The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in a Leader

  • August 17, 2018

Business savvy, experience, analytical skills, and vision are all traits often associated with the best executives and organizational leaders. However, an often overlooked quality found in the most successful bosses is perhaps the most critical: emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as EQ or EI) is the ability to comprehend, control, and develop your own feelings, while also being able to understand and manage others’ feelings. Emotional intelligence goes beyond the administrative nuts and bolts of being a great leader and emphasizes how your emotions affect others and how you can use that knowledge to create positive outcomes—both personally and with the people you manage.

Raj Sisodia, in his chapter of Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, says, “Emotional intelligence (EQ) combines self-awareness (understanding oneself) and empathy (the ability to feel and understand what others are feeling). High emotional intelligence is increasingly being recognized as important in organizations because of the growing complexity of society and the variety of stakeholders that must be communicated with effectively.”

The emotional intelligence approach is something of a radical departure from the traditional leadership style of “I say ‘jump,’ you say ‘how high?’” Leadership still requires an authority over the team’s vision, but it must be intertwined with putting employees and their needs first. This acknowledgment from leadership creates happier, more productive workers and more effective managers, while also reducing employee turnover.

Benefits for the Leader

Leaders who display and nurture high emotional intelligence inevitably become better leaders. Consider these benefits:

  • Internal awareness: Making sound decisions requires an understanding of how your feelings are affecting judgment, productivity, attitudes, and more. The best leaders are self-aware of not only their emotions, but also their weaknesses and limitations, as well as their strengths. For example, a manager who isn’t a good delegator but is self-aware about that shortcoming can make a conscious effort to delegate out tasks more and trust the people those tasks have been assigned to. Internal awareness isn’t eliminating emotions from decisions, but rather allowing them to work with rationality so they don’t subconsciously affect judgment.
  • Self-regulation: Leaders who make impulsive decisions or fail to control their emotions and lash out can quickly lose the respect of their subordinates. Those unregulated moments can undo any rapport you’ve built—and getting it back is never easy. Emotional intelligence breeds self-regulation that prevents the moments you wish you could take back.
  • Increased empathy: People with high emotional intelligence have a good understanding of their own emotional states, which allows them to more accurately gauge the emotions of others. For business leaders, this empathy places them in their employees’ shoes, thus leading to more thoughtful and deliberate decisions.
  • Collaborative communication: Because they understand their coworkers, emotionally intelligent leaders can immediately pick up the tone of the room or group and subsequently speak with honesty and sincerity to match that tone or mitigate unresolved tension.
  • Less stress: Workplace stress may be unavoidable, but leaders with emotional intelligence manage it better and don’t let it consume them. They also refuse to take any negative feelings out on their coworkers or families. These leaders tend to enjoy better work/life balance, knowing that the emotions of work need to stay at work (and vice versa).

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Benefits for the Organization

Plenty of organizations with a seemingly endless supply of technical know-how and years of experience continue to struggle because they lack emotional intelligence. These businesses also encounter difficulty preventing employee turnover. Alternatively, companies with high emotional intelligence enjoy many advantages, including:

  • Better team engagement: Teams that feel a negative attachment—or no attachment at all—to team leaders or their teammates disengage and, therefore, fail to capitalize on the inherent benefits of working as a team. Emotional intelligence acknowledges the team dynamic and gives everyone a voice.
  • Improved company culture: Organizations often talk about how great their company culture is, but without emotional intelligence, what you think your culture is might differ from what your employees actually feel. Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein write in Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, “In our view, leadership is always a relationship, and truly successful leadership thrives in a group culture of high openness and high trust.” Leaders with emotional intelligence encourage stronger relationships and open communication, which moves you closer to the culture the company likely wants to achieve.
  • High performance-driven results: Trusted employees, whose emotions are valued and who aren’t subjected the negative, unfiltered emotions of their superiors, simply perform better—and more productivity ultimately improves the bottom line.

These benefits all have something in common: The enhanced emotional intelligence leaders have developed produces positive results in their employees. As Robert Johansen writes in The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, “If leaders are going to thrive in a future of extreme disruption, they must not only manage their own energy, they must encourage, model, and reward positive energy in others.”

Leadership Styles Rooted in Emotional Intelligence

The benefits people and organizations can realize from emotional intelligence are undeniable. Two of the books cited in this article are excellent models of how emotional intelligence can transform good leaders into great leaders, and how those great leaders can subsequently transform their organizations.

First, Servant Leadership in Action describes the servant leadership model, which emphasizes the responsibility of leaders to serve employees instead of the other way around. Emotionally intelligent leaders put aside ego and self-promotion to empathize with others, which ultimately builds respect and sets up workers for success.

Second, Humble Leadership details how humility and collaboration fosters trust between leaders and subordinates, to the benefit of the entire organization. Relationships thrive when leaders make the effort to truly understand their employees. Emotional intelligence can provide the backbone of that understanding that strengthens team building, productivity, morale, and more.

Whatever model your workplace follows, emotional intelligence can build better leaders and help prevent employee turnover. After all, when workers feel respected, understood, and valued, you’ve created an environment they won’t want to leave. 


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