Leadership & Emotional Intelligence

What makes a great leader?

Ask a million people and you’ll get a million different answers, but a few common themes will probably emerge. People tend to think that great leaders posses traits like charisma, confidence, courage and decisiveness (and they do).

But there is one thing that matters more than all the others when it comes to effective leadership.

Because of the pressure for efficiency and results in our modern workplaces, this skill is often overlooked sacrificed.

People may preach its value in theory, but it’s often the first thing to go out the window when times get tough or resources are scarce. And that’s a shame, because it’s the key to effective leadership and developing your people over the long-term.

What are we talking about?

Emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence

What exactly is emotional intelligence?

Here’s how the two psychologists who worked on the concept early on described it:

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.” – Peter Salovey & John Mayer, 1997 (emphasis mine)

As you can see, there are several key components to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence involves: perceiving, accessing/generation, understanding and regulating emotions.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept in his book (Emotional Intelligence), spells out five key components:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important For New Leaders?

In short, emotional intelligence should matter to you because leadership involves people.

Leaders need to be able to do all these things well:

  • Connect with people
  • Motivate people
  • Communicate effectively
  • Be seen as trustworthy
  • Respect and encourage their people
  • Resolve conflict between people
  • Inspire people

If you’re short in the emotional intelligence department, none of them will come easily.

Sure, you can be a dictator and still be “successful” without emotional intelligence (depending on how you define success), but you don’t really want to be included in that group, am I right?

If you want to grow your emotional intelligence and improve your leadership, these five areas are great places to focus your efforts.


Self-awareness is a term that almost needs no definition.

It means being aware of yourself, right? You can’t get much more straightforward than that. But what does that actually mean in practice?

Being self-aware in regards to emotional intelligence means you’re constantly aware of how you’re feeling at any given moment and how your emotions may be affecting others.

You’ve got your finger on your emotional pulse and the pulse of those around.

In a broader sense, self-awareness also includes knowing your strengths and weaknesses. You’re aware of what motivates you and what’s stressing you out.

On top of that, you’re also able to drill down to why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.

Let’s take it out of the theoretical. What can you do to improve your self-awareness?

  • Practice reflection/prayer/meditation – whether you’re religious or not, engaging in practices like these help you to slow down. Your world is busy (ain’t that the truth?). When life is chaotic, the temptation is to act out of instinct. Slowing down allows you to “hear” yourself. To recognize what’s going awry as it’s happening, and to self-correct as needed.
  • Journal – Taking a few minutes at the end of your day to jot down highs and lows can make a big difference. Keeping a journal can help you to see patterns and identify self-defeating patterns. Once recognized, you’re free to address them as you see fit.
  • Therapy – Therapy can sometimes be taboo. It shouldn’t be. Leadership is stressful. Regular meetings with a skilled therapist or counselor – an objective and trained outsider – can help to uncover blind spots in your behavior and bring more self-awareness.

Leaders aren’t slaves to their instincts and emotions. Leaders are self-aware, giving them the power to rise above.

Emotional Intelligence


Goleman goes so far as to call self-regulation “a star leader’s secret weapon” on his website.

It’s preceded by self-awareness, but the two are closely related. Self-awareness means you are aware of your emotions (“I’m feeling angry because of what was just said”) and then, if you have developed the capacity, you have the choice to self-regulate (“Although I’m angry, I’m not going to flip this table over.”)

The ability to self-regulate is seriously undervalued.

Ever have any past bosses who couldn’t keep their cool? Someone who “wore their heart on their sleeve” to a point where it hurt them and their team?

They weren’t proficient at self-regulating.

How can you grow your ability to self-regulate? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be aware of your reactions – as noted above, this ability is closely tied to self-awareness. When experiencing stress, pause for a moment and recognize how your body is reacting. Are you tense? Angry? Scared? Confused?
  • Practice staying calm – Neel Raman shares some simple things any leader can do to stay calm in a crisis on his blog. If you check them out, you’ll notice that most of them are internal exercises – change your self talk, refocus, reflect, and so on. Self-regulation occurs internally. It’s a battle for control of your mind, body and emotions.
  • Invite accountability – Do you have people who you’ve invited to speak into your life when they see things going off the rails? I’d recommend finding a few peers or a mentor in your workplace who can (kindly) call you out and help you get back on track when you’re struggling to self-regulate.


I’ve had people work for me who struggled to consistently stay motivated. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for me as a leader.

Why are some people better at being proactive and staying motivated than others? Turns out it’s tied to emotional intelligence.

If there is one trait that virtually all effective leaders have, it is motivation – a variety of self-management whereby we mobilize our positive emotions to drive us toward our goals. Motivated leaders are driven to achieve beyond expectations – their own and everyone else’s.  – Daniel Goleman

Do you have a desire to achieve for achievement’s sake? Are you able to harness whatever emotions you’re feeling and move yourself into a state where you’re ready to tackle obstacles?

Congratulations, you’re highly self-motivated.

If this is an area that’s a struggle for you, don’t be concerned. You can get better at this.

Here are a few ways to increase your ability to self-motivate:

  • Take care of yourself – Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. If you’re in a bad place physically, your ability to focus and control your emotional state is going to take a hit.
  • Unearth the things you love about your job – While no one loves every aspect of leadership, what makes you enjoy it? How are you changing your teams’ lives as you help them develop? What rewarding thing happened this week? Focus on these things and let them propel you forward. Don’t get stuck on the obstacles.
  • Schedule time for your own growth – Leaders often forget to seek out opportunities for their own growth (it’s part of dealing with chaos). Take a class. Read that new book. Attend that seminar. Seeing yourself grow will help keep you motivated to stay the course.


Empathy is the ability to experience and understand the emotions, thoughts and experiences of others.

Reflect on that for a moment and you’ll see why it’s so vital for any leader to be able empathetic.

Without empathy, you can’t truly care for people. A lack of empathy will cause an emotional disconnect between you and those you are leading. You’ll be unable to connect with them (like Spock from Star Trek).

If you need further convincing, Tanveer Naseer shares ten more reasons why empathy matters for leaders on his blog.

To improve your ability to empathize as a leader, give these suggestions a try:

  • Practice active listening – Being able to genuinely listen and respond to people is a key way to grow more empathetic. Hearing your team’s stories, fears and hopes – getting to know them as people – will help you in your quest to be more empathetic. When talking with your team, listen for the meaning behind what they are saying. What do their words communicate about how they are feeling? What non-verbal cues can you pick up on?
  • Acknowledge and respond to feelings – When listening to a team member, if you pick up on an emotion,  acknowledge it. For example, if you ask Brad to work late again and he agrees, but you can tell he’s not happy about it: “Brad, you sound disappointed. I’m sorry, I know this isn’t ideal and I’m frustrated too. But I’m grateful for your flexibility and your hard work when we really need it. 
  • Don’t just focus on work – Managers can often face a temptation to solely focus on the work (it’s why you’re there, right?). Giving in to that temptation doesn’t serve your team or you well. Make an active effort to get to know your people. Have fun together. How can you introduce more “play” into your work?

Social Skills

Social skills come more naturally to some of us.

Not me.

I’m an introvert and I was homeschooled for a good portion of my life.

A potentially deadly combination.

Every day I have to intentionally make it a point to engage with the members of my team. Small talk doesn’t always come easy.

Great social skills require the ability to communicate and build rapport. It means you’re able to connect with others easily, be persuasive and build team chemistry.

If these areas don’t come easily for you either, here are a few ways to begin improving:

  • Practice communication – Global organizations like Toastmasters exist to help people become better communicators and leaders. Find a local club and start joining regularly.
  • Praise your team – Many leaders spend the bulk of their one-on-ones focusing on weaknesses and areas of opportunity. Focusing on these areas can be helpful, but it can also be devastating if all your employees ever hear is critical/constructive feedback. When you see someone do something well, immediately recognize their great work. Over time, praising good work will build rapport and improve morale on your team.
  • Find a model/mentor – Is there a person or leader you know who excels in this area? Use them as a model for what great social skills looks like in action. If they’re open to it, consider asking them if they will meet regularly to mentor you and help you grow as a leader.

(Note: If you’re uncomfortable with this or don’t have someone to mentor you, consider signing up for leadership coaching here. We’d love to help you take the next step in your personal development.)

Key Takeaways

Leadership is – and always will be – a “people business.”

Great leaders take a diverse group of people, rally them towards a common vision, and move forward to turn that vision into reality.

Emotional intelligence will always be a necessary piece of great leadership.

Without strong emotional intelligence, you’re going to have a hard time managing yourself and connecting with your team. You’ll struggle to build trust, show them you care and help them develop.

You may even unintentionally derail your own career if you’re lacking in self-awareness or the ability to self-regulate.

Because of emotional intelligence’s important, it’s critical for every new leader to focus on developing in these key areas:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skills

I’ve given you a number of suggested tips and practices to kickstart your growth above. If you’re still looking for more, check out the additional resources below!

For Further Reading:

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