Emotionally Intelligent

MidAmerica Region UUA New Leaders logo with compass rose

Emotionally Intelligent: Leaders know how to read people emotionally, and how to help people feel safe enough to not be driven unconsciously by emotions. Leaders help people understand how to appropriately express emotions and to use them as forces to move the congregation forward, rather than trapping them in the past.

During much of the last century, leadership was focused on intellect, reason, analysis, persuasion and the concept of experts. There were lots of books describing to aspiring leaders how to emphasize these qualities. Leaders were admired and considered successful based on how forceful or decisive they were, both in business and the social sector. Towards the end of the 20th century, however, we began to see the paradigm shifting. As more women were becoming leaders, leadership styles changed. There was a growing emphasis on collaboration and listening.

The book, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was published in 1995. The initial definition of EI was “the array of skills and characteristics that drive leadership performances.” Further exploration of the EI concept by other authors described behavioral traits and the ability to process emotional information, using it to navigate the social environment.

As we consider skills needed by leaders in our congregations in the coming years, it’s clear that these Emotional Intelligence characteristics will be important:

  • Paying attention to social interactions and understanding the complex social problems that arise in our faith communities.
  • Being empathetic - recognizing the feelings of other people.
  • Listening deeply.
  • Being self-aware, controlling one’s emotions, and regulating anger.

In 2000, Brian McLaren, an author, activist, and theologian, wrote an essay comparing the leadership styles of the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy, as they applied to religious leaders. His comparisons, influenced by the growing field of study of Emotional Intelligence, offered an entirely new way of looking at successful religious leadership qualities. In this essay, we see Dorothy as a seeker, a quest creator, a spiritual friend, a team builder, and radically inclusive. She is the very embodiment of Emotional Intelligence.

With EI, we also see connections to other important leadership concepts. In Systems Theory, effective leaders are described as managing anxiety - of others and their own. This requires having a calm, non-anxious presence in the midst of conflict or controversy. In Ron Heifitz’ Adaptive Leadership models, leaders dealing with changing a culture need to change the minds and hearts of the people. This is done through listening and empathizing coupled with holding out the vision for the future and also by paying attention to social interactions within the community.

Perhaps most importantly, people need to feel safe in religious community. Transformation, growth, and spiritual depth are not possible when people feel that their congregation is not a safe space. Emotional Intelligence helps us to understand when people are feeling safe and it helps us to nurture the sacred promise of beloved community.

Dori Davenport Thexton
Past Congregational Life Consultant, MidAmerica Region

About the Author

Dori Davenport Thexton

Dori Davenport Thexton has served Unitarian Universalism professionally since 1983. She was the Director of Religious Education at two congregations in the Midwest before working as part of the UUA field staff from 1998-2017. Dori is passionate about growing Unitarian Universalism and sees...

For more information contact .