The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Although technical skills, drive and experience are all important traits of leaders, they only get you so far in the game. In order to most effectively lead and develop your people, you need another set of skills we believe to be essential to leadership success: Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ or EI), first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey and later popularized by American psychologist, Daniel Goleman, is defined as the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you. 

More than a decade ago, Goleman highlighted the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, telling the Harvard Business Review

“The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions.”

Over the years, with the advocacy of Goleman and other Leadership experts, emotional intelligence has become more and more recognized as a leadership essential. Research by EQ provider TalentSmart shows that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance and hiring managers have taken notice; 71 percent of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder said they value EQ over IQ, reporting that employees with high emotional intelligence are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively, and respond to co-workers with empathy.

To further illustrate this point,  Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a world expert on hiring, did a study of C-level leaders who were fired. The conclusion? They were hired for their intelligence and business expertise, but fired for weakness in emotional intelligence, usually related to social awareness.

So what exactly does Emotional Intelligence involve? According to Goleman, there are four key domains, and simultaneous benefits of Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Management

Benefits for the Leader


As we’ve seen in previous posts, gaining self-awareness is the foundation for personal growth. It describes your ability to not only understand your own strengths and growth areas but also to recognize your own emotions and the effect they have on others. According to Goleman, the Self-Awareness domain contains three competencies:

  • Emotional Awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and their effects.
  • Accurate Self-Assessment: Knowing one’s strengths and limits.
  • Self-Confidence: A strong sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities.

When you have heightened awareness of your core motivators and natural behaviors, that awareness becomes a catalyst for personal development and trickles down into your organization.  Additionally, as you gain heightened self-awareness and emotional intelligence, you will start to notice that you will have better control over every aspect of your life, including better time management skills, organization and work-life balance.One way to easily assess your self-awareness is through our Level Up 360 Process, in which you evaluate yourself and compare it with how your colleagues rate you.

Self Management 

Self Management refers to the ability to manage your emotions, particularly in stressful situations, and maintain a positive attitude despite obstacles and setbacks. According to Goleman, the Self-Management domain contains six competencies:

  • Emotional Self-Control: Keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check.
  • Transparency: Maintaining integrity, acting congruently with one’s values.
  • Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change.
  • Achievement: Striving to improve or meeting a standard of excellence.
  • Initiative: Readiness to act on opportunities.
  • Optimism: Persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.

Management of your own emotions gives you the ability to observe and deal with challenging emotions in a way that’s helpful, not hurtful.  Instead of going off on an employee who does something differently than you, you can learn to handle the situation with grace and empathy by being aware of why you’re feeling that way at that moment and attempting to understand their feelings. 

Social Awareness

Although it’s essential as a leader to understand and manage your own emotions, you also have to be able to gauge the emotions of others. Social awareness is defined by Daniel Goleman, as  “how people handle relationships and awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. The Social Awareness domain contains three competencies:

  • Empathy: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
  • Organizational Awareness: Reading a group’s emotional currents and power relationships.
  • Service Orientation: Anticipating, recognizing, and meeting customers’ needs.

For you to treat others as they would like to be treated, it helps if you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes in an effort to understand their feelings, perspectives and needs. A recent State of the Workplace Empathy study by Businessolver found that 87% of CEOs see a direct link between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, retention and general business health, and managers who demonstrate empathy have employees who have better physical health and report greater happiness. Additionally, In the past decade, advances in this field have found that certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibiting empathy and becoming attuned to others’ moods—literally affects both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Fascinating research conducted by Italian scientists on mirror neurons was the first evidence that the brain is laced with neurons that mimic, or mirror, what another person does. This is especially important for organizations because it scientifically proves that leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds, creating a positive culture of understanding and appreciation. 

Relationship Management 

Relationship management refers to your ability to influence, coach, and mentor others, and resolve conflict effectively. The Relationship Management domain contains six competencies:

  • Developing Others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities.
  • Inspirational Leadership: Inspiring and guiding individuals and groups.
  • Change Catalyst: Initiating or managing change.
  • Influence: Wielding effective tactics for persuasion.
  • Conflict Management: Negotiating and resolving disagreements.
  • Teamwork & Collaboration: Working with others toward shared goals. Creating group synergy in pursuing collective goals.

Providing mentorship and developing others not only develops yourself as a person but helps others to grow alongside you. This is closely related to the concept of support in our 21 Behavioral Scales on the BE Success Survey, and a scale we believe to be important in effective, mindful leadership. By providing mentorship to others, you encourage your people’s development and encourage a warm, safe environment for people to thrive in. Also, watching an employee learn and develop is gratifying, and boosting the person’s sense of importance and capability often increases that person’s loyalty to the company. When employees are challenged to learn and grow, they feel that management and mentors are invested in their success, which is extremely valuable to a company. 

Benefits for the Organization

Better Employee engagement, retention & development 

Simply put, employees that don’t feel connected to and appreciated by their leaders don’t feel engaged when they are at work.  However, by cultivating emotional intelligence as a leader you gain the ability to establish rapport, or what Annie Mckee, PhD and best-selling author, refers to as “resonance.”  Once you’ve cultivated awareness of your own natural tendencies and how they effect your social relationships with people, you’ll increase engagement and have employees who are loyal and want to grow with the organization, as seen in a recent study by MSW Research. According to this study, employees cited the personal relationship with their immediate supervisor as the key factor that influenced their level of engagement. The study found that “a manager’s ability to build strong relationships with employees, build strong team interaction and lead in a ‘person-centered’ way creates an engaging environment in which employees can perform at the highest possible level.” 

Improved company culture

“CEOs are hired for their intellect and business expertise – and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.”

Daniel Goleman

Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein write in Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, “In our view, leadership is always a relationship, and truly successful leadership thrives in a group culture of high openness and high trust.” Leaders with emotional intelligence encourage stronger relationships and open communication, which moves the whole organization closer to the culture they want to achieve.

Higher Productivity & Results

As we’ve seen in the research studies above, trusted employees whose emotions are valued and who aren’t subjected to negative, impulsive reactions from their bosses are more productive — and more productivity ultimately improves the bottom line.

In Conclusion

Leaders have the capability of setting the tone of the organization and it’s one of the areas that many leaders overlook. People remember how you make them feel, and people are going to react to whatever energy you infuse as a leader. Thus, in order the be the most effective leader, emotional intelligence needs to be a priority. As Robert Johansen writes in The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, “If leaders are going to thrive in a future of extreme disruption, they must not only manage their own energy, they must encourage, model, and reward positive energy in others.”

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