Oprah has famously said, “I still have my feet on the ground, I just wear better shoes.” If the success of one’s life is measured in the quality of the shoes he or she wears, Oprah reigns supreme. Just how has she achieved this kind of success? Oprah was born very poor in rural Mississippi in 1954. She rose above labels of poor, black, female in midcentury America and carved her path to success by getting great grades in high school, winning scholarships, and then procuring her own television show. What propelled her past the judgements attached to the color of her skin, the origin of her birth and the gender inequality assumptions of her sex? Her ability to connect, to inspire, her willingness to be vulnerable – to be seen for who she really is. Oprah having her feet still planted firmly on the ground lends itself directly in her being humble, self-aware and someone who exemplifies great emotional intelligence.
Northouse (2016) defines emotional intelligence (EI) as the ability to expertly grasp your own and other’s emotions, and use these emotions effectively to make decisions that benefit your life and your relationships with others. Someone with great EI guides others productively and are empathetic and conscientious (Northouse, 2016). All of these traits can be perfectly ascribed to Oprah Winfrey. If building quality relationships with others is a one of the measures of emotional intelligence, Oprah would be at the apex. Jeremy Young, the author of The Age of Charisma, defines charisma as a relationship between leaders and followers (Shonfeld, 2018). Young asserts that Oprah is “the single most charismatic person in America” (Shonfeld, 2018, para 5). EI has its foundation from the trait theory of leadership. Trait theory focuses on the leader themselves, and what traits a leader would possess to be considered effective in different situations (Northouse, 2016). Arguably, Oprah embodies many of the traits positively associated with leadership, as well as knowing how to expertly apply those traits within the right situations.
William Bennis (2009) writes, “Leaders are capable of achieving their vision exactly because they are focused on their followers and feel their pain, desires and needs” (p. 65). In 1988, Oprah started her own production company OWN, because she wanted to be in control of her show’s content and not be made to include content like her contemporaries at the time were producing referred to as “tabloid tv.” Ratings fell, but quickly came back up (“Oprah Winfrey Biography”, (2018). She ended up being more successful and carving her own unique niche in the tv market because she stayed true to her vision – that she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and guide them into being their most authentic selves. She advocates shifting one’s focus or end goal from success, to service (Winfrey, n.d.). In this, she uses her emotional intelligence to go against the status quo and made something new and deeply affecting.
Carl Jung once said, “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that fits all cases” (Goodreads, n.d.). How unique we all are; in the way that we are raised. We are all the sum of our experiences. We all have found our own way either by the fault of where we started, or in spite of where we have been – it is our decision which path we move on. Oprah Winfrey came from an environment of poverty and abuse that leads many to be antisocial and disassociated (Evans, 2016). Instead, Oprah understood that deep down we were meant to connect and care for each other – that division equals conflict and is destructive. She has used her emotional intelligence to lead us to better hearing each other, and asking another, “What is your story – let me understand you and what you have been through.” She has shown us what really hearing someone looks like.
Her impact as an adept servant leader and her unwavering emotional intelligence she exudes has led many to call for her to run for President in 2020 – our greatest leadership position. What greater honor and testament to what she has meant to people over the years than that kind of call to action? Oprah leads by her heart and head, equally intelligent, equally strong.
Bennis, W. (2009). On becoming a leader. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Biography.com editors (2018). Oprah Winfrey biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/oprah-winfrey-9534419
Evans, G. W. (2016, December 27). Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(52) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1604756114
Goodreads, (n.d.). The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that fits all cases. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/85057-the-shoe-that-fits-one-person-pinches-another-there-is
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. (7th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publishing.
Shonfeld, Z. (2018, January 12). Oprah Winfrey is the most charismatic person in America—and yes, she really could be president. Newsweek.com. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/2018/02/02/oprah-winfrey-president-campaign-golden-globes-777508.html
Winfrey, O. (n.d.). What Oprah knows for sure about finding success. Retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/what-oprah-knows-for-sure-about-finding-success