NDSU’s Distinguished Ag Alumnus: Arlen Leholm’s ‘nuggets’ On Emotional Intelligence

I enjoyed Arlen Leholm’s speech Oct. 23 as part of his recognition as the North Dakota State University agriculture college alumnus of the year.

The irrepressible Dr. Leholm, of Madison, Wis., is a North Dakota native and agricultural economist who has been successful in academic and career turns in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan. These days he’s also working in consulting in various businesses, most notably as a leadership coach who advises companies on developing the “soft skills” that often undo people. He also talks about bringing forward some companies on his own.

As an agricultural economist, Leholm is really more of a societal psychologist. In a 45-minute speech you hear about 50 things, of which 10 good “nuggets” of wisdom might sink in.

Significantly, Leholm talks about the benefits of getting beyond “command and control” and getting to the emotional and spiritual energy of people. He talks about the benefits of encouraging “divergent thinking before you converge,” and the benefits of executives employing “empathetic and comprehensive listening.”

Leholm discusses the benefits of creating “self-directed work teams” within organizations.

He talks about his worries for America, including the low high school graduation levels and the lack of mentors in society. He thinks the soft skills need to be taught, deliberately, in the high schools and colleges of the country.

He says the U.S. has a knowledge and relationship-driven economy, but the increased incidence of dysfunctional families undermines this power. He says that once habits of interpersonal relationships – good or bad – are learned, they are neurologically hard to change.

He says IQ is inborn and personality is set by age 22, but that “emotional intelligence” – personal competence and social competence – is something that can be studied and improved. He says studies indicate that 58 percent of performance in jobs is based on this emotional intelligence.

“The great news is you can get better at this,” he says.

Leholm was asked whether the preponderance of electronic communications helps or hinders emotional intelligence and the workings of people in organizations.

He said the increased frequency of communication can be a help, but that the big problem is that there is no reading and recognition of things like body language. He says it is important early-on in business and other relationships to have a high amount of face time, if virtual teamwork is to be successful later on.

On current politics, Leholm addressed the dysfunction in the federal government. He says the problem in Washington, D.C., is that people on both sides of issues with divergent views can’t negotiate because they are more concerned about their “positions” than their “interests.”

The positions are often all-or-nothing. People focusing on interests can reach agreements because they can calculate how much of their interests — say 60 percent — need to be met for agreement.