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What Emotional Intelligence in Leadership Means in Practice

Why Emotional Intelligence is a Key Component of Effective Leadership


Leadership is complex and challenging. To be successful, leaders need many skills and attributes, but a critical one is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the capacity to be aware of and manage one's own emotions, and the emotions of others. Without this key component of effective leadership, leaders will struggle to navigate difficult situations and relationships.

If you're a leader looking to improve your effectiveness in inspiring those around you, start developing a greater level of emotional intelligence. There are many ways to do this, so let’s take a closer look.

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What is Emotional Intelligence?  

Known also as EQ or EI, emotional intelligence comprises self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

Emotional intelligence is a combination of different abilities that helps a person interact with others. It’s a type of social intelligence that “involves the ability to monitor one's own and others' emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use the information to guide one's thinking and actions” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990).

Psychology professors John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey faced criticism for pairing the terms “emotional” and “intelligence”. They answered that they didn’t use the term intelligence to create a controversy, but “because we really are talking about a mental aptitude - one that assists in intellectual processing”.

However, it was the pairing of emotional intelligence with business leadership that took the world by storm, when psychologist Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., wrote a popular Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader”.

Goleman wrote that the most effective leaders ALL had a high degree of emotional intelligence.

“Without [EQ], a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader,” he wrote.

Goleman went on to author New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, stating EQ was a highly valued skill in the workplace and one of strongest indicators of performance. 


Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important in Leadership?  

With a so-called “War on Talent”, the positive impact of emotional intelligence in leadership on staff retention and engagement cannot be overstated. That’s because it’s the EQ of leaders which creates a positive or negative “climate” in the workplace. 

Research by Korn Ferry Hay Group shows an up to 70% of variance in climate and an up to 30% increase in business performance can be directly attributable to the climate that leaders create through their style of leadership.

A 2017 study found that if emotional intelligence improves in a workplace:

·       turnover intention will be decreased,

·       job satisfaction will be increased,

·       and leader-staff exchange quality will be improved.

“If staff feel that their managers understand their problems and issues, recognize their abilities and talents, trust their managers and have effective business relationships with their managers, they will help their managers, so the quality of relationship between manager and staff will be increased.” (Soleimani & Einolahzadeh, 2017)

Stanford Business School research shows that employee happiness leads to increased productivity, increased generation of innovative ideas, fewer sick days, higher income, favourable evaluations from supervisors, and a more supportive working atmosphere.

Effective EQ filters through to:  

  • Inspiring and motivating employees  
  • Greater collaboration that creates a synergy with employees 
  • Setting a good example by acting with integrity and honesty  
  • Supporting other people's success and encouraging them to learn  
  • Relationship building: each team member feels valued and important 

What is the Cost of Low Emotional Intelligence as a Leader?  

Could you put a cost on a leader having low EQ?

Barbara Bailey Reinhold, author of Toxic Work, was warning decades ago it was a minimum $1000 per employee per year.

“When you yell at them and make them stressed day after day, what do you think is going to happen in two or three weeks? They’re going to get the flu and be out for a week, and where will that have you?” – B. Reinhold, Toxic Work

Deloitte estimates the cost of losing each employee ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to double the employee’s annual salary. (Bersin, 2013)

Negative impacts of low EQ

According to Positive Psychology’s Courtenay Ackerman there are two main ways a lack of EI/EQ can negatively impact the workforce:

Negative impact #1: Poor communication

  • Inappropriate communication (eg. Emotional outbursts, oversharing, or failing to communicate important information).
  • Not understanding your own emotions or the emotions of others.

Negative impact #2: Poor decision making

  • Low EQ/IQ members of an organisation may experience incidental emotions, such as anxiety, when making decisions, but fail to pinpoint the source of that anxiety. This could impact their judgement or the level of risk they’re willing to take. 

Signs of a leader with low EQ

Signs of a leader with low emotional intelligence include: 

·       Blaming others 

·       Emotional outbursts

·       Argumentative, the need to always be right 

·       Oblivious to how others feel, insensitive

·       Poor coping mechanisms

·       Tend to dominate conversations 

·       An inability to accurately perceive emotions in yourself and others, and using that perception to guide thinking and behaviour  

Before we continue with this article, a friendly invitation from us: If your leadership skills could do with further development join us with a 12 month Leadership Pass. You get unlimited access to 40 live virtual events - PLUS 100s of videos, podcasts and book summaries on demand. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $7500+ value for just $398 AUD. 

What are 5 Key Qualities of Emotionally Intelligent Leaders?  

Daniel Goleman came up with 5 components of emotional intelligence.

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks

Known for leading with emotional intelligence, Indra Nooyi, former head of PepsiCo from 2006 to 2018, put her EQ on display in her parting letter to employees.

“I've been moved by the outpouring of love….I have loved this company, and each of you, with all my heart and soul. And I always will,” she wrote.

Blurring the lines between professional and personal, Nooyi understood that a strong and impactful leader needed emotional intelligence to reach employees’ hearts. 

Let’s unpack each of these 5 key qualities of emotionally intelligent leaders.


A fascinating scientific study in self-awareness found that although 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10 to 15% actually are. (Eurich, 2018)

In his Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer, Daniel Goleman describes self-awareness as the ability to understand your own emotions and their effects on their performance.

  • You sense how others see you.
  • You have an accurate sense of your strengths and limitations (which gives you a realistic self-confidence).
  • You have clarity on your values and sense of purpose (so you can be more decisive).
  • You know what you are feeling and why (and how it hurts or helps what you are trying to do).

Daniel Goleman cites a real-world example of a leader without self-awareness in an article for Korn Ferry:

“The chief tech officer at an innovation incubator is a bully, but he doesn't know it. He's very good at what he does except when it comes to managing people. He plays favourites. He tells people what to do. He doesn't listen. He freezes people out that he doesn't like. If you confront him with a specific incident, he denies it. He pins the blame on someone else and gets angry with them. Or he tells you that you’re the problem.” 



“He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” – Lao Tzu, The Art of War

Self-regulation is also thinking before you act. While self-control is about inhibiting impulses; self-regulation is about identifying the causes and reducing the intensity of impulses and, when necessary, having the energy to resist. (Shanker, 2016)

Daniel Goleman in his HBR article What Makes a Leader? gives examples of two leadership styles:

·       Without self-regulation: After a team botches a presentation, the team leader pounds on the table in anger, kicks over the chair, leaps up and screams at the group, or maintains a grim silence, glaring at everyone before stalking off.

·       With self-regulation: After a team botches a presentation, its leader resists the urge to scream. Instead, she considers possible reasons for the failure, explains the consequences to her team, and explores solutions with them.

The All Blacks rugby team have a mantra for self-regulation which is “Keep a blue head.” A blue head is the opposite of a hot head. It’s a cool, controlled, pattern-seeing state when you retain your awareness and your decision-making power.

Goleman says leaders with self-regulation create an environment of trust and fairness, which leads to:

·       Greater integrity, as impulsive behaviour is reduced.

·       A reduction in politics and infighting, and an increase in productivity.

·       Attraction of talented people to the organisation, who stay.

·       A trickle-down effect of fewer bad moods among staff.

·       Openness to change and comfort with ambiguity; neither leads to panic.


The hallmarks of motivation identified in Emotional Intelligence by author Daniel Goleman are a strong personal drive to improve and achieve, optimism (even in the face of failure), commitment to the organisation, and passion for the work itself, rather than external rewards.

A person with the emotional intelligence trait of motivation:

·       Is forever raising the performance bar – likes to be ‘stretched’.

·       Likes to keep track of progress – their own, their team’s, their company’s.

·       Seeks out creative challenges.

·       Loves to learn.

·       Takes pride in a job well done.

·       Has unflagging energy to do things better.

Motivated leaders are defined by certain qualities that drive the way they lead:

·       Inspire others to work to their high standards

·       Recognise success

·       Demonstrate integrity

·       Communicate decisively

·       Share the vision



The higher up the leadership ladder you go, the more important it is to “put yourself into someone else’s shoes” when interacting with members of your organisation. This is empathy, a powerful communication skill that honours another’s feelings.

“It is crucial in developing ideas and solutions, in problem solving, effective communication, and avoiding or preventing conflicts.” - F. Ionnidou and V. Konstantikaki

A leader who has empathy will have the skills of: 

  • Giving critical feedback wisely  - with respect and authenticity, feedback is used to support a person to grow and thrive. 
  • Being a good listener – using additional questions and small encouragements (such as head nod, simple words, cues).  
  • Building a positive work atmosphere upheld by team loyalty and respect. Teamwork focuses on cooperation and developing confidence in each other.

Author of Indisruptable, audiovisual business Scene Change CEO and founder Ian Whitworth says learning empathy begins with practising being decent to service staff and phone salespeople.

“You’re forming a micro-habit of treating everyone with respect. Perhaps even considering how their lives are different to yours….It’s so easy to be offhanded like you’re super-important and they are mere serfs. Yet their entire impression of you is based on those few moments.” - Ian Whitworth, Undisruptable


Social Skills  

Plenty of leaders prefer their office door closed. But Brené Brown’s research highlights that people are biologically hard-wired for connection. Certified Dare to Lead facilitator Kylie Lewis told a Growth Faculty masterclass that in the absence of belonging, love, and connection, there is suffering. Social skills are vital for leaders to learn, even if they believe they can “go it alone.” 

These skills include:

  • The ability to make an emotional connection with communicationTrust and Inspire author Stephen M.R. Covey told Growth Faculty that 'Trust and Inspire' leaders actively look for greatness in people. Leaders do all they can to communicate their belief in others. “They see the greatness, communicate the greatness, and develop the greatness, they unleash the greatness.”
  • The ability to resolve conflicts and manage change in a diplomatic way. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says that when someone at work engages in healthy conflict for the first time, have the leader say ‘This is awesome! Do it more often!’ This is real time permission so they don’t feel guilt or angst.   

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence as a Leader?  

For emotional intelligence to improve in a leader they must first appreciate their impact on a team. When a leader walks into the workplace or appears on video, research proves one of two things will happen. Either the mood and performance of the team and individuals will be boosted. Or it will be lowered. 

“Leaders bring the weather…that is when a great leader walks in to the room, everyone is on notice, and everyone notices – the energy is palpable,“ Bob Anderson tells us in his co-authored book Scaling Leadership.

The CEO or other leader arrives and everyone in the workplace micro-adjusts their behaviour. A positive mood makes the team feel safe and everyone is more productive.

To improve emotional intelligence, a leader should:

Communicate and stay curious

·     Keep staff in the loop. “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind,” Brené Brown says, meaning communication is key to reducing stress in the workplace. More on this in BRENÉ BROWN: 4 REASONS BEING UNCLEAR IS UNKIND 

·    Stay curious a little longer. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Advice Trap, says research shows leaders who give advice (rather than staying curious by asking questions) are less likeable and less effective at developing others.

Practice Mindfulness  

“Mindful leadership is consciously cultivating your ability to be present, open-minded, and compassionate when interacting with team members and you show the same consideration to yourself.”Atlassian

·       Journal an experience when you faced adversity. It could be the loss of a job, a loved one, missing out on a promotion, post-natal depression, an embarrassing moment. Ask yourself ‘Did I overcome it?’ ‘What did I learn?’ ‘How did I grow?’

·       Be positive. Work on self-regulation to control your anger. Jon Gordon, author of The Power of a Positive Team, says "You create [your work culture] every day by what you think, say and do.  You are broadcasting negative energy or positive energy, apathy or passion, indifference or purpose."

·       Be inclusive and advocate for others. New York based inclusivity expert Jennifer Brown shared with Growth Faculty the powerful illustration of an iceberg (below) to show how employees cover up aspects of themselves in the workplace. Mindful leaders will notice and encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.


Learn to Accept Feedback  

·        Encourage radical candour. Coined by Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor, the term means “giving a damn.” Solicit feedback from your team and show you can take it. Reward the candour. It’s about developing a growth mindset.

·       Be human at work. Ignore the voice telling you to ‘be professional’ and leave the parts of being a human behind when you go to work, says business coach Amy Sandler. It leads to “feeling apathetic about those we work with.”

·       Recognise emotions. Observe how you react with your team in challenging situations. As we said earlier, try keeping a journal.

Use 1-on-1s To Develop Empathy  

1-on1s create the perfect opportunity to form relationships with others and bring meaning into the workplace, primarily by seeing at as a shared experience.

·       Mirror neurons have particular importance because leaders’ emotions and actions prompt followers to mirror those feelings and deeds. When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. (HBR)

·       Start with the question “What’s on your mind?” Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, says coaching for development helps with learning, improvement, and growth, rather than just getting everything sorted out. 

“If we have more questions than answers and show vulnerability, we’re taking the first step to understanding,” Brené Brown told Growth Faculty at her 2019 sold-out event. 

Learn How to be a Great Leader 

Emotional intelligence is at the core of leadership at the highest level – Level 5 leadership, as it’s known in the business world thanks to the profound work of Good to Great author and researcher Jim Collins.

·       Learn direct from Jim Collins. You and your team can book to attend a Good To Great® world first live virtual event with Jim Collins on How to Develop Level 5 Leaders in Your Business.

·       Go next level with a year’s worth of world class leadership coaching. Invest in a Leadership Pass for yourself and your team to ensure you have regular, exclusive access to global experts on leadership. Your Leadership Pass will give you access to 40 events including the Jim Collins Global Headliner event.

Related Articles   

We have a range of speakers that understand what it takes to become a great leader. Check out our what our other favourite leaders have to say on team building, the 6 Types of Working Genius, developing trust, and future ready leadership.  

And, a reminder, if you'd like to increase your professional and personal development join us with a 12 month Growth Faculty Pass. You get unlimited access to 40 live virtual events - PLUS 100s of videos, podcasts and book summaries On Demand. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. Access $7500+ value for just $498 AUD. See who's up next.

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash


Andrea Ovans, 2015, “How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill”, HBR

 ‘Leaders are grown not born’, 2016, Korn Ferry Hay Group

 Ali Gholipour Soleimani & Hannaneh Einolahzadeh | Len Tiu Wright (Reviewing Editor) (2017) The mediating effect of leader–member exchange in relationship with emotional intelligence, job satisfaction, and turnover intention, Cogent Business & Management, 4:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311975.2017.1419795

Jennifer Aaker, Sara Gaviser Leslie, Debra Schifrin, 2012, “The Business Case for Happiness”, Stanford Business

“Indra Nooyi writes emotional letter to staff after stepping down as PepsiCo CEO”, 2018, Business Today

T.Eurich, 2018, “Working with People Who Aren’t Self-Aware”, HBR

D. Goleman, “What is Emotional Self-Awareness?”, Korn Ferry website. Also Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Richard Davidson, Vanessa Druskat, and George Kohlrieser, Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer

F. Ioannidou and V. Konstantikaki, 2008, “Empathy and emotional intelligence: What is it really about?”, International Journal of Caring Sciences

Patricia Omoqui, 2021, ‘The quiet and powerful advantage of mindful leadership’, Atlassian blog.

D Goleman and R. Boyatzis, 2008, “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership”, HBR

Barbara Reinhold, Toxic Work, First published 1996

Deloitte data from Josh Bersin, 2013, “Employee Retention Now a Big Issue: Why the Tide has Turned”, LinkedIn

Courtney E. Ackerman, MA, 2018 “How to Improve Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace”, Positive Psychology


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