Emotional Intelligence: CEOs with low EQ struggle in a crisis



an ebook


Ciarán Fenton

How small changes in your behaviour have a big impact on how you work, lead or follow

That’s the title of an ebook I wrote in early 2020, initially, as a series of 50 short blogs – index here – and as a framework for a longer book.


Section 1 YOU

1.10 Emotional Intelligence: CEOs with low EQ struggle in a crisis

your career equity

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the second key component of career equity in my model.

Although emotional intelligence is a vast subject – covered in depth by Daniel Goleman in particular – in my work I focus on just three issues:

  1. Empathy
  2. Self-awareness
  3. Your ability to have your needs met, productively


Empathy, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary,  is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.

It is not to be confused with sympathy. You can be empathetic with someone but not sympathetic towards them.

Many, although not all, CEOs get to the top of organisations because they lack empathy. Their ruthlessness means they possess the so-called “killer instinct” to push others aside in the service of their own ambition.

They can take the “tough decisions” – code for being tough on others – without losing sleep. Being liked by all is not high on their agenda.

People will work very hard for CEOs with low empathy from fear of their wrath, a powerful incentive. But if a CEO needs discretionary effort from them, meaning voluntarily “going the extra mile”, they won’t get it and in a crisis no money can buy the crucial and intangible discretionary effort required from its workforce which is essential for sustainable recovery.

In a crisis a CEO is exposed much more nakedly than in normal times. They have no hiding place. They and they alone will “carry the can”. In these circumstances many double down on their ruthlessness and succeed for a while until their followers have had enough. Others flounder and fail because they cannot understand that one of the vectors of surviving a crisis is the quality of leadership during that crisis.


Self-awareness means having “good knowledge and judgment about yourself”. In my work I use a simple self-awareness test: I ask my leader clients, especially CEOs, if they know what main behavioural weakness people in their organisation would say they have if I asked them to tell me – which I always do. If they don’t know then there’s a high chance that they frequently visit much unconscious cruelty on the people who work for them. This cruelty is horrible to witness and CEOs who are unconsciously cruel are flying blind. They don’t know what they don’t know. Hubris – meaning excessive pride – is the bedfellow of low self-awareness and hubris leads, ultimately to failure, especially in a crisis.

Your ability to have your needs met, productively

Usually, I find the ability to meet needs productively to be the most complex issue of the three EQ components in helping people develop their emotional intelligence because getting one’s needs met is at the heart of all conflict and all cooperation.

CEOs with low empathy and self-awareness get their needs met through brute force. This approach is not productive over the long-term in normal times and and rarely in a crisis.

I use a “tool” – FEEL/NEED/DO – which has been developed by others, most notably Marshall Rosenberg in his book Non-Violent Communication, to help people work through three steps:

  1. What do you feel in relation to the issue at hand?
  2. What do you need in relation to that feeling?
  3. What can you do i.e what are your options to meet your need to address your feelings?

Frequently people in power under stress will act viscerally and will not assess all their options based on needs derived from an agreed shared purpose and having connected with their deeper feelings.

For example anger is a shallow feeling frequently masking deeper feelings of fear, anxiety or hurt. The classic situation of a furious CEO “letting rip” is well known. Other CEOs use psychological tactics like shame. I once worked in an organisation where the CEO simply had to use the “D-word” with menace to exert control when “disappointed”. Public shaming was their control instrument of choice.

Many CEOs believe that the behaviour that “got me here” will get them through and “get me there”. Why wouldn’t they? They know no other way of behaving. So many forget that the process of getting to the top is different from the processes required to be successful at the top. This argument hangs on what one means by successful which in ordinary times is open to debate.

But in a crisis success is about sustainable survival. Anything less means the CEO’s legacy and reputation will be “they weren’t a great leader in a crisis”. Even they most ruthless of CEOs tend to care about their legacies. This might be an incentive for them to make at least a small change in their levels of empathy, self-awareness and their ability to meet their needs productively.

For most CEOs though, just a few small positive improvements in their EQ will have a big impact on their sustainable fulfilment, and on that of the people they lead, especially in a crisis.

Ciarán Fenton

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