of resources you might not know about. I’ve learned so much how to build a great network from Michael Melcher’s new book “The Invisible Network” and one key idea stands out – you should be investing in your network weekly and not just when you’re mobilizing for a  job search. Pay it forward and be a resource to others around you first, paying that positive energy forward will create the strong network to support your own growth as well. (And for my eMBA students, that means staying in touch with your cohort – make the time to keep those connections!)

5. Do a yearly self-assessment of your leadership intelligence

For the eMBA program, my students have to do a comprehensive self-assessment, a SWOT-like appraisal of their personal strengths, weaknesses, values and opportunities for growth. They’ll tell you it’s a lot of work – and it is. But revisiting your self- assessment yearly gives you time to reflect, see where you have grown and check that the things you wanted to improve are still relevant for where you are now. Just as a daily reset allows you to show up as your best self during each day, a yearly self-assessment allows you to make sure that your attention and efforts are following your personal values and vision (and not anyone else’s!). To paraphrase the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Revisiting your yearly assessment is a great way to ensure that you know at least directionally where you want to go and that you are aligning your efforts towards that compass point. 

Here’s a small self-assessment opportunity right here: 

As you read my recommendations above, note which ones you are currently doing already. Is there one that spoke to you the loudest? Would you be willing to focus on that one for the next few months?

While I think these five recommendations for growing your leadership intelligence build on and support each other nicely, just start with one. And start small. Even small changes in your leadership intelligence can have outsize results in your workplace (and life) effectiveness.

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Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

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