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Learning Leadership: Leadership Skill Set 4: Social Awareness

You’ve surely heard the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Truth be told, it’s not up to you to lead the horse to water or get him to drink. If you are wise in your ways of understanding others, all you must do is make the horse thirsty. A thirsty horse will find its way to water and drink all on its own.

In our continuing efforts to learn and lead through emotional intelligence, this segment will focus on the critical leap from understanding self – including the skills of self-awareness, self-regulation and self-motivation – to bridging the gap into the social domain. In short, we are taking our lessons from the “me-world” and applying them to the “we-world.”

If you truly wish to grow in your professional and personal lives, and advance in your ability to influence others, you must learn to shift from a me-myself-and-I agenda to a we-and-us agenda. As author John C. Maxwell writes in his book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” “If you are the leader and no one follows, you are only taking a walk.”

In bridging the gap from the me-world to the we-world, you must find personal motivation to take interest in other people, both the pleasant and the difficult. Many times, when working with or dealing with other people, our dominant thought is that they are simply difficult and we will work them because we must. This way of thinking – “because I have to” – will not empower you as an effective influencer of others.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to talk to others with the goal of motivating them to think, feel and act on the right things long after your conversations with them are over.

What Makes Them Thirsty
In earlier Learning Leadership articles, we discussed the paradigm shift in business that’s taken place over the last 20 to 30 years. Part of this shift involves the value of human capital, our American workforce. When we consider the shortage of skilled labor and the backlog of work already on the books, we can easily see why recruitment and retention of skilled labor is now at a premium. This premium has, in turn, raised the stakes for all organizational leaders.

Unlike a company’s tangible assets such as property, facilities and equipment, human capital stores up something intangible referred to as knowledge capital. Knowledge capital is essentially the backbone and know-how of your daily tasks, workflow and procedures – the best ways to get things done today that best meet the clients’ demands tomorrow.

The person possessing your knowledge entitles them to a unique seat on your bus, and how this person thinks and feels has become critically important. This is a relational responsibility you have as a supervisor; adding hazardous conditions only increases the responsibility.

In a recent interview with key executives for a global construction company now entering its 115th year in business, a construction manager had this to say about how his team works every day to overcome the multiple challenges of safely working together in a hazardous environment: “How condescending of me to tell these guys what to do when they’ve been on their tools doing the work longer than I’ve been around. We have all our frontline leadership go out to the craft people at all levels and simply ask what we can do to make their job easier.”

The Critical “Me-to-We” Step
It seems like the old ways of getting things done should still apply – a few people at the top know what’s going on and everyone else just does what they are told. It’s understandable why, at times, we want to embrace this old model of “I know; you work.”

On a recent recovery assignment following a plant explosion, a senior company representative walked up to me and asked who I was and why I was on the project. When I told him I was there to teach people about thoughts and emotions, he gave me the longest blank stare I have seen in quite a while. Once he regained control of his senses, he leaned over and told me, with a sarcastic chuckle, that I had my work cut out for me. He then said, “You haven’t seen or talked to some of these guys we have working here, have you? These guys aren’t too bright.” After a brief pause, he continued, saying, “And honestly, they don’t care about your thoughts and feelings; they aren’t in touch with their own.” He then laughed and walked away.

Surprisingly, though, for those frontline supervisors who do survive the first-year transition and become effective leaders, they quickly learn that there is a lot of sharing going on these days. And it’s important for leaders to recognize there is more to share than just the knowledge related to tasks, safe work practices and technical skills. Today we must learn to share both thoughts and feelings in a way that builds confidence in one another. Share thoughts about the best way to execute the task given all its unique hazards; share feelings about whether or not someone feels safe in a particular work environment or task. You don’t have to like everyone, but it’s vital to trust those working with and around you.

This entire conversation about being aware of your own and others’ thoughts and feelings is what makes most of our more recent safety programs work so well. All of the following are based on what each craft person thinks and feels:
• Leading indicators
• Near misses
• Stop work
• Walk-downs
• Job safety analyses

In the social awareness emotional intelligence skill set, you must learn the art of asking, watching and seeking to understand others. Somewhere in the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve been told as leaders to stop telling our teammates what to do and instead start seeking from them the knowledge and input regarding the best way to execute a task and get the job done safely. Research of top-performing companies shows this same focus on people. In today’s fast-paced, highly competitive marketplace – one with a skilled workforce shortage – leaders must learn to value all team members and, in doing so, seek out and even ask what makes them thirsty.

Fourth Skill Set
Social awareness is the fourth skill set in the study and application of emotional intelligence, and focuses on how people handle relationships and awareness of others’ feelings, needs and concerns. This skill set includes the following four competencies:

1. Empathy
Definition: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns. People with this competence are attentive to emotional cues and listen well; show sensitivity and understand others’ perspectives; and help out based on understanding other people’s needs and feelings.

2. Service Orientation
Definition: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs. People with this competence understand customers’ needs and match them to services or products; seek ways to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty; gladly offer appropriate assistance; and grasp a customer’s perspective and act as a trusted adviser. Note: Internal customers are your teammates; external customers pay you to perform work.

3. Developing Others
Definition: Sensing what others need in order to develop and bolstering their abilities. This includes not only technical and compliance knowledge development, but personal development as well. People with this competence acknowledge and reward people’s strengths, accomplishments and development; offer useful feedback and identify people’s needs for development; and mentor, give timely coaching, and offer assignments that challenge and enhance a person’s skills.

4. Leveraging Diversity
Definition: Cultivating opportunities through diverse people. People with this competence respect and relate well to people from varied backgrounds; understand diverse worldviews and are sensitive to group differences; see diversity as opportunity and create an environment where diverse people can thrive; and challenge bias and intolerance.

The basic idea of social awareness is that you can learn to tap into what others are thinking and feeling, knowing very well that most people do not understand or have trouble putting into words their own thoughts and feelings. However, even if people can’t verbalize their emotions, they will always show them to you. Teaching yourself to look for these cues is a lesson plan in itself. Professionally speaking, learning the ins and outs of different personality styles is one of the best, most accurate tools you can use to better grasp other people’s behavior.

Your challenge today is a great one. Whether you’ve been around a while or are new to the game, you must learn and develop new personal skills. The very skills that got you through yesterday will not be sufficient to get you through tomorrow.

About the Author: Parrish Taylor is the author and instructor of Mental & Emotional Training (M.E.T.), a skills development program, and will present a course titled “Learning Leadership” October 1 at the iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo in Louisville, Ky. He has successfully implemented workforce development strategies within the electric utility sector for numerous clients including Entergy, Cleco and Oklahoma Gas & Electric. To learn more, visit Taylor has also served as an adult learning consultant for the last 20 years. Learn more at

Editor’s Note: “Learning Leadership” is a series dedicated to the human side of doing your job well. Each article in the series will help readers develop a greater understanding of the mental and emotional skills necessary to succeed in today’s workplace. If you have comments about this article or a topic idea for a future issue, please contact Parrish Taylor at 866-487-2815 or


Leadership Development