We’ve already talked about emotional intelligence in other pieces on this website, and we’ve even explored the topic in the context of the workplace.
In this piece, we’ll describe the concept of leading with emotional intelligence and go over what it looks like, how the topic evolved to where it is today, the consequences of lacking emotional intelligence, and the rewards of building and maintaining one’s emotional intelligence as a leader.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
The Educational Business Articles website can get to the heart of the theory in one quick question:
Who is more likely to succeed?
A manager that shouts and criticizes his or her team when under stress.
A leader that is in control and calmly assesses the situation.
It’s pretty clear which leader is more likely to be an effective one, and emotional intelligence is the reason why. With greater emotional intelligence comes greater ability to effectively manage, lead, inspire, motivate, and influence others.
How it Became a Key Leadership Skill
Emotional intelligence was initially developed and applied in the same area where most psychological theories are born: college students! However, it quickly became a popular topic in management, leadership, human resources, training and development, and organizational behavior.
This upward trend is due to its many applications in the world of work; there are tons of research out there about how emotional intelligence impacts the workplace and the work that gets done on every level, from C-suite executives to entry-level workers.
As soon as we began to realize that there is much more to success than just IQ – and that EQ might have an equally important role – the popularity of emotional intelligence as a work-relevant topic was cemented.
How Does Emotional Intelligence Affect Leadership?
So, how does emotional intelligence manage to be such an important feature in leadership?
According to emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence (abbreviated as either EI or EQ [emotional quotient]) is made up of four distinct but complementary components:
Self Awareness: recognition of one’s own emotions
Social Awareness: recognition of others’ emotions
Self Management: ability to manage one’s emotions
Social Skills: an ability to influence and manage others’ emotions
These four components make up a good outline of exactly what a leader needs: to be self-aware, to be aware of the moods and emotions of others, to be able to control and manage his own emotions and to influence and manage the emotions of those he or she is leading.
Emotional Intelligence in Leadership Effectiveness and Management
To get down into the nitty-gritty of emotional intelligence and leadership, there are five “essential elements” of emotional intelligence that contribute to a leader’s effectiveness:
Development of collective goals and objectives
Instilling in others an appreciation of the importance of work activities
Generating and maintaining enthusiasm, confidence, optimism, cooperation, and trust
Encouraging flexibility in decision-making and change
Establishing and maintaining a meaningful identity for an organization (George, 2000).
In other words, a leader who is able to develop goals that people are excited about, get others excited about their work, generate confidence and positivity in the workplace, implement flexibility and a “go with the flow” attitude, and share a meaningful organizational identity with the organization members is likely to be a very successful leader.
There are a lot of theories about leadership styles out there. Authentic leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, inspirational leadership—there are so many styles that it’s hard to keep them straight.
We’ll touch on the association between some of these and emotional intelligence later, but there is at least one leadership theory that’s rooted in emotional intelligence.
Researcher David McClelland and colleagues took a look at the different kinds of styles that leaders display, the context, and the features that differentiate them. They noticed that there were six important factors that set leadership styles apart:
Flexibility: how free employees feel to innovate unencumbered by red tape
Responsibility: a sense of duty and commitment to the organization
Standards: the level of standards they set and adhere to
Rewards: the sense of accuracy about performance feedback and fairness/aptness of the rewards
Clarity: the understanding that organization members have about the organization mission and values
Commitment: the level of dedication to and engagement with a common purpose (Stevenson, 2014)
Based on the varying levels of each factor displayed by leaders, leadership styles were identified and categorized into six styles:
Coercive/Commanding: Demands immediate compliance and obedience, as evidenced by such phrases as “Do what I tell you.”
Authoritative/Visionary: Mobilizes people toward a vision as suggested by such phrases as “Come with me.”
Affiliative: Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds as suggested by “People come first.”
Democratic: Forges consensus through participation, “What do you think?”
Coaching: Develops people and strengths for the future, “Try this.”
Pace-setting: Sets high standards for performance, “Do as I do, now!” (Stevenson, 2014).
These leadership styles are not necessarily completely exclusive, and they are not 100% good or bad; different situations call for different styles, and an effective leader may need to adopt each style at some point.
Figuring out which situations call for which leadership style is one of the major applications of emotional intelligence. EI/EQ is also used in different ways within each leadership style. Check the chart below to see which styles use which components and correlates of EI/EQ.
So we know that there are different styles of leadership that are effective, and that emotional intelligence acts as both a compass and a tool for successful leaders.
But what about situations in which there is no leader? Often in small groups and projects, there is no set “leader” who is put in charge of the group. What happens then?
As it turns out, emotional intelligence is one of the driving factors in who will eventually emerge as a leader in the group. Emotional intelligence researchers Stéphane Côté, Paulo Lopes, Peter Salovey, and Christopher Miners (2010) studied small, leaderless (at least initially) groups to explore the association between EI/EQ and leadership emergence.
Their findings showed that group members with the highest emotional intelligence were frequently the ones who naturally emerged as leaders of the group over time. In particular, those highest in the emotional intelligence component of emotional awareness and understanding was a strong indicator of leadership emergence.
It seems that leadership is not only improved by emotional intelligence, it is also fueled by emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence and Team Outcomes
One question that was not asked in the previous study was whether higher emotional intelligence in the small groups was associated with better results; it’s easy to assume that the two are related, but can we be sure?
Yes! According to Relly Nadler at Psychology Today, there is evidence that EI/EQ has a big impact on results, and it’s vital to pay attention to EI/EQ in teams:
More work is being done in teams than ever.
Teamwork is an unnatural act and takes practice and discipline.
Team members may be performing at different levels and need different styles of leadership.
Emotions are stirred up in social interactions, making effective work difficult.
The task or challenge dominates the relationship rather than mutual respect, friendship, or finding common ground.
Power mutes empathy; in other words, the more power and status someone has, the less they feel like they need to listen to others.
We don’t listen or inquire nearly enough; discussions should be longer, more frequent, and more in-depth.
Leaders aren’t natural facilitations—and they don’t have to be—but they should work on improving those skills.
Decision-making process is ambiguous, leading to a situation in which communication is key and good decision-making is a must.
Hard conversations are avoided, meaning everything can build up until it festers and eventually implodes (Nadler, 2017).
If you’re wondering how emotional intelligence actually affects team outcomes, and what mechanisms contribute to this improved effectiveness, you’re not alone. Prati, Douglas, Ferris, Ammeter, and Buckley (2003) also had the same question, and they developed a framework to understand how EI/EQ impact team effectiveness.
Their framework outlines the following relationships:
Basic emotional intelligence abilities (use of feedback in social identification, self-awareness, and self-regulation) in leaders translate to leader characteristics and behaviors, including:
Use of emotion through symbolic management techniques
Basic emotional intelligence in team members translates to effective team dynamics, including:
Team member personality
Work team cohesion
These team dynamics lead to positive team behaviors, including:
Constructive and collaborative behavior
Less social loafing
Performance (Prati et al., 2003)
All of these characteristics, behaviors, and dynamics combine to deliver powerful results.
Domains of Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence skills are valuable for leadership, especially to navigate social interactions. Developing these skills enhances comprehension of the cues and signals that illustrate the feelings of others (Salvoy & Mayer, 1990).
Emotional intelligence can contribute greatly to the success of a leader, perhaps even more so than IQ, according to Daniel Goleman (2019).
Goleman (2019) developed a model of emotional intelligence which includes five domains:
Know your emotions
Manage your emotions
Recognize and understand other people’s emotions
Manage relationships (others’ emotions)
These five realms are divided into four quadrants, namely
social awareness, and
These four quadrants lie upon a base of competence (either personal or social), recognition of emotions, and regulation of emotions.
Daniel Goleman on Primal Leadership
“Primal leadership” is yet another type of leadership that has been identified. In this case, it is the master of emotional intelligence theory Daniel Goleman who outlined the theory.
Goleman notes that the primal leader ignites our passion and inspires the best in us, and that he or she does not do so through transactional leadership or appeals to authority; they do it through understanding and effectively managing emotions.
He calls this type of leadership “primal” because the leader’s number one task is primal in two ways:
“In the modern organization, this primordial emotional task—though by now largely invisible—remains foremost among the many jobs of leadership: driving the collective emotions in a positive direction and clearing the smog, created by toxic emotions. This task applies to leadership everywhere, from the boardroom to the shop floor.”
(Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2013, p. 5)
Emotional Intelligence and Authentic Leadership
Moving on to the theory of authentic leadership, we again find space for emotional intelligence. Authentic leadership is leadership that is characterized by self-awareness and genuineness, leaders who are mission-driven and focused on results, leading with the heart instead of just the head, and a focus on the long-term (Kruse, 2013). Although authentic leadership was developed without the inclusion of an established theory of emotional intelligence, it’s clear that the two are related.
And research findings agree; a large meta-analysis was undertaken by researchers to determine how closely EI/EQ and authentic leadership style are associated, and the data gives us a resounding “Strongly!” for an answer. This relationship was present in both genders and in both male-dominated and female-dominated fields, indicating that emotional intelligence plays a larger role in authentic leadership than previously thought (Miao, Humphrey, & Qian, 2018).
In addition to the overlap, it may be that you can actually use emotional intelligence to develop your authentic leadership (and other types or styles of leadership).
Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Development
Leaders and aspiring leaders can use emotional intelligence to further their growth and development as leaders. Through improving emotional intelligence, they can become more effective and more successful leaders.
Self-actualization: operates with a connection to a greater plan and sets inspiring goals.
Reality testing: grounded, fair, and unbiased.
Self-regard: confident and aware of personal strengths and limitations.
Emotional self-awareness: mindful of their emotional impact on the performance of others.
Social responsibility: team player who models and supports company culture, norms, and rules.
Independence: decisive, accountable, makes decisions aligned for the good of the overall organization (Hennessy, 2015).
Luckily, emotional intelligence fits right into ideas surrounding leadership development: EI/EQ provides leaders and aspiring leaders with the tools they need to be better leaders, including:
A “people” orientation
Education and love of learning/open-mindedness
Willingness to take on challenges
Ethics/acting with integrity
Dedication to personal growth
Willingness to provide and accept feedback
Commitment to skill-building (Sadri, 2012).
Clearly, those looking to develop their competencies as a leader would do well to pay attention to their emotional intelligence!
EI Training for Leaders
Speaking of enhancing emotional intelligence, there are some training opportunities out there for those who would like a leg up on boosting their EI/EQ. Check out the following resources for EI/EQ training for leaders and aspiring leaders.
Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP)
This institute is a global research, leadership, and learning and development organization that aims to raise awareness and boost the emotional intelligence of teams, individuals, and leaders. They offer training on building EI/EQ and applying it to leadership, some paid and some free, but all based on the most up-to-date science.
The Training Industry website offers a search function to look through their many different training programs, and several of the options are centered on emotional intelligence. To learn more about what is available, click here.
American Management Association
The American Management Association offers a course called “Developing Your Emotional Intelligence” and promises to teach you how to leverage emotional intelligence training to position yourself for personal, team, and organizational success.
Click here to learn more about this learning opportunity.
The training and business solutions company Skillsoft emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence through their courses on the subject. The course topics include:
Leadership Essentials: Leading with Emotional Intelligence
The Emotionally Intelligent Leader
How High Is Your EQ?
Emotional Intelligence at Work
Emotional Intelligence: Owning Your Emotions
Emotional Intelligence: Building Self-Management Skills
Emotional Intelligence: Applying EI at Work
Emotional Intelligence: Being Aware of the Emotions of Others
Using Emotional Intelligence to Improve Leadership Effectiveness
If you don’t have the time, money, or inclination to send yourself or your employees to emotional intelligence-based leadership training, not to worry!
There are some methods, activities, and resources you can use to work on your emotional intelligence outside of a classroom.
69 Emotional Intelligence Leadership Exercises
First, one of the most important exercises to boost your emotional intelligence in the context of leadership is to actually get an idea of your EI/EQ level in the first place.
To get started, all you need to do is print out the questions you can find here:
Think of when you were a leader and you took a stand and made sure everyone followed.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
Think of when you were a leader and took a stand on an issue and then backed down.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
Think of when you were a leader and didn’t take a stand on a particular issue when you should have.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
Think of when you were an employee and took a stand on an issue and did not back down.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
How did your boss feel?
Think of when you were an employee and took a stand on an issue, felt forced and backed down.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
How did your boss feel?
Think of when you were an employee and didn’t take a stand on an issue and then later strongly regretted that you should have not backed down.
How did you feel?
How do you think others felt?
How did your boss feel? (Questions from Skills Converged, found here)
Your answers to these questions can help you realize where your emotional intelligence is at, how much farther you have to go, and in which area you could do the most work.
The “I Did It!” Exercise
It might surprise you, but improvisation is a great way to work on improving emotional intelligence! Here’s a group exercise that incorporates improvisation:
In this exercise, you and your group will:
Reflect on a personal experience with “following the fear” that turned out well which demonstrates one of the tenets of both improvisation and emotional intelligence;
Build up group cohesiveness through personal sharing;
Experience the group support and the “music” of an interaction, which is central to understanding emotional intelligence.
Start off by reviewing the theme song or hook from movies, television shows, focusing on those that feature heroes doing incredible things (e.g., Mission Impossible, Superman, Rocky) or managing relationship and interpersonal issues (e.g., The Odd Couple). Sing the chorus or hook a couple of times to practice.
Next, take 5 minutes to review something you have accomplished in life that you never thought you’d be able to accomplish. Identify the goal, the obstacles and challenges, and how it felt to finally overcome them and achieve your goal.
Finally, have each participant choose a theme song from the ones you discussed and share it with the group. As the participant takes center stage to tell their story, instruct the group to sing or hum the song the participant chose, as a representation of their struggle and ultimate victory.
This exercise not only feels great but it also actually helps boost emotional intelligence! Click here to see it at the source.
If you’re looking for more ways to boost your own emotional intelligence and become a better leader, try any (or all!) of the following exercises identified by consultant Iliyana Stareva (2016):
Ask yourself why you do the things that you do
Visit/revisit your values
Reflect on how you feel right now
Make a list of your daily emotions
Breathe—deeply and regularly
Count to 10 when in stressful situations
Reframe your situation
Set aside time for problem-solving
Fix up the bad hygiene (e.g., taking the laptop to bed with you)
Really live in the moment
Tour around your home, office, wherever for 15 minutes
Develop a back-pocket question for potentially awkward situations
Remember the little things (e.g., saying “please” and “thank you” and using peoples’ names)
When you care, show it
Explain your decisions, don’t just make them
Tackle tough conversations with an easy formula (agree, hear them out, active listening, describe your side, find common ground again, then keep in touch and check in on progress)
These EI exercises can help you become adept at using your emotional awareness, regulation, and management to your benefit and being an all-around better leader.
For many more exercises on how to develop emotional intelligence in and for a leadership context, check out Adele B. Lynn’s resource 50 Activities for Developing Emotional Intelligence for – you guessed it – 50 more ways to improve your EI/EQ.
These activities are categorized by EI/EQ competency and risk/difficulty, so it’s easy to pick out an exercise that fits your unique needs. The competencies listed and some sample exercises within each category are listed here:
– Ask for Feedback
– A Grateful Heart
– I Value, We Value
– Adding Fuel to the Importance Meter
– Music of Our Workplace
– Open and Friendly vs. Friendship
– Picture Yourself
– Tuning Into Our Employees
– Visions Apply to People Too
– Common Mistakes with Gratitude
– You Expect Me to What?
– Lessons from Low Points/High Points
Mastery of Vision
– Yes, but…
– Doing a Fair Share
– Today’s Actions Toward the Vision
56 Ways/Tips to Improve Leadership Skills With EQ
If you like the idea of those exercises but also want some practical tips on how to make this work, you’re in luck! Here are six of the most vital pieces of advice to keep in mind when working on your EI/EQ:
Name your emotions (accurately)
Surround yourself with positivity
Take responsibility for how you treat others
Don’t take others’ feedback personally; it doesn’t define you
Sharpen your awareness of daily developments, partially through a bottom-up approach with your employees
Never stop working on your EI/EQ, no matter how high you think it gets (Perkins, 2018).
If that wasn’t quite enough, you’ll love this list of 50 tips on building EI/EQ and becoming a better leader. It comes from emotional intelligence and leadership experts RocheMartin (2017). The tips are split into 7 categories, which you can see below with a few example tips:
Emotional intelligence (overall)
Practice observing how you feel
Take responsibility for your feelings
Take time to celebrate the positive
Learn to look at yourself objectively
Keep a diary
Acknowledge your emotional triggers
Maintain a schedule (and stick to it!)
Don’t expect people to trust you (if you can’t trust them)
Set personal goals
Be prepared to leave your comfort zone
Try to be approachable
Open yourself up
Acknowledge what people are saying
Wear somebody else’s shoes
Social media cold turkey
It’s now what you say, it’s how you say it
What to avoid
Dwelling on the past
Being overly critical
9 Recommended Books
If you’re interested in learning more about the applications of emotional intelligence to leadership, there are some great EQ books that can help:
Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee (Amazon)
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman (Amazon)
Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: A Guide for Students by Marcy Levy Shankman, Scott J. Allen, and Paige Haber-Curran (Amazon)
The Power of Perception: Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and the Gender Divide by Shawn Andrews (Amazon)
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman (Amazon)
Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have a Hard Conversation, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action on Your Most important Work by Peter Bregman (Amazon)
Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Amazon)
Becoming a Resonant Leader: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationships, Sustain Your Effectiveness by Annie McKee, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Frank Johnston (Amazon)
The Leader’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence: Understand and Develop Your EQ for Maximum Leadership Impact by Drew Bird (Amazon)
8 Videos on EI and Leadership
If you’re more of a watcher than a reader, these YouTube videos and TED Talks might hit the spot instead!
Daniel Goleman introduces emotional intelligence - Big Think
The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership
Emotional intelligence: how good leaders become great
Spotlight on leadership: emotional intelligence
Daniel Goleman: what makes a leader? - Nati Stander
90 Second leadership - emotional intelligence (Todd Adkins)
The power of emotional intelligence - Travis Bradberry
A good quote is always welcome, especially if it digs into something real, something raw, and something true. Check out these 15 quotes on the subject and see if there are any that reach out and grab you:
“It is very important to understand that Emotional Intelligence, is not the opposite of Intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head. It is the unique intersection of both. ”
“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.”
“Unleash in the right time and place before you explode at the wrong time and place.”
“Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal.”
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Anonymous (but often attributed to Maya Angelou)
“The greatest ability in business is to get along with others and influence their actions.”
“Emotional intelligence is a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions. Research suggests it is responsible for as much as 80 percent of the “success” in our lives.”
“People who keep stiff upper lips find that it’s damn hard to smile.”
“Our feelings are not there to be cast out or conquered. They’re there to be engaged and expressed with imagination and intelligence.”
“In my 35 years in business, I have always trusted my emotions. I have always believed that by touching emotion you get the best people to work with you, the best clients to inspire you, the best partners and most devoted customers.”
“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”
“A leader is a dealer in hope.”
“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
“Emotions are not problems to be solved. They are signals to be interpreted.”
“As much as 80% of adult “success” comes from Emotional Intelligence.”
A Take-Home Message
This concludes our short journey through emotional intelligence in leadership. It’s a big topic, so don’t let the relative brevity fool you—there’s a lot more to say on this topic.
However, the aim of this piece was to give you a broad overview of this subject rather than an in-depth dive. I hope we’ve met our goal!
What are your thoughts on emotional intelligence in leadership? Is it key to effective leadership? Is it just as important as IQ and other leadership factors? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.
Côté, S., Lopes, P. N., Salovey, P., & Miners, C. T. (2010). Emotional intelligence and leadership emergence in small groups. The Leadership Quarterly, 21(3), 496-508.
George, J. M. (2000). Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence. Human Relations, 53(8), 1027-1055.
Goleman, D. (2019). The emotionally intelligent leader. Harvard Business Press.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press.
Hennessy, E. (2015). Develop authentic leadership with emotional intelligence. LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/develop-authentic-leadership-emotional-intelligence-ed-hennessy/
Kruse, K. (2013, May 12). What is authentic leadership? Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinkruse/2013/05/12/what-is-authentic-leadership/#5c266e0ddef7
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Perkins, T. (2018, June 1). 5 Tips to becoming a more emotionally intelligent leader [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.glassdoor.com/employers/blog/emotionally-intelligent-leader/
Prati, L. M., Douglas, C., Ferris, G. R., Ammeter, A. P., & Buckley, M. R. (2003). Emotional intelligence, leadership effectiveness, and team outcomes. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 11(1), 21-40.
RocheMartin. (2017, January 23). 50 tips for improving your emotional intelligence. RocheMartin Blog. Retrieved from https://www.rochemartin.com/blog/50-tips-improving-emotional-intelligence/
Sadri, G. (2012). Emotional intelligence and leadership development. Public Personnel Management, 41(3), 535-548.
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
Stareva, I. (2016, December 13). Mastering emotional intelligence with 17 simple exercises [Blog post]. Iliyana Stareva. Retrieved from https://www.iliyanastareva.com/blog/emotional-intelligence-exercises
Stevenson, H. (2014). Leadership style, emotional intelligence, and organizational effectiveness. Cleveland Consulting Group, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.clevelandconsultinggroup.com/articles/leadership-style-emotional-intelligence-organizational-effectiveness.php
About the author
Courtney Ackerman, MA, is a graduate of the positive organizational psychology and evaluation program at Claremont Graduate University. She is a researcher and evaluator of mental health programs for the State of California and her professional interests include survey research, wellbeing in the workplace, and compassion.