Tom’s Note:

In our continuing series on Soft Skills, I was intrigued by some comments I read from Michael O’Brien and the issue of self-awareness, which has always interested me. I’m convinced that all the self-help that exists is useless unless the person who is seeking to improve understands the need (or self-awareness) before you begin. Here’s my conversation with Michael O’Brien.


TOM PERIĆ: Why is emotional intelligence important?


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: Great leaders inspire us to take on challenges and deliver exceptional results. When we consider the attributes that make a leader special, strategic thinking, intelligence, communication skill and executive presence come to mind. These are all important qualities. However, the driver behind leadership success is emotional intelligence (a.k.a., emotional quotient or EQ).

EQ isn’t a touchy-feely concept; rather, it’s the “special sauce” that separates good leaders from great ones.


TOM PERIĆ: You referenced EQ as a key attribute for great leadership, but what about IQ (intelligence quotient) and competencies? What’s the relationship between them? 


MICHAEL O’BRIEN:  Certainly IQ is critical because of the need for fast-paced learning in the work environment. IQ helps us understand and deliver on our organizations’ competencies. I like to think of IQ as the ticket to the dance. EQ, on the other hand, determines how much fun or success you have at that dance. You need both strong IQ and EQ to deliver consistent, long-term success.


TOM PERIĆ: What is Emotional Intelligence?


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: Emotional Intelligence affects your belief-system management, behaviors, social interactions and decision-making. It influences how much of your IQ you can access to solve business challenges.


Emotional Intelligence comprises four elements:

• Self-Awareness: Knowing your emotions and triggers.

• Self-Management: Managing your emotions to maximize your decision-making.

• Social Awareness: Understanding the emotions of those around you.

• Relationship-Management: Using your knowledge to develop effective partnerships.


TOM PERIĆ: Given that self-awareness is key for emotional intelligence, what can leaders do to improve it? 


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: The good news is that you can develop your EQ over time. The bad news is that self-awareness and EQ begin to erode as you climb higher in your organization.

Personal development assessments can be valuable tools to measure EQ. Daniel Goleman, a leader in EQ research, has created several assessments to measure emotional and social behaviors in different situations. I’m a fan of the Hogan Assessments for leaders and teams because they measure attitudes under normal and stressful conditions as well as highlight key motivators.

To further develop self-awareness, especially for vice presidents and C-suite leaders, I recommend enlisting the help of a trusted adviser, mentor or coach, who serves as a sounding board and strategy partner. Allies like these can help you understand the meaning behind important questions, such as:

• What is your definition of success?

• What do you value most, and what are your emotional triggers?

• How does your ego block your pathway to success?

• How does your mind-set influence your decision-making?


TOM PERIĆ: We know that mind-set plays a role in sports. How does it influence business


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: Henry Ford said it best: “Whether you think you can or if you think you can’t, you are right.” He saw the value of self-awareness and the connection between mind-set and results before EQ assessments became a standardized measurement tool.

All of us have beliefs that propel us forward and determine our responses, but we also carry around beliefs that block or limit our vision and inhibit innovation and success. Four common blocks include limiting beliefs, interpretations, assumptions and inner critics:

• Limiting Beliefs are views and expectations you have about the world, people and situations. For example, the impossibility of breaking the four-minute mile barrier was a classic limiting belief until Roger Bannister broke it in 1954. A common limiting belief at work is that leaders need to be tough to be effective.

• Interpretations are erroneous conclusions about events, situations or experiences. Poor verbal, nonverbal and written communication skills are often the root cause of many interpretation blocks at work.

• Assumptions occur when you assume a past outcome will be automatically repeated, simply because a similar situation occurred previously. We frequently link assumptions and experiences with past strategies, tactics, innovation and team members.

• The Inner Critic is the most powerful mind-set block. It usually appears during times of stress, anxiety, worry and fear. The Inner Critic is the voice inside your head that tells you to never take a risk; it wants you to always play it safe. As a result of listening to The Inner Critic, leaders play small, remain inside the confines of their comfort zones and never realize the success that can come from taking risks.

Leaders with strong emotional intelligence and self-awareness know their potential mind-set blocks and triggers and have created tactics that enable shifts in perspectives, which help them see unexpected challenges with fresh lenses.  


TOM PERIĆ: What’s the driving force behind our mind-set?  


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: This is one of my favorite questions because generally we are only able to see how a leader responds to a challenge. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The motivations behind a response are much more important and interesting. What lies underneath behaviors are a leader’s values, experiences, emotions and beliefs. Those qualities influence his or her behaviors and responses and originate in one of three key regions of the brain: the reptilian region, the mammalian region and the neo-cortex. 

The reptilian region monitors our primary body functions, such as breathing, hunger and circulation. It’s our flight, fight or freeze control-center which jump-starts our emotions found in the limbic system of the mammalian brain. When these two regions dominate a leader’s decision-making process, the result is a “hair-on-fire” or “tell-sell-yell” leadership approach.

However, self-aware leaders have learned to recognize the default responses of their reptilian and mammalian regions and as a result manage their emotional responses. They instead rely on the power of their neo-cortex. The neo-cortex is the rational part of our brain that’s used for reasoning, empathy and executive decision-making; the neo-cortex is where great results are born.  


TOM PERIĆ: How can leaders better leverage their neo-cortex?


MICHAEL O’BRIEN:  Great question. Today, I’m a strong believer in the power of meditation, and I say that as a late adopter.  When I worked as a commercial executive, I discounted the value of meditation. To be honest, I thought that it was silly and that I didn’t have time for it. I had a business to run. But a few years ago, I decided to give it another look. I figured if it was valued at Google, then I should give it a try. I regret that I didn’t begin meditating sooner. Meditation has helped me gain better self-awareness and has helped me handle stress more effectively. I now recommend it to every leader I meet.


TOM PERIĆ: After a leader develops greater self-awareness, what benefits can they expect? 


MICHAEL O’BRIEN: There are many benefits, and some will unfold over time. Today’s organizations and markets are more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, especially since 2008. Leaders who manage their emotional triggers can clearly see more opportunities to their challenges. Self-aware leaders learn to prioritize and better manage the ripple effects of stress, which results in more personal engagement and fulfillment at work. 

The truth is, the benefits of self-awareness go beyond leaders and flow outward to work teams as well. Team members begin to have better coordination, trust and synergy and less judgment of co-workers. Some studies suggest better revenue and salary outcomes, as well as higher engagement and a greater willingness for discretionary effort.

Michael O’Brien is a certified executive coach who helps aspiring leaders, senior executives and work teams get superior results by building self-awareness, trust and enhanced energy at work. O’Brien has more than 20 years of experience in corporate leadership and specializes in developing engaged cultures across sales, marketing and operations. He uses his personal story of triumph over tragedy to help his clients move beyond their obstacles and toward success in their business and their personal lives. Visit to discover more about Michael and Peloton Coaching and Consulting.