emotional intelligence and leadership

June 07, 2024 •

6 min reading

Emotional intelligence and leadership: The perfect combination

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When we think about leadership qualities, not more than a decade or two ago, emotional intelligence would have come a long way down the list. However, our expectations of work and what it means to be a leader have shifted drastically since then. Now, if you talk to most leadership and HR experts, they will tell you that emotional intelligence is one of the most, if not the most important skill for today’s business leaders.

Operational and technical skills are still essential, but modern organizations are increasingly looking for effective leaders who can create positive work cultures, encourage employee growth, consider other perspectives, and build strong relationships within the business.

In this article, we’ll cover some of the basics, look at the five categories of emotional intelligence, and explore how having an emotionally intelligent leader can benefit an organization.


What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is as old as humankind, but as an expression, it was first coined in 1990 by two psychologists, John Mayer and Peter Salovey. They used the term to describe an individual’s capacity to process, regulate, and perceive their own emotions and to recognize, understand, and influence the feelings of others.

The psychologist Daniel Goleman progressed the work of Mayer and Salovey by researching the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership. He suggested that although an individual’s IQ and technical skills are important, you should not progress to an executive position unless you have a high level of emotional intelligence. Even with all the smart ideas in the world, without emotional intelligence, he theorized that you could not be a great leader.

Emotional intelligence is not just a vital skill for successful leaders. One study suggests that 71% of employers value emotional intelligence over technical skills when hiring new candidates because emotionally intelligent employees have a positive impact in the workplace. Another study found that emotional intelligence accounts for 60% of job performance in positions ranging from supervisors to CEOs.


What are the five components of emotional intelligence in leadership?

The psychologist Goleman identified five key characteristics of emotional intelligence (EI), which we’ll discuss below. Unlike IQ, which measures someone’s intelligence, you can learn and improve the skills that make up your emotional intelligence. As well as leading to improved success professionally, developing your emotional intelligence can bring significant benefits in your personal life, such as increased happiness and wellbeing.

The five categories of skills that make up emotional intelligence include:

  • Self-awareness

Self-aware leaders acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and know when to seek help when faced with a challenging situation. They are also conscious of when their behavior could influence others detrimentally and can regulate their emotions and decisions to guide the team effectively and complete the tasks at hand. Genuine self-awareness is a rare skill, with research suggesting that 95% of people think they are self-aware, while only 10 to 15% truly are.

  • Self-regulation

As well as being aware of their own emotions, good leaders can manage them and channel them in an effective way. Those who can self-regulate potentially disruptive emotions are better at managing conflict, are more likely to take responsibility, are better at making decisions, and can adapt well to change.

  • Social awareness

Business leaders don’t operate in isolation. They must be aware of the wider environment and devise strategies and plans to encourage satisfaction in their teams. They must also recognize and empathize with the emotions of others and build relationships (social skills) with diverse stakeholders through verbal and non-verbal communication and active listening.

  • Empathy

This is the ability to understand and recognize how others feel and how your actions or decisions as a leader will affect them. Empathetic leaders understand how to communicate in different situations and how workplace dynamics impact employee performance, happiness, and wellbeing.

  • Motivation

Business leaders should be excellent self-motivators and be able to perform at a high level without external praise. They should be resilient to circumstances that could demotivate them and be committed and focused on achieving their goals. They should also understand what motivates their teams and take steps to meet those needs.

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What are the business benefits of emotionally intelligent leaders?

There are many ways that emotionally intelligent leaders can benefit an organization. Here are a few headline stats to back that up:

  • Emotionally intelligent leaders improve behaviors and business results and positively impact work team performance (source).
  • Employees with emotionally intelligent managers are four times less likely to leave their jobs (source).
  • Employees who believe their leaders treat them with respect are 55% more engaged, 63% more satisfied, and 58% more focused on their jobs (source).

That’s what the numbers say, but in terms of workplace benefits, what advantages do emotionally intelligent leaders bring?

Effective collaboration

Emotionally intelligent leaders create psychologically safe workspaces where team members feel confident enough to contribute and share their ideas in group scenarios. The leaders listen and communicate effectively and recognize and harness the unique talents of every individual.

Strong relationships

Leaders with high emotional intelligence use empathy, active listening, and interpersonal skills to build trust and a rapport with their teams. They understand their team members’ emotions and needs and work to make them feel valued and appreciated. These strong relationships lead to higher levels of motivation, engagement, and staff retention.

Constructive conflict management

Conflict is inevitable in any organization, but leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence can manage it and resolve it in a constructive and positive way. By staying calm, encouraging team members to express their views constructively, and listening to and empathizing with them, they can understand everyone’s point of view and find mutually beneficial resolutions.

Informed decision-making

Effective decision-making is a vital part of any leadership role, and leaders who understand and control their emotions make more informed and rational decisions. They consider the needs and perspectives of others, discuss issues openly with the relevant stakeholders, and make decisions that create better outcomes and stronger relationships.


Emotional intelligence is non-negotiable

While some skills and characteristics might be nice to have in a leader, emotional intelligence is essential. Leaders who are self-aware, empathetic, and have the ability to understand and manage their emotions are at the heart of positive workplace cultures that make employees feel heard and valued. And happy employees are productive employees, with one study (pdf) finding organizations that prioritize emotional intelligence are 22 times more likely to be high-performing.

Dr Stefano Borzillo, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at EHL, confirms this necessity and highlights the importance of EI in leadership roles and the hospitality industry.

  “Emotional Intelligence (EI) is increasingly recognized as a critical predictor of job performance and longevity in a role. EI equips individuals and teams with essential skills that confer them a distinct advantage in organizational settings by comprising four core competencies- emotional recognition, understanding, regulation, and management. Not only is EI vital for effective team leadership and creating a supportive organizational climate, but it also enhances resilience to emotional labor"


Additionally, “EI can be developed throughout one's career, offering continuous improvement in roles that demand intensive human interaction. In industries like hospitality, EI is indispensable for fostering trusting, appreciative, and enduring relationships with guests, colleagues, and oneself.