What Is Emotional Intelligence in Leadership? The Path to Ultimate Self-Improvement

Chess Pieces
Image by O12 from Pixabay

Most people have heard about emotional intelligence but have a limited understanding of it. Some who see themselves as people-people think they do not need to learn more. Those who are not into the touchy-feely arts might try to ignore any emotion-related advice. However, both types of people need to ask, what is emotional intelligence in leadership? All of us are leaders in some way, and no one is perfect at emotional leadership.

Defining Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is also sometimes referred to as emotional quotient (EQ – analogous to intelligence quotient [IQ]) or emotional intelligence quotient (EIQ). Because of its strong role in leadership theory, it is sometimes called emotional leadership (EL), too. However, EI need not be seen as just a business or leadership skill – it is helpful for all people.

Generally speaking, there are two theories of emotional intelligence: one created by Peter Salovey and John Mayer; and one created by Daniel Goleman. Goleman re-shaped the Salovey-Mayer notion of emotional intelligence as he brought it into the world of pop psychology.

The Salovey-Mayer approach views EI as a part of intelligence. In this view, emotional reactions are woven into the cognitive process; it is erroneous to view reasoning as separate from emotion. Ultimately, emotion is what motivates and directs our thoughts. Therefore, it is better to become aware of your emotions and those of the people around you – it will ultimately make you a better thinker. Goleman, in contrast, recommends specific practices – meditation, mindfulness, and journaling – to help increase EI: The underlying objective is to take time out to reflect on your own and other people’s reactions.

Components of Emotional Intelligence

Salovey and Mayer consider there to be 4 discernable categories of EI that are progressive in nature: noticing emotions, using emotions to assist cognition, deeper comprehension of emotions, and, finally, capacity to shape and adjust emotions. Goleman, in contrast, describes 5 components of emotional intelligence. Arguably, his components reflect the practical, action-oriented nature of his theory, which can be contrasted with the cognitive transformational emphasis of Salovey and Mayer.

Goleman’s first component is self-awareness. Self-awareness involves reflecting on your actions and feelings and seeing how your reactions might have influenced other people’s reactions. It involves taking stock of personal strengths and weaknesses, too.

Second for Goleman is self-regulation: Reacting to others in a way that is mutually helpful, rather than just whatever comes out. Consequently, it also involves taking responsibility for one’s reactions, rather than assuming that the other person just “had it coming.”

Third, Goleman lists motivation: It might seem obvious, but it is easy to get lost in the adrenaline-fueled nature of work and lose touch with one’s actual goals. However, if goals are ambiguous, it is hard to act on them.

Forth is empathy. As you probably already know, empathy is imagining yourself in someone else’s situation (whether or not anything similar has happened to you). This keeps you from blaming people for things they cannot help, and it helps to bring others to your way of thinking.

Lastly, Goleman emphasizes social skills. Social skills involve good communication habits and tactics, ability to make others have more positive or productive feelings, and ability to communicate your own needs.

Woman Climbing a Mountain
Photo by Thomas Loizeau on Unsplash

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence

Even though you need to find your own EI tactics and habits, it helps to start with the basics. Goleman provides clear steps:

To gain self-awareness, slow down and/or take planned periods of time to stop and reflect. Even better, write in a personal journal regularly: this does not have to be a huge writing task; it is just a way to make yourself stop and think – also, you can look over your writings later as a form of personal reflection. Consider possible explanations for your emotional reactions and those of others – could there be connections you did not see at the time?

Next, to improve self-regulation, Goleman recommends establishing your personal values. Values give you a larger perspective, and lack of perspective is often the cause of out-of-control emotional reactions. Many people find that regular meditation or mindfulness exercises help tremendously.

Another approach is an expansion of the self-awareness journal – try describing your emotions on paper by yourself, rather than immediately reacting. This gives you time to consider the best way to express your thoughts (or whether you truly want to express them outwardly in the first place).

Motivation is similar to self-regulation but more goal-oriented. Consider why you are making the efforts you are: Are you just going through the motions? Have you just lost touch with the original goal? Try goal-setting techniques (break tasks into long-term goals and short-term goals); foster optimism – there is often something good that comes of a seemingly bad situation.

For most people, increased empathy comes with greater awareness. However, if it is still a struggle, consider learning some body language skills – both to monitor your own body language and to read that of others. This does not mean that you have to analyze every little cue you see. Usually, it is enough to recognize another’s strongest feelings and just make some attempt to respond.

Social skills come with practice for most people. If daily life is not getting you there, however, consider seeking out resources on communication skills, including subcategories such as conflict resolution. For a simpler alternative, just try complimenting those around you more – it does wonders for all relationships.

Emotional Intelligence Examples

Salovey and Mayer advocate art appreciation as a tool to gain awareness and intuitive understanding of emotion. Reading some new literature (fiction or nonfiction), observing visual art, and making some adventure, some music choices are all great approaches.

For example, if you are reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you might think about the main character’s values and how they fit into the American culture of the 1920s. You could ask critical questions, such as: Even though we are living in a different time – are people so different? How am I similar or different from the main character? How do I feel about this?

Alternatively, you can just use simple, honest reflection; here is a more down-to-earth example of emotional intelligence in our daily life: A woman who works a well-paying, mid-level job with flexible hours and good benefits notices that she finds herself repeatedly blowing up in anger at work. It is not an all-the-time occurrence, but it is bad enough that, when she reflects on it, she realizes it probably has kept her from getting promotions.

She reflects on her relationships with co-workers and realizes that she frequently feels excluded (which makes her bitter – and even angrier). She recognizes this self-perpetuating cycle of anger, but how does she break the cycle? She feels that the other people started it and if she stops getting angry, she is just “giving in.”Would not getting angry really be giving in? Maybe she could express her needs without getting angry?

Being aware of an emotional problem like the one above is a difficult first step to solving it. Perhaps the woman above has an epiphany – she has gotten into similar anger cycles repeatedly, in other environments – therefore, she is probably the one starting it. Maybe a failure to establish and/or communicate her needs is the root of the problem?

Applying Emotional Intelligence to Leadership

“People want to feel valued and like they belong…” as Forbes notes: This is definitely something to keep first in mind as an EI-conscious leader. As long as someone is on your team, they are valued and they do belong – so why ever treat them as though it is otherwise?

Emotionally intelligent leaders are more likely to make productive choices. A lot of this has to do with avoiding negativism in all its forms: In psychiatry, negativism refers to a personality trait where the person will not take instructions or advice even when it is clearly advantageous to do so.

More colloquially, negativism is just a tendency to ignore positive information and/or emphasize negative information. An emotionally intelligent person will not show any of signs of negativism. Even if they are the boss, they will consider all feedback, and they will always try to accentuate the positive, even when it means finding a positive lesson in a negative situation.

Emotional leadership theory refers to the phenomenon in which the emotional vibes from a leader permeate the group of followers. There are many mechanisms by which this can happen and many different ideas about the best way to harness emotional expression to an organization’s advantage. What most emotional leadership theories have in common: Leader-follower relationships that are genuine and personal make a positive difference.

Emotional Intelligence and Different Leadership Styles

What Is Emotional Intelligence in Leadership? Abraham Lincoln Statue
Photo by Kelli Dougal on Unsplash

Leading with emotional intelligence is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon: It can be applied to different leadership styles/personalities. In this way, emotional leadership fits every situation. While most leaders use some combination of approaches, there are generally 6 recognized emotional leadership styles:

When most people think of emotional leadership, they think of the affiliative leadership style. Affiliative leaders aim, first and foremost, to develop some emotional connection with each follower; they see group harmony as the foundation of leadership. They lead with the EI skills of empathy and conflict management.

Many might also associate the democratic leader with EI. This leader does not so much strive for harmony itself as they look for overall agreement by means of fair, open feedback. These leaders prioritize collaborative spirit.

A coaching leadership style involves empathy and a natural drive to build others up. It usually builds loyalty as followers appreciate that their leader made time to help them excel as individuals – even when it was not directly beneficial to the leader.

An emotionally intelligent leader need not lack a unique personal vision, however. The visionary leader (also known as the authoritative leader) draws people in with the possibility of being part of something bigger than themselves. A leader like this seems to be him/herself motivated by something larger than life.

EI is relevant to leadership styles that are not generally viewed as emotional or personal: The commanding (aka coercive) style, which involves leading by direct order, requires considerable self-regulation and motivation on the part of the leader. While these leaders expect obedience, they are indirectly leading by example.

In contrast, pace setting leaders take a similar obedience-driven approach but they put explicit emphasis on leading by example. They expect you to keep up with them. Like coercive leaders, they need to have great self-regulation and motivation. However, they tend to be more conscientious – they are highly sensitive to the example they create.

Problems with Emotional Intelligence Theory

Some argue that EI theory is not real science and that EI is not a real form of intelligence. Alternatively, some argue that it is describing something already outlined in personality theory. There are some studies to suggest that emotional leadership does not generate any discernable progress, too. (Although, there are also many studies to the contrary.)

Another issue is that emotionally intelligent leadership is not necessarily morally good. There is the cult leader – the charismatic person who slowly wears away at people’s sense of right and wrong until the person will essentially do whatever the leader wants. Many times these people are compelling because they have a stable sense of values – even if their values are sociopathic in nature. Also, they have a naturally strong ability to see through others and find how to play to insecurities and desires within each individual follower. This is not good.

Lastly, there is the issue of measurement. Many EI tests are self-reported, but this always leaves the person being tested the chance to answer the way they think they should rather than in a way that is true to what they would actually do in real-life situations. Another problem is that some of these tests seem to grade test-takers on ability to operate within social norms. It is debatable whether adherence to norms is necessarily the best test of overall emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence Is Always Worth a Try

Academic debates aside, what is clear is that exploring EI helps you understand yourself and those around you better. This is inevitably helpful to everyone in some way – in fact, it is just common sense. Develop your relationships. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *