Emotional Intelligence, or Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

From the time she entered school, my daughter came to me whenever she had troubles with math. I was impressed with what she was learning, but more so with what I had forgotten. Of course I could do a long-division problem and explain it to a grade schooler, right? I didn’t want to acknowledge not only that I may not be able to help, but that I might actually contaminate her understanding with my poor math skills.

So I made a goal. I’d watched the show Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader and figured that’s a doable target; if I could help my daughter through fifth grade, I’d have made (I thought) quite an achievement. But as she progressed through the grades, I struggled, and unfortunately so did she; I failed to recognize I was outmatched.

By the early days of her fifth grade, what in previous years had been slow, struggling progress reached the point where I couldn’t even fake it; I had no idea where to begin. My daughter, son and wife thought it was hilarious, but I was devastated. I can’t figure this grade-school math problem out? The answer was no.

My lack of self-awareness had finally caught up with me.

Traditionally, intellectual capacity has been perceived as a primary indicator to one’s professional success. While there’s little argument about that, research has arguably established that other significant markers help determine professional achievement.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is now considered a crucial element in both individual and professional success. Cross and Travaglione defined it as the emotion management of self and others. Goleman broke it down into five domains: self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and relationship management.

EQ has been wrongly perceived as an inclination to be overly sensitive; however, this is exactly the opposite of the meaning. Those with high EQ are adept at understanding their limitations and the moment they’re in, restraining natural tendencies of emotional outburst and demonstrating appropriateness of emotions—neither too much, nor too little. EQ is the ability to recognize explosive situations and apply the right emotion in the right amount at the right time.

Self-awareness is a first step in underpinning the development and success in leadership roles. It’s a crucial facet of the five domains that describe EQ and a hallmark of someone with strong emotional intelligence. Knowing their emotional hot buttons and limitations is imperative; without this awareness, people find themselves in situations that may decimate your credibility and effectiveness.

Some have said, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” This a great start; in the grand scheme of things, each of us knows very little, and those who fail to recognize this have the most difficulties once given the opportunity to lead.

Building EQ requires relentless self-reflection and perpetual learning. We must continually look at each situation we find ourselves in, recognizing what we don’t know and that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” We must remember that humility is an approach worth remembering.

In the fire service, leadership roles come in many shapes and sizes. EMS supervisors, training officers and even chief officers fall prey to believing they know everything they need to know once they are promoted. This critical error is an opportunity missed.

Certainly in leadership roles there’s an expectation of bringing a level of expertise to one’s position. We would all like to believe we’re competent, and competency comes with knowing one’s job and being able answer questions. I like to say that if you have many of the answers to many of the questions, you’re full of knowledge; if you have all the answers to all of the questions, you’re full of “other things.”

Being able to tell a peer, a colleague, subordinate or a civilian “I don’t know” isn’t a fault, weakness or admission of guilt. These words should be followed up with, “I will find the answer and get back to you.” It’s an opportunity to express honesty and sincerity and to show vulnerability.

All of these are key to building strong relationships and gaining credibility. In the fire service, when this opportunity is lost, the one in leadership fakes it and ultimately gets caught. This not only can be a potential safety issue (depending on the situation where faking it took place), but can cause a complete destruction of trust and create a reputation of being someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

You need keen self-awareness as well as self-confidence to succeed. Sometimes we gain the most credibility not by telling people what we know, but from admitting that we don’t.

It’s only been a couple of years since I finally admitted my inability to help my daughter in math. Recognition and application of emotional intelligence could have helped greatly with this situation. How could I have not admitted my inability sooner? My ego? Something else? Maybe I should have just looked back at my past and come to grips with it: in college, I failed calculus twice.

  • Cross, B., Travaglione, A (2003). "The Untold Story: Is the Entrepreneur of the 21st Century Defined by Emotional Intelligence?" International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 11(3), 221-228.
  • Doran, George T. “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives.” Management Review 70. 11 (Nov. 1981):35
  • Goleman, Daniel (1995). Emotional Intelligence.


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