Why the cold and cutthroat director is the dinosaur in the room

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Boardroom decisions can have broad ramifications, affecting shareholders, stakeholders, local communities, and wider society. To ensure effective decision-making, directors need to be mindful of their physical and mental health, and emotional capabilities.

Directors of most companies require a range of experiences, including knowledge of accountancy, law and governance practices. While technical skills and professional qualifications are important, they alone are not enough; attention needs to be paid to attitudes, behaviours, and one’s own emotional intelligence, or EQ.

The term “emotional intelligence” was introduced in 1990 by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, though was later popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book of the same name. EQ is broadly defined as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others.” A more recent definition comes from Dr. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, who authored “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” in 2009. They define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognise and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships.”

In this article, we will explore the importance of emotional intelligence and suggest ways in which it can be developed to aid directors in their role as a company’s decision-maker. When directors are armed with a greater understanding of their behavioural qualities and softer skills, companies are more likely to see better decision-making outcomes and leadership.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Research has shown that the most effective leaders have a high amount of emotional intelligence. These leaders possess qualities such as empathy, effective communication, and the ability to motivate and inspire others.

EQ can be broken down into four components:

  1. Self-awareness: your ability to perceive and understand the things that make you who you are as an individual, including your personality, actions, values, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts.
  2. Self-regulation: the ability to control your behaviour and manage your thoughts and emotions in appropriate ways.
  3. Awareness of others (empathy): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  4. Social skills: the interpersonal tools we use to communicate, build relationships, and interact with others.

Being Emotionally Intelligent in the Boardroom

As leaders of the company, we expect our directors to act with integrity, lead by example, and promote the desired culture. ‘Setting the tone from the top’ and something about fish comes to mind! We also need them to be decisive, quick and confident in their decision-making, while remaining empathetic to the company and its stakeholders and mindful of the viewpoints of fellow board members.

A director needs to be a good teammate and should be able to hold themselves and others mutually accountable for performance and action towards a common goal, such as the company’s strategy. They should maintain a balanced, constructive relationship with others but also avoid over cohesiveness – too much banter and personal exchange can lead to distraction, groupthink, suppressed internal dissent, and ultimately poor decision-making. The boardroom should not necessarily be a comfortable place – good decision making requires challenge, awkward questions, and healthy tension.

The EQ skills required of directors are vast and often neglected in favour of more traditional expertise and intellect, which can be obtained through reading and learning. However, softer skills come only through practice, experience, and social interactions, currently considered absent from professional qualification.

How to Become Emotionally Intelligent

Anyone can improve their emotional intelligence with appropriate practice. Directors can enhance their self-awareness by reflecting on their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours through mindfulness practices like meditation or deep breathing. Mindfulness practices have been shown to enhance emotional regulation and ethical decision-making, clearly imperative for those in the boardroom. Incorporating mindfulness practices into daily routines can help directors develop these essential skills.

Empathy, which is a key indicator of a high-performing board, along with social skills, requires active listening, an understanding of non-verbal cues, and practicing perspective-taking. Directors should show genuine interest in others, maintain eye contact, and ask open-ended questions to encourage dialogue. In meetings, directors can practice active listening by summarising others’ points of view and asking for clarification when needed, which will help foster understanding and rapport among the board and others.

Strengthening self-regulation and emotional control involves identifying triggers, pausing before reacting, and employing coping strategies. When faced with emotional challenges, stop, take a deep breath, and process any feelings before taking action. Healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise and mindfulness techniques, should be adopted to manage stress and negative emotions effectively. Regular practice of these habits can enhance resilience which is one’s ability to bounce back and positively withstand strain over time and develop emotional balance in situations of tension.

A final word on positive lifestyle factors: sleep. The recognition of the importance of physical factors such as appropriate nutrition, exercise, stress management, and sleep is ever-growing and should not be forgotten, especially for company directors who often face high levels of stress, burnout, and the challenge of balancing multiple roles. Burnout can lead to significant costs in health care spending each year. Some of the primary drivers of job burnout include unfair treatment at work, unreasonable deadlines, unmanageable workloads, lack of managerial support, and the added stress of responding to emails and texts outside of office hours – which far too many people do!

Overboarding, a phenomenon where directors hold too many directorship appointments, can exacerbate burnout and reduce effectiveness in the boardroom. This is where the crucial aspect of self-care comes into play, with sleep being the key factor. It has been observed that individuals who get less sleep tend to have lower emotional intelligence compared to those who have enough sleep.

A 2007 study on sleep deprivation published in the Sleep Medicine journal found that after several hours of sleep deprivation, participants experienced a notable decline in emotional intelligence and constructive thinking. This highlights the importance of adequate sleep in maintaining optimal emotional and cognitive functioning, clearly essential for effective decision-making and interpersonal relationships within the boardroom.

More recent studies on sleep deprivation have shed light on the significant impact it can have on our emotional intelligence, mental health, decision-making abilities, and interpersonal relationships. Inadequate sleep can cause directors to be more emotionally reactive, which goes beyond mere irritability and crankiness. Sleep deprivation can lead to impairments in emotional processing and regulation, making individuals more prone to negative emotional responses.

Sleep deprivation has also been shown to negatively affect decision-making abilities, as it impairs cognitive functioning and can reduce an individual’s capacity to process information, assess risks, and make sound judgments. This is particularly crucial for company directors, as their decisions have far-reaching consequences for the organisation and its stakeholders. Sufficient rest and sleep are essential for maintaining optimal emotional and cognitive functioning, which is vital for effective decision-making and interpersonal relationships in the boardroom.


In this article we have considered how emotional intelligence can be a crucial factor in the effectiveness of company directors. By developing self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, and social skills, directors can enhance their decision-making abilities and foster a positive boardroom environment.

Remember too that well-rested minds lead to better boardroom dynamics, decision-making, and optimal EQ levels. So, if there’s a board meeting on your agenda tomorrow, tuck yourself in early tonight – after all, great decisions are best made on a good night’s sleep!

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