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Emotional Intelligence & Lessons Learned from Millionaires


05Sep 2006

This past Sunday, one of the lead articles in Parade magazine (the magazine inserted into millions of Sunday newspapers) was on emotional intelligence. The article was written by Daniel Goleman, who is one of the “founding fathers” of the concept of emotional intelligence and who has written groundbreaking books on the subject (I personally have found Working with Emotional Intelligence to be a helpful, practical guidebook on the subject.)

In my work with successful business families across the country, I have had the opportunity to interview over 60 multimillionaires (usually, their net worth ranges from $20 million to $100 million) by conducting a day long retreat with the business owner and their spouse. And clearly I have found an overlap between the concepts of emotional intelligence and these successful individuals.

“Emotional intelligence” is one of those terms and concepts that many people use, but often don’t know exactly what it is. (Part of this is due to the fact that it is a relatively new construct and different authors and researchers have defined the term in different ways.) However, two of the concepts tied to emotional intelligence are what I want to address.

In the retreat I conduct with financially successful couples, one of the questions I always ask is: “To what do you attribute your business and financial success?” And what is fascinating are the recurring themes that I have heard over and over.

Depending on the person’s worldview, one of the most common answers either is: “We are fortunate to be blessed by God” or “We were in the right place at the right time – it had little to do with me.” Both answers reflect a sense of the world and life being bigger than themselves personally. Yes, they brought some talent, skill, training or other characteristics to the situation, but part of their success had to do with factors outside of their control. (This first reason given is not directly related to emotional intelligence, but is a result of the emotional intelligence concept of “having an accurate view of one’s place in the world” – neither overvaluing oneself, nor undervaluing your significance as an individual.)

Probably the second most common response is, bluntly stated, “perseverance”. These people, who are now multimillionaires, report comments like: “We just kept trying — we never gave up.” “We hung in there through the bad times, and tried to learn from our mistakes.” “We just working our plan.” It is interesting (to me, at least) that many of these individuals had failed in business or financially (by declaring bankruptcy) prior to their current success. But, whether through a personal passion related to the goods or services they provided or just a characterological “bulldoggedness”, they refused to give up.

This concept of perseverance is clearly referred to in the emotional intelligence literature. Often it is described as “self-control”, “managing oneself”, or “self-discipline”. But the construct is clear – a key component of managing oneself emotionally is the ability to get up and go to work when you don’t feel like it, to persevere through difficult times, and to keep on task in spite of weariness and discouragement.

The third most frequent response given by wealthy individuals, regarding the “secret” to their financial success, surprised me somewhat, but it kept recurring across the interviews. They often reported: “We took care of our customers.” “We were committed to giving the best service possible to our clients, even if it cost us extra at the time.” “We were honest and fair in dealing with our customers, our vendors, and our employees.” Essentially, they chose to do what was best for others, even if it was costly to them personally at the time.

In emotional intelligence terms, this is based on the concept of “perspective-taking” and “empathy”. First of all, one has to be able to see a situation from another person’s point of view – to see what they want in the situation (known as perspective taking). Then, one has to be able to put aside your own feelings and desires, and act in a way which is best for another, which is based on empathy – having a sense of how another person is feeling – and choosing to respond to meet their felt needs.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that most of the multimillionaires that I have interviewed have come to the conclusion that a large part of their financial success is really a result of emotional intelligence — specifically, the ability to persevere and demonstrate self-control, and serving others as a core part of their business.

This is in stark contrast to the myriad of books and articles that focus on marketing, leveraging your money, or some specific investment technique. I think the message is: if you want to be financially successful, do what you do well; serve your clients, vendors & employees (rather than cutting corners); and keep at it in spite of the obstacles and challenges you encounter.

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