Though the dictionary definition of the word ‘intelligence’ is narrow in scope, intelligence encompasses far more than a rudimentary education, or simple training can provide. The dictionary defines emotional intelligence as a skill in perceiving, understanding and managing emotions and feelings.
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, can enhance the effectiveness of leaders at all levels. Though it’s not always formally taught, EQ can make or break a team. But what is it in practice?
According to the Air Force Profession of Arms Center of Excellence, “Increasing awareness of and familiarity with emotional intelligence sets the stage for a better understanding of individual follower responses and reactions and fine-tuning leadership approaches to the challenges of leading an educated, professional force in the situations leaders face today.”
In February 2022, the Air Force began to assess all Airmen based on 10 Airman leadership qualities: job proficiency, initiative, adaptability, inclusion and teamwork, emotional intelligence, communication, stewardship, accountability, decision making and innovation. These ALQs outline key attributes for Airmen to improve upon and embody, emphasizing emotional intelligence.
“We need leaders to hone their own sense of leadership skills, their own emotional intelligence so that they can understand when risk is acceptable and when it’s not, how to hold somebody accountable and how to not,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass.
In keeping with the mission of PACE to develop better Airmen and leaders, the organization has developed a training program to elevate “the importance of fostering better leader-follower relationships, and how that can improve productivity results and further help address interpersonal issues.” Additionally, Air University has created a class focusing on advancing EQ for leaders.
“It’s extremely important for Airmen to be able to develop, or learn to develop, their emotional intelligence skills because they’re going to be the ones who are interacting first-hand with each other,” said Master Sgt. Jonathan Graham III, 8th Fighter Wing Equal Opportunity director. “Airmen are around other Airmen more than [noncommissioned officers] or [senior NCOs] are around each other, so it’s important that they’re able to have those conversations with peers and friends to build positive outcomes to situations.”
Though emotional intelligence is developed, Airmen can take steps to ease and make the most of the learning process.
“First, understand yourself; understand what your triggers are and what makes you mad,” Graham said. “Understanding your body language and how you portray yourself to others would be the first thing I would use to learn how to develop those skills. Reflect on the things you do or the way you react to situations. Did I handle that the best way possible, and did I represent myself well? Was there a better way I could have conducted myself in that situation?”
Graham explained that the second step in developing emotional intelligence focuses on how actions can affect others and the importance of getting Airmen to understand and believe in the bigger picture.
“Emotional intelligence to me is closely tied to charisma,” Graham said. “There are leaders out there [and] when they say something, they get you fired up and ready to charge into whatever situation, knowing that this person has your best interest at heart and knowing at the end of the day we’re going to do this together as a family pressing forward. Whereas somebody [who] just gives you a task and walks off without that caring piece, you’re not going to be so thrilled to do it.” Honing these abilities helps a leader determine how to inspire a team to work to their best ability and encourage them to want to accomplish the mission.
“When you challenge or encourage people or show gratitude to people, even your average players can come in and give it their all,” Graham said. “No one joins the military hoping that they’re going to come in and be average. Everyone wants to be a key contributor to the mission.”
According to demographic snapshots from the Air Force Personnel Center, more Airmen are joining the enlisted corps with advanced education, but that education doesn’t give them the ability to lead.
“We’re attracting Airmen who come into the Air Force with bachelor’s and master’s degrees within the enlisted corps; IQ itself is more of a universal thing,” Graham said. “What we could use more of is people who know how to take care of people. EQ is the way that we can take these high-powered, functional, strong Airmen to the fight and get the most out of them.”
The key to empowering these Airmen lies in the way they’re being implemented into the priorities of the Air Force chief of staff.
“I believe in the Accelerate Change or Lose mindset, and I believe one of the things we can capitalize on is bringing everybody to the fight and let them know, ‘You have a key piece; if we don’t get this block, or we don’t get this catch or hit, it can end up being to our detriment’,” Graham said. “Let’s make sure that we’re getting the most out of everyone that we have. Emotional intelligence is the oil that lubes that machine.”