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As managers face unprecedented responsibility for their teams’ wellbeing, how are social and emotional attributes manifesting in strong leaders?


The global market for social and emotional learning – learning to manage emotions, set and achieve goals, show empathy, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions – is set to more than double in value to over £3 billion by 2025, according to Research and Markets

Indeed, Circus Street’s own Leadership lessons, which highlight, among many other attributes, how to differentiate between leadership skills and where they should be applied, jumped 318% in usage between March and August 2020, compared with the six months prior, with Shiseido, Heineken and Coty emerging as the most prolific brands in terms of uptake. 

So as both remote working and remote learning have become embedded into our daily lives, what role is social and emotional learning playing when it comes to leadership, as managers are under more pressure than ever to keep teams connected?

For Jonathan Salem Baskin, author, president of Arcadia Communications and the man behind Circus Street’s Leadership lessons, high social and emotional competency are the most important qualities of a good leader. Yet, they’re the most lacking when you look at their representation in a formal education setting.

“Social and emotional learning are two subjects I don't remember ever being offered on my university syllabus. But if you ask most people in the middle or near the ends of their careers, I would bet good money that they would say those are the two skills that mattered the most, and upon which they relied for their success, or were responsible for the biggest failures in their careers,” Baskin declares.


A philosophy of “co-leading”

Why? Because effective leadership comes down to a true understanding of people to inspire performance – a philosophy Baskin describes as “co-leading”.

“This idea that leaders can convince others to do things, or can dare them or challenge them, or scare them into doing things - that's really not leadership, and ultimately, it fails,” he dispels. 

“The crux of effective leadership is having the empathy and the insight to be able to help those around you, to not just understand what you're saying, but possessing the empathy and insight to understanding who they are and what they need. And it's not just a communications challenge. It is really a deeper, more profound, almost spiritual faith in the people around you, that they matter and that you care about them genuinely. We've all worked for leaders who made the noises about caring about our success, but you knew in your heart they really didn't. Real leaders truly care.”


Blurring lines between empathy and responsibility

Yet Baskin acknowledges that the pandemic is challenging leaders “to redouble their efforts to communicate honestly and authentically”. It’s also forcing them to redefine what they are going to lead on and what they are not – a line which can be easily blurred by misdirectionally channeling empathy.

“No company leader can claim they are going to lead their employees on recovering in every aspect of their lives. Leaders can't make their employees lives better overall. People have so many needs - we need to be reassured, to feel safe, to feel engaged, to feel confident, to feel respected. But where companies fail is when they try to bend over backwards to make it sound like they are able to solve all the challenges of their employees lives caused by Covid-19, but it's impossible,” he explains.

Being a strong leader then, who successfully deploys the values conveyed in social and emotional learning, seems like a tall order in today’s climate. So is it a case of you either have it in you or you don’t, or can anyone absorb the values of social and emotional learning, if they were willing enough?

Baskin argues that we all have the “receivers and transmitters” for qualities like empathy, but they don’t always automatically work – they need to be activated. 

It's absolutely learnable, but you have to learn that it's not a list of rules to follow, it's a list of ideas and actions that you need to really internalise,” he clarifies. 

“But the challenge is not to look at it like a to-do list, but to do some learning, and use that as a mechanism to turn on your transmitter and make it work in a way so that it's not just one of the things you do. It is how you do the things you do. We all have it in us to do this.”

Circus Street’s Head of Education, Jo Roberts, agrees “everyone has the potential to be a great leader”, but it’s important to “challenge yourself and traditional ideas of what leadership is”.

“Understanding people is the key to successful business. Leaders need to understand their people to get the most out of them, and our leadership lessons really focus on this,” she says.

“Understanding how to deal with a crisis, being agile, and empowering teams to make decisions in a remote working environment are common challenges that leaders have had to face during the pandemic. The leadership training we provide gives practical advice and tools to deal with the unexpected, and this year really has been all about that.”


Core leadership skills for 2021 and beyond

Maintaining positive relationships – a core component of social and emotional learning – has become even more of a priority during this prolonged period of remote working for Virginie Seguela, Make Up Business Director EMEA at Shiseido.

“Our priority as leaders is to make sure everyone is taking care of everyone, to really keep the link between everyone. Not only do I have daily calls with team members, but we have creative challenges, and I will ask my team members to organise breakfast or morning tea breaks. We have also been organising cooking lessons during lunchtime,” she reveals.

“Without empathy, it’s hard to build a strong spirit within your team, but it’s not always a natural quality everyone has.”

Key leadership qualities for Seguela are being open minded, flexible, agile, and the ability to “think out of the box, because we can’t copy and paste what we did in the past year”. Being creative, innovative and resilient will be key for her and her team as they go into 2021.

The importance of emotional intelligence was already being realised before the pandemic, Circus Street’s Roberts adds, but so-called “soft skills” have become vital during remote working

“One of the key challenges we help our clients to overcome is breaking down organisational silos. Empathy, great communication and understanding is needed to establish and maintain positive relationships across the business, and is vital to break down those departmental walls that we so-often see as a barrier to business transformation in organisations,” she notes.

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