What’s the Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership?

Much is written about emotional intelligence. In fact, a quick Google search of the term reveals over 40 million results! It’s clearly a concept with a lot of traction, and it’s increasingly valued within a leadership context. In this article we’ll look at what emotional intelligence is, why it’s a useful concept to focus upon in business and how emotional intelligence can be enhanced for empathic leadership.

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What is Emotional Intelligence?

Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as, “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” Wikipedia’s definition breaks it down a little more: “the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage, and handle emotions.”

Rather than merely being a reactive individual, who feels something and instinctively responds, the emotionally intelligent person is self-reflective, taking a little time to understand exactly what they are feeling and why. Extending this ability outwards, the emotionally intelligent person doesn’t instinctively ascribe blame when an employee disappoints them. Instead, they take a moment to put themselves in the other’s shoes and investigate why the other person acts as they do.

The term, sometimes abbreviated as EQ, was first used by psychologists in the mid-1960s and grew out of Abraham Maslow’s 1950s notion of “emotional strength”. Although certain aspects of emotional intelligence are innate (some people find it easier to be empathic than others), we almost all have the potential to enhance this ability.

The 5 Elements of Emotional Intelligence

There are five core elements of emotional intelligence. These are:

1. Self-Awareness
2. Self-Regulation
3. Motivation
4. Empathy
5. Social Skills

These five components were popularised by American Psychologist Daniel Goleman, whose book Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships was immensely influential and a New York Times bestseller.

Too often the last two items on this list are what people colloquially mean by EQ, but the truth is considerably more complex. Let’s look at these five elements in more detail.



This is the ability to correctly identify one’s own emotions, and what causes them.

This is a kind of meta-awareness, really. As well as being aware of the world around you, and reacting to it, the self-aware leader is developing an ability to identify the feelings, thoughts, and motivations they have as they arise. Emotionally self-aware people are confident yet able to be self-critical. They can laugh at their own mistakes. They can realistically appraise how others view them, without becoming overly obsessed by the opinions of others.

Within leadership, the self-aware individual is not at all “thin-skinned” and can be approached with honesty and constructive criticism. Bill George, former corporate CEO, and professor of leadership at Harvard Business School argues in his book True North that self-awareness is the starting point of leadership; it’s that important.

Mindfulness can be a useful pursuit for developing self-awareness since it encourages subjects to sit with their own feelings, let them rise into consciousness, label them, and let them pass. Being able to do this in a mindful state can lead to a greater ability to recognize one’s own moods and feelings objectively at other times.

As a paper in Frontiers in Psychology puts it, “Mindfulness is described through systematic mental training that develops meta-awareness (self-awareness), an ability to effectively modulate one’s behavior (self-regulation), and a positive relationship between self and other.”




Controlling one’s emotions so that they don’t destructively dominate.

As the mindfulness definition above states, self-regulation is the step that follows from self-awareness. Having identified honestly what one is feeling, it becomes necessary to regulate one’s response. In the context of effective leadership, a manager who constantly flies off the handle, or becomes easily demoralized is unlikely to gain the respect of their team. They won’t be able to effectively manage and motivate.

Self-control has always been valued in a corporate setting. But properly speaking, self-regulation is more than mere self-control. Self-regulation allows the individual to recognize the emotion they are feeling, and then modify the behaviour which accompanies it. Too often a focus upon self-control can emphasised trying not to experience the underlying emotion in the first place.

A helpful article in Forbes outlines four strategies for achieving self-regulation. These are:

1. A commitment to remaining calm
2. The use of a calming mantra
3. Placing strategic reminders around your workplace.
4. Focusing upon breathing.

While strategies two and four might seem esoteric, in fact these techniques are enshrined in our common-sense practices. If you’re ever said or thought “count to ten” or “just breathe” then you are incorporating these methods already. Making a formal commitment by developing a rule for your own behavior can work in many scenarios but one should not expect it always to be easy, or a foolproof method for dealing with the many stressors which surround us, both in the workplace and our everyday lives.

There’s a reason why “Keep Calm and Carry On,” originally a British wartime slogan, saw a massive resurgence in the early 2000s, when a UK bookshop found a box of old posters and displayed one behind the cash register. Now seen as a bland and much-parodied cliché, the poster evidently provided real motivation for Brits dealing with blitz bombings, forced relocation of children and wartime rationing.




Being internally motivated to grow and improve.

External motivations such as status and money don’t really count towards this component of emotional intelligence. Improvement in leadership should be reward in itself. A truly emotionally intelligent leader is always looking for ways to become better at what they do, learn whatever is new and innovative within their industry, and impart this learning to others. Many managers attend our Leadership Development Training for that very reason.

Looked at from another angle, motivation becomes vital when it comes to dealing with adversity. Rejection and failure can be motivators if they allow you to step back, re-set, recharge and either change direction or try again. Every famous entrepreneur has had to learn the painful lessons of maintaining motivation in the face of setbacks. As William Craig wrote in Forbes Magazine, “Experiential learning boosts retention scores by 90 percent and embodying the concept that mistakes provide opportunities for education and innovation inspires employees to develop existing and new skills.”

Bagless vacuum cleaner inventor James Dyson (he also invented those Airblade restroom hand driers that actually work) put it this way, “failure is interesting — it’s part of making progress. You never learn from success, but you do learn from failure.” Realising that failure is a steppingstone on the road to success is vital. It also builds up your resiliency levels.

What’s also crucial is always wanting to learn – this tendency keeps leaders up to date with trends and innovations within their sector. Leaders motivated by the need to self-improve tend to be the best at inspiring by example too – others want to emulate them.




The ability to understand how another may be feeling

In the bad old days, empathy was almost seen as a weakness. When staff simply had to “pull their socks up” and get on with the job, there was no space for empathy in leadership. Sadly, in some working cultures this attitude still prevails, but such workplaces are very much in the minority today.

Goleman believed that empathy can only come when self-awareness has been achieved. This makes sense – how could we know another’s mind when we don’t understand our own? Empathy is a rejection of solipsism; it is extending the generosity of interpretation we apply to our own feelings and behaviors to the feelings and behaviors of others.

Empathic leadership benefits both manager and employee. Not only does it minimise conflict by helping leaders spot the early warning signs of dissatisfaction or disengagement but it reduces employee churn, makes for a happier workplace and, according to Harvard Business Review, can significantly reduce burnout.

Unsurprisingly, when employees feel listened to, appreciated, and understood, they develop a more favourable attitude to their employer. Empathic leadership can boost productivity and even reduce sick days. There has been a huge growth in employee wellbeing programs in recent years, as employers seek to become more compassionate. Here are some figures from one such program, Navigate Wellbeing Solutions, based upon a survey of employers adopting an empathic approach, conducted by Betterup:

• 56% improvement in employee performance.
• 70% reduction in turnover risk.
• 75% reduction in sick days.

Caring can be profitable, after all! True empathy, of course, is motivated by simple human connection and kindness, but it can’t hurt if this also aligns with common business goals.

social skills


Social Skills

Our ability to meaningfully connect with others.

This final constituent of emotional intelligence is not about how popular or well-liked a leader is. It is about that individual’s ability to pick up the nuances of social cues. For instance, a manager with good social skills would know not to take personally a lighthearted joke made at their expense. They would know when not to invite themselves to an employee social event (who doesn’t enjoy a bitching session about the boss?)

Leaders with good social skills often excel at customer service and can turn uncomfortable situations riven with conflict around. If you’ve ever complained about the food in a restaurant yet left it still willing to recommend the place to others, you’ve probably met a waiter with exceptional social skills.

Leadership and management skills are properly understood as a subset of social skills. As parents, friends, or colleagues, we’ve all experienced times when such skills come to the fore. The good news is that, with very few exceptions, most of us can sharpen our social skills. Provided we’ve developed the four other attributes on this list, there are plenty of courses, books, and opportunities to broaden our abilities to connect positively with others.

Free EQ Test

Why is Emotional Intelligence Important in Leadership?

Good leadership requires you to motivate those around you. However, it’s impossible to motivate others if you don’t understand what makes them tick. And as we’ve seen, empathy follows on from self-awareness. There is a hierarchy in emotional intelligence, and it always begins with “know thyself.”

That’s an ancient concept, first introduced to civilized consciousness by Socrates over 2000 years ago. The full maxim, deemed important enough to be inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, is “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”

Management Training of yesteryear focused on getting the task done. It was all based around a transaction of work. Today, effective Management Development Programmes focus on soft skills.

Although the five components of emotional intelligence are often rendered as a wheel, they are more hierarchical than that. Good leaders start by understanding their own emotional drivers (self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation), then extend that understanding out to their team (empathy), and beyond into the wider world (social skills).

Many of the main disciplines within any successful business rely on empathy and social skills, whether it’s engaging stakeholders, winning new business, or addressing a customer complaint. Since leaders need to understand these processes, maximising emotional intelligence will always improve their performance in these and other key disciplines.

How can leaders optimize their latent emotional intelligence? Let’s end with some key pointers (two for each of the five components).

quick tips


10 Tips for Improving your Emotional Intelligence as Leader

  1. Respond Don’t React. If you feel an urge to push back against something challenging said to you, take a moment to enquire exactly why it hits a nerve. Perhaps the negative comment hit home? There’s a big difference between responding and reacting (ever sent that email and regretted it?)
  2. Keep a Journal. Like writing a diary as a teenager, keeping a work journal can help you understand your own responses and choices, particularly if this process of self-enquiry isn’t second nature. Take a few moments at the end of each day or week to reflect on how things went, and what you felt as a result.
  3. Learn to Meditate. Meditation can be as simple as breathing exercises, or as involved as mindfulness. However, you choose to practice this calming skill, you’ll find loads of support in the form of groups, books or meditation and mindfulness apps.
  4. Stand by your Values. It can be worth writing down the values you believe in, and then holding yourself accountable to them. Place a reminder somewhere where you’ll always be able to see it. Move its location from time to time so you don’t edit it out of your visual field.
  5. Regularly Reevaluate your Reasons. Exactly why are you in this role, in this company, in this sector? Reminding this from time to time can help re-set those all-important motivations.
  6. Keep a Gratitude Journal. This is a common strategy employed by addicts and others trying to regulate behaviour, but it can also be a great motivator, because it reminds you just how fortunate you are and how much you stand to lose.
  7. Consider a Role Swap. If you literally spend a day or two doing someone else’s role, you’ll gain clear insight into their concerns and challenges. You’ll also be helping an employee get a taste of a more senior role, provided the swap is two-way.
  8. Begin every one-to-one with a sincere “How are You?” Make sure your employee feels the sincerity of such a request and knows that they can respond honestly. It may seem like a small thing, but it is easily overlooked.
  9. Take a conflict resolution course. There’s a lot to be said for learning some practical techniques for defusing challenging situations. There are many such courses, and a growing body of literature in this field too.
  10. Give praise where it is due. Make sure you remember to thank employees regularly and sincerely for their contribution. Make it personal, individual and ensure that it doesn’t come off as rote. Too many employers believe a paycheck is all the thanks their employees need – not so!

Emotional Intelligence is a hard-won skill that is properly a combination of five different abilities. It’s no wonder, therefore, that we all fall short in this area from time to time. You should forgive yourself when this happens, so long as you’re sincere about trying to improve. We are all a work in progress.

How well are your emotional intelligence skills developed?

Take this FREE EQ Test and receive a 15-page report on the findings with recommendations on what you need to improve.

Thanks again,


Sean McPheat
Managing Director
MTD Training

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Updated on: 26 July, 2022

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