Leading with an Understanding Heart
Posted on Thursday, August 08, 2019 by Or Mars
When the Holy One asked King Solomon to choose what he wished for himself, Solomon requested a lev shomeya לֵ֤ב שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ (I Kings 3:9), a “heart that listens,” which also can be read as “an understanding heart.”
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner lays out eight different ways that intelligence can manifest (he later added a ninth). Unfortunately, when we think of the word “intelligence,” we usually only equate it with what Gardner refers to as either “verbal-linguistic” or “logical-mathematical” intelligence - those aspects of human intelligence that are rewarded by standardized tests and good grades (and all the future benefits that result from these).
But looking through a leadership lens when ranking the importance of Gardner’s multiple intelligences, I put “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal” at the top. Interpersonal intelligence is often equated with what we now call emotional intelligence, a term coined by Wayne Payne and popularized by Daniel Goleman. It refers to our ability to be aware of our emotions and the emotions of others, name them and respond appropriately. Whether or not it is actually “intelligence” (researchers disagree on this point), we nonetheless want our Jewish leaders to be self-aware and sensitive to others in the moment. Some view emotional intelligence as a leadership skill of “reading the room” and responding appropriately. Possibly this is why King Solomon asked the Holy one for an understanding heart. Solomon knew that emotional intelligence would be the quality necessary for him to lead wisely.
Using the language of Adaptive Leadership, we can better understand how to hone our emotional intelligence through the metaphor of “the balcony and the dance floor.” The dance floor is where the action is; it is a metaphor for the different kinds of groups in which we can exercise leadership. But when you are part of the hubbub on the floor, it is difficult to have “an understanding heart” for all the people around you. In order to do that we need to metaphorically get up on the balcony to have a clear-eyed view of all the needs and interests, hopes and fears of everyone in the room. “The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.” (Heifetz and Linsky)
Once someone is on the balcony, how do they assure themselves that they will see things more clearly? For this, Gardner claims that we have what he calls intrapersonal intelligence. This refers to the ability to have a deep understanding of your inner self. It means knowing how your own emotions are impacted by various situations, being able to predict them and control them. Gardner writes, “The less a person understands his own feelings, the more he will fall prey to them. The less a person understands the feelings, the responses and the behavior of others, the more likely (they) will interact inappropriately with them and therefore fail to secure (their) proper place in the world.”
I believe that intrapersonal intelligence is a prerequisite for interpersonal intelligence. Effective leaders take time to work on their inner life, their emotional well-being and their spiritual health. Perhaps we can see King Solomon’s Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as mindful journaling to keep his understanding heart fresh.
Intrapersonal intelligence can be improved, as can interpersonal intelligence. Like with all intelligences (if you subscribe to Gardner’s theory), all people start at their own “point A” and advance to their own “point B.” Leaders find their own ways to work on their interpersonal intelligence including Torah study, reading novels, reading leadership books, exercise, hiking, meditation, prayer, mentoring, coaching, psychotherapy and working with colleagues to learn skills of communication and understanding (as we do in our Wexner Programs). If you want to suggest other ways that you work on this intelligence, please put them in the comments section.
For me, a starting point is working on equanimity. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh invites us to imagine a mountain lake. When all is calm, no wind is blowing or pebbles thrown, the lake is clear as a mirror, reflecting the surrounding mountains as they really are. But in choppy waters there is no clear reflection – the mountains and trees are warped and they are not reflected as they really are. This is true also for our interpersonal intelligence. When we are calm within and have a resting soul – menuchat nefesh according to Mussar teacher Alan Morinis – then we become clear mirrors reflecting life as it really is to ourselves and others. When we are troubled, we respond in ways that show we don’t see things clearly. With menuchat nefesh, we are clear-eyed and we will have a lev shomeya, an understanding heart that listens. We will look down at the dance floor from the balcony and we know we will be able to have an accurate understanding of the situation. We will be able to exercise leadership calmly, relying on our emotional intelligence and wisdom.
Or Mars is Vice President of The Wexner Foundation. He is an alum of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program (Class 6). Or lives in Columbus, OH, and can be reached here.
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash