CIOs, Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

By Larry Bonfante  |  Posted 10-02-2014 Print Email

Being aware of your emotional triggers and having strategies to counteract the upheaval they can create is a critical set of competencies in today's workplace.

Emotional leadership

By Larry Bonfante

Nearly 20 years ago Daniel Goleman wrote his seminal book Emotional Intelligence. It strikes me that as the role of the CIO has evolved to become more of a customer- and board-facing role, that many of the competencies required to make this transition are related to different aspects of emotional intelligence. As a matter of fact, a recent SIM survey found that people skills, such as emotional intelligence, were rated very highly by CIOs on the list of leadership skills required to be an effective CIO in the 21st century. In this column, I will focus on two critical aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness and self-management.

Self-awareness is a challenging competency to develop. We all have emotional triggers. I refer to these triggers as my emotional "third rail." These are things that can set you off quickly and make your blood pressure escalate at an alarming rate. Different things set off different people. For me, laziness and complacency are big triggers. I have no problem with people who try and fail but learn from their mistakes. I have a big problem with people who don’t care enough to keep plugging away. When I worked at Pfizer, one employee told me that I was "the single most relentless human being" he had ever met. My reaction was to thank him for the compliment!  

Another emotional challenge for me is catastrophizing a situation. I can take a problem and follow it to what seems like a logical conclusion, but this often ends with me unemployed and my family homeless! I tend to get very wound up about certain things and allow them to carry me on an emotional wave. I heard a brilliant quote from a valued colleague and dear friend of mine, Carole Zierhoffer, the CIO at Bechtel. Carole once stated during a presentation that, as a leader, it’s imperative that we never go to our "emotional basement." This is sage advice.

Self-management is a related competency. If self-awareness is knowing what your buttons are, then self-management is knowing what to do about them. So, for instance, when I encounter someone who seems to be taking the easy way out, I need to take a step back and try to put myself in their situation. I need to have empathy as to why the situation has demoralized them and depleted their ability to carry on. I need to find a way to motivate them to get back in the game and keep working. My natural reaction is to judge them harshly and think of them as a quitter. However, my judging other people accomplishes nothing and it certainly won't help them regain their footing to soldier on.

In terms of my inclination to turn small problems into catastrophes, I've developed an interesting, and somewhat warped, approach to self-management. I allow myself to extrapolate the problem to its absolute worst-case scenario. At the end of that emotional ride, I realize that even if the worst case happens, I will still be alive, still have my health, still have my family, and still have a 33-year track record of successes and competencies. So, I realize that even in the worst-case scenario I will ultimately be all right.

Knowing what your hot buttons are and having strategies to counteract the emotional upheaval they can create is a critical set of competencies in allowing us to stay grounded, level headed and focused on addressing the challenges at hand. These are critical skills for the leaders of any organization.

About the Author

Larry Bonfante is a practicing CIO and founder of CIO Bench Coach, LLC, an executive coaching practice for IT executives. He is also the author of Lessons in IT Transformation, published by John Wiley & Sons. He can be reached at

To read his previous CIO Insight article, "What Football and IT Have in Common," click here.


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