The Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Concept of a man getting ready to place the missing puzzle piece into the wall

When you think of a great leader, the image of Mel Gibson’s character in “BraveHeart” may come to mind; someone fearless whom others trust to lead them into battle. In business, one might envision a high-profile CEO, like a Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” barking orders to her subordinates and exhibiting ruthless behavior in the name of success. While both of these leadership tropes may be effective in certain situations, research suggests more to being a great leader than shouting orders. A link between emotional intelligence and leadership suggests those with higher emotional intelligence make better leaders.

Emotional intelligence may be linked to success in all areas of the workplace. According to a study by TalentSmart, emotional intelligence influences 58% of success across every type of job. And according to the CEO Genome project, the four behaviors that make a successful CEO can all be attributed to possessing a high level of emotional intelligence. But to understand why emotional intelligence and leadership are so closely linked, we must first understand what emotional intelligence is and why it makes one a better leader.  

Understanding Emotional Intelligence

What is emotional intelligence? You can understand emotions in yourself and others and regulate your actions accordingly. The term ‘emotional intelligence was first coined by academics Peter Salovey and John Mayer. They defined emotional intelligence as “the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.” So, just as your general intelligence (IQ) measures your ability to process information, your emotional intelligence (EQ) is your ability to process emotions and make sound decisions.

IQ and EQ levels are not intrinsically linked. For example, a brilliant person won’t necessarily score better on an emotional intelligence test than someone with a lower IQ. Think Elon Musk in an interview: Brilliant fella, but also incredibly boring to listen to. On the other hand, you might have an Instagram influencer who can barely conjugate a verb. But they sure can convince you to buy that detox tea.

The role your emotional intelligence plays in your life is how you interact with and respond to others. For example, say your friend was having a bad day. You notice him/her moping about, downcast eyes, with a grim-faced expression that hasn’t changed in hours. Right now probably wouldn’t be the best time to tell them you scratched their cell phone they let you borrow or to brag about the new promotion you got at work. So instead, the most reasonable response to your friend’s glum behavior would be to ask what’s bothering them and comfort them if need be. This is your emotional intelligence in action.

Someone with even a low level of emotional intelligence would recognize this as being a suitable response. For example, most of us can recognize a frown as a sign of discontent, but how we react to signs of discontent may differ. According to the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, there are four different levels of emotional intelligence: perceiving emotions, reasoning with emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions.    

Perceiving emotions is how well we pick up on emotional cues in others. Like in the example with your glum friend, sometimes we must rely on nonverbal expressions to understand how someone feels. Understanding body language and facial expressions is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence. It’s also important to note that this includes understanding how others perceive our emotional cues. In a study done by researchers at Harvard, they reported that new CEOs were often surprised at how much damage a stray word or gesture could cause in meetings. The presenter might interpret something as simple as grimacing from backache while someone gave a presentation as a sure sign they were about to be fired. 

Reasoning with emotions is how we respond emotionally to things that garner our attention. For example, road rage makes people irrationally angry. Although we’ve all wanted to get even with the person who cut us off in traffic, most of us would refrain from bashing in their car windows with a baseball bat. This is because we can reason with our emotions. We understand that the anger we feel now will later subside. Temporary annoyance is not worth going to jail for vandalism. Being in tune with our emotions can help us determine the best course to take in certain situations.

Understanding emotions is how well we interpret perceived emotions and what they could mean. For example, your friend may be frowning because they are upset with you or had a fight with their spouse. Being able to decipher the difference is essential to how you proceed next with your friend. If you assume they are upset with you, you may react defensively. This could make you look like a jerk if it turns out they were upset about something else. 

Managing emotions is your ability to handle your own emotions (whether they be positive or negative) and respond appropriately, as well as responding to the emotions of others. For example, let’s say your boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with you over text while you were at work. As upset as you may be, it’s probably not the best idea to break down crying in front of your boss and colleagues. It’s important to understand how to handle our emotions when in different social settings, as they can impact how others perceive us.  

It should come as no surprise that people with higher levels of emotional intelligence navigate social settings more easily. This is because emotionally intelligent individuals are more conscious of the emotional atmosphere. In addition, they possess a higher level of self-awareness, which allows them to better understand how others perceive them and enhances their ability to interact with their peers. Not surprisingly, emotionally intelligent people are generally more empathetic, as they can more easily recognize the emotions others are experiencing. As you might expect, these qualities make for a better friend, romantic partner, or leader.  

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

Emotional intelligence and leadership have been popular areas of study in recent years. There have since been books on emotional intelligence and leadership written for those looking to advance in their careers. What makes someone a great leader is an age-old question we’ve been asking for years. Many answers come to mind: strength, courage, or fearlessness, for example. While all these answers may be true, the link between emotional intelligence and leadership may be a more accurate prediction. According to the Center for Creative Leadership, these are the ten qualities that great leaders consistently possess: 

Integrity is an essential leadership quality for the individual and the organization. Having integrity means standing up for what you believe in and not shying away from the truth. Leaders who possess this quality garner trust and respect from their colleagues. In business, integrity leads to loyal customers and increased profits.   

The ability to delegate effectively is important in leading your team to success. As a leader, you should be able to identify who is best suited for which tasks. Delegating empowers your team, builds trust with your colleagues, and leads to better decision-making.

Communication is key for transmitting information properly to your team. A leader should clearly express ideas and share information with a wide audience of different people with different backgrounds. Communication is a major component of the link between emotional intelligence and leadership.

Self-awareness means understanding your strengths and weaknesses. It’s recognizing how others perceive you, thus allowing you to take action accordingly. The better you understand yourself and your limitations, the more effective you can be as a leader. Self-awareness is commonly written about in books on emotional intelligence and leadership. After reading the rest of this article, you’ll understand why.

Gratitude in the workplace is often overlooked, even though most people agree they would rather work for an appreciative boss—leaders who express gratitude foster not only a more friendly work environment but may also increase productivity

Learning agility is essentially learning to think on your feet. Great leaders must sometimes make decisions when they don’t know the perfect answer. Their ability to adapt and learn as they go is what sets them apart from the rest. 

Influencing others is important in getting them to follow you. To gain influence, leaders must earn others’ trust through logical or emotional appeal. If you’ve read any books on emotional intelligence, the ability to influence others is often an important talking point.

Empathy in leadership is being able to lead through understanding the needs of others. When you are more attune to your colleagues’ feelings, you can better understand guiding them. Having empathy for others strengthens our emotional intelligence and leadership skills.

Courage is a key trait of good leaders. Instead of avoiding conflict or problems, leaders must face the situation head-on to move things in the right direction quickly. Although maybe not as often mentioned in books on emotional intelligence, having courage helps us develop our emotional intelligence and leadership abilities. 

Respect for one’s colleagues and employees is important for maintaining good relationships. Behaving respectfully towards others eases tensions and can induce a more productive workplace. 

Many of these qualities are important aspects of emotional intelligence. It would make sense then that emotional intelligence and leadership are so closely tied together. The relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership boils down to a leader’s ability to communicate with their team effectively. Emotionally intelligent leaders are better at clearly expressing their ideas and sharing information.  

This could be why emotional intelligence and leadership are often linked to success. We all know a smart person who is lagging in life. Meanwhile, the village idiot is busy making six figures. While there could be multiple possibilities to explain this scenario, a major key factor could be their personalities. If the incredibly smart person has trouble getting along with other people, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be the top candidate for job selections. The village idiot, however, may be excellent with interpersonal skills, and their lack of knowledge is simply overlooked in their job selection. In short, you’re more likely to be hired if you’re well-liked. 

Emotional intelligence and leadership are much the same. However, those with higher levels of emotional intelligence find more success in leadership positions. Emotional intelligence and leadership both require certain interpersonal skills that help one advance in any social setting. 

Emotional intelligence benefits in graphic form
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Emotional Intelligence and Leadership in Action

Emotional intelligence and leadership relate to how well a leader can influence the emotional climate. Leaders who create positive work environments increase group solidarity and morale. Research shows that committed and engaged employees are more productive in the workplace. An emotionally intelligent leader can better monitor how team members are feeling and thus take appropriate action to ensure a copacetic work environment.  

This is not to be misunderstood for being people pleasers. Emotional intelligence and leadership do not equate to a pushover boss. Emotionally intelligent leaders are much more likely to face conflict head-on. They excel in conflict management and do not shy away from conflict in the pursuit of business. They understand that important decisions are to be made, even if making those decisions won’t make them popular. 

Emotionally intelligent leaders are much firmer in their decision-making, a trait that the CEO Genome study cited as one of the four behaviors of high-performing CEOs. In business, a wrong decision is better than no decision at all. Successful leaders are not afraid to be wrong and instead acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them.

This is largely due to their higher level of self-awareness, which is a key aspect of the link between emotional intelligence and leadership. A self-aware leader knows they will not always be right, but don’t dwell on their failures. Leaders must always be ready and willing to adapt to an ever-changing work environment. That means learning how to handle situations that aren’t in the playbook. According to a Harvard business study, CEOs who adapted were 6.7 times more likely to succeed.  

Can You Improve Your Emotional Intelligence?

Just as some people are born with the natural ability to sing, some people are born with a higher level of emotional intelligence. Fortunately, unlike singing (sorry folks, you either have it or you don’t), emotional intelligence is something that can be learned, developed, and enhanced. A quick Google search will show you that there have been countless books on emotional intelligence written for those hoping to improve their abilities.  

Emotional intelligence is, after all, a set of skills and behaviors that have been studied for their importance in being successful. If you have read any of these books on emotional intelligence, you’ll know that there are five key components to mastering emotional intelligence:

Self-awareness has been mentioned multiple times throughout this article. By now, you understand how self-awareness affects emotional intelligence and leadership. Any books on emotional intelligence will tell you that developing your self-awareness is important. Regarding emotional intelligence and leadership, being self-aware means acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses.

It means understanding your personality traits, flaws, and all, that make you who you are. Take a moment and think about certain areas of your life. Are there certain things you’d like to change? Are there certain relationships you wish could be better? Do you encounter similar problems over and over again? 

If yes, realize that you are the common denominator in every one of these situations. However, do you find you exhibiting certain behaviors in each of these scenarios that contribute to your problems? Do you find yourself in a particular mood or state of mind when you encounter these situations? Self-awareness is the ability to confront your problems from a position of complete self-authenticity. 

Self-regulating emotions come easier to some than others. Much like self-awareness, books on emotional intelligence will frequently mention this attribute. It is easy to see how self-regulation is important regarding emotional intelligence and leadership. A good leader understands the importance of self-composure in the workplace.

If you find that you have difficulty regulating your own emotions, practice being mindful of these emotions next time they arise. For example, if you regularly lose your mind when the barista messes up your coffee order, take a moment to stop and think next time. Why is it that you are so upset? Do you take it as a personal slight that the barista messed up your coffee? Or is it just another inconvenience that slows you down on your way to work? 

In either case, understand that it probably has nothing to do with you. Baristas often get overwhelmed during busy times and make mistakes. It happens. Losing your mind over it won’t gain you any popularity points or get you to work any faster—practice handling your emotional reactions to situations in a calmer manner. 

Motivation sounds more like something you would hear about in a weight-loss guide rather than in any book on emotional intelligence. However, self-motivation and self-development go hand in hand. If you are not motivated to better yourself, who is going to do it for you? This is yet another example of why emotional intelligence and leadership are so closely linked together. Motivation to do better is at the core of every great leader. Their job is to meet goals and expectations while convincing an entire team to help them do it. Part of a leader’s job is to rally the troops, but who will get on board with them?

If you find yourself lacking the motivation to work on your self-development, or any goal in life, then snap out of it. Motivation is a discipline. It can be easily inspired but easily wanes. Motivation is a mindset followed by taking deliberate actions to stay on track. How this corresponds to your emotional intelligence has to do with your attitude about life.

 If you easily slip into negative thinking, you won’t be motivated to better your circumstances. Instead, you’ll remain bitter and angry. But if you maintain a deliberate attitude of positive self-talk, you will be motivated to act. Emotionally intelligent leaders do not dwell on the negative. Instead, they focus on how they can do better. Next time you find yourself engaging in negative thinking, focus on the solutions to your problems, not the problems themselves. 

Empathy is a cornerstone in emotional intelligence and leadership. Empathetic leaders take others’ feelings into account and therefore inspire trust and loyalty in their followers. Empathy is about understanding where someone is coming from to better understand how to relate to them. 

If, for example, your friend is always late for your meetups, you might take it as a slight. You might infer that your friend doesn’t take your time seriously. Therefore you start to resent them. However you put yourself in their shoes, you’d realize that your friend is juggling four kids and a dog. You’re lucky they found time to even show up at all. Practice empathy by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes before you react to situations.

Social skills are paramount to every aspect of life. All books on emotional intelligence will tell you that emotionally intelligent people are great at social interactions. If you consider yourself to be socially awkward, this is an important area to work on. Social skills are a vital part of emotional intelligence and leadership. 

To improve your social skills, take the time to observe yourself in social interactions. Make sure you maintain eye contact when having conversations. Be open to engaging in conversations and actively listening to others. Pay attention to your body language. Be sure you are not signaling disinterest with a “resting bitch face” or tapping a foot impatiently. Being mindful of how others see you will help you navigate through social interactions. 

Emotional Intelligence and Leadership in a Nutshell

Now that you see how emotional intelligence and leadership work together, you’ve probably added at least a dozen books on emotional intelligence to your Amazon cart. These books, along with the suggestions in this article, can be helpful in your quest to improve your leadership skills. But when you think about it, emotional intelligence and leadership are not hard concepts to understand. It just means being a decent person. So if you take anything away from this article, let it be that emotionally intelligent leadership means being a person others want to be around. If you can understand that, you are well on your way to becoming a great leader.