emotional intelligence in leadership

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Emotional intelligence has recently become a hot topic in terms of leadership traits. One thing we know for sure is that it is a trait that can be measured and developed. But what exactly is it and how does it influence the concept of leadership as we know it today?

Emotional intelligence has to do with one’s ability to both recognise and control their own emotions, while harnessing said emotions appropriately to have the most optimum reaction as situations dictate. It also has to do with one’s awareness of and sensitivity towards others’ emotions.

Emotional intelligence is therefore an important characteristic for anyone at any level of an organisation but it is particularly important for those who occupy positions of leadership. A leader’s emotional intelligence can have sweeping influence over their relationships, how they manage their teams, and all in all how they interact with individuals in the workplace.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence or EI is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they are feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people.

For leaders, having emotional intelligence is vital for success. Think about it: who is more likely to succeed at taking the organisation forward – a leader who shouts at their team when under stress, or one who stays in control of their emotions and those of others, and calmly assesses the situation?

The original definition, as coined by the team of Salovey and Mayer (1990) is: emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the collection of abilities used to identify, understand, control and assess the emotions of the self and others. According to Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who helped to popularize emotional intelligence, there are five key elements to it:

  1. self-awareness;
  2. self-regulation;
  3. motivation;
  4. empathy, and;
  5. social skills.

The more a leader manages each of these areas, the higher their emotional intelligence.

emotional intelligence leader

The emotionally intelligent leader


If you are self-aware, you always know how you feel, and you know how your emotions and your actions can affect the people around you.

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Being self-aware when you are in a leadership position also means having a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses, and it means behaving with humility.


Leaders who regulate themselves effectively rarely verbally attack others, make rushed or emotional decisions, stereotype people, or compromise their values.

Self-regulation is all about staying in control of your emotions and how they affect others. This element of emotional intelligence, according to Goleman, also covers a leader’s flexibility and commitment to personal accountability.


Self-motivated leaders work consistently toward their goals, motivate their employees and they have extremely high standards for the quality of their work.

They develop a healthy emotional connection to the results they seek from their efforts, harnessing them to drive them forward without being obsessive.


For leaders, having empathy is critical to managing a successful team or organisation. Leaders with empathy have the ability to put themselves in someone else’s situation.

They help develop the people on their team, challenge others who are acting unfairly, give constructive feedback, and listen to those who need it. Such leaders often inspire their employees to deliver beyond their expectations.

Social skills

Leaders who do well in the social skills element of emotional intelligence are great communicators. They are just as open to hearing bad news as good news which increases employee confidence, and they are expert at getting their team to support them and be excited about a new mission or project.

Leaders who have good social skills are also good at managing change and resolving arising conflicts diplomatically. They are rarely satisfied with leaving things as they are, but they don’t sit back and make everyone else do the work: they set an example of how things should be done with their own behavior.

What happens when leaders are emotionally intelligent?

Leaders who are emotionally intelligent foster safe environments, where employees feel comfortable to take calculated risks, suggest ideas and to voice their opinions. In such safe environments, working collaboratively isn’t just an objective , but it gets woven into the organisational culture as whole.

When a leader is emotionally intelligent, they can leverage emotions for the good of the organization. Leaders often have to act as change agents, and if they are aware of how others will react emotionally to changes they can anticipate this and plan the most appropriate ways to introduce and carry them out.

Furthermore, emotionally intelligent leaders don’t take things personally and are able to forge ahead with plans without worrying about the impact on their egos. Personal vendettas between leaders and employees are one of the commonest hindrances to productivity in many workplaces.

EI leadership

Image: Stock Snap

What happens when leaders aren’t emotionally intelligent?

Most leaders frequently face stressful situations. Leaders who are low in emotional intelligence tend to act out in stressful situations because they are not able to manage their own emotions. They are also often very prone to behaviors such as yelling, blaming, and being passive aggressive with others.

This can create an even more stressful environment, where workers are always walking on eggshells trying to prevent the next outburst from happening. This often has disastrous effects on productivity and team cohesion because the employees stay too distracted by this fear to focus on work and bond.

Not being emotionally intelligent hinders collaboration within the organisation. When a leader doesn’t have a handle on their own emotions and reacts inappropriately, most of their employees tend to feel nervous about contributing their ideas and suggestions, for fear of how the leader will respond.

However, a leader who lacks emotional intelligence doesn’t necessarily lash out at their employees. Not being emotionally intelligent can also mean an inability to address situations that could be fraught with emotion. Most leaders deal with conflict, and a leader who isn’t clued into others’ emotions will often have a difficult time recognising conflict in the first place let alone dealing effectively resolving it.

In Summary

Truly great leaders identify, understand and not only manage their own emotions, but are able to do that with others in a very empowering way.

This is referred to as having emotional intelligence and is one of the most important traits for any leader in any modern day organisation to have.