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Emotionally Intelligent Leaders Across History and How to Emulate Them

While seeking leadership nominations for this piece, it became clear that there is ambiguity around what it means to be an emotionally intelligent leader. Many people associate good deeds, charitable work, and wise decisions with emotional intelligence.

While emotionally intelligent people tend to exhibit these behaviors, people who exhibit these behaviors are not always emotionally intelligent.

Just as a flower is a plant, a plant isn’t always a flower.

Being an emotionally intelligent leader isn’t simply doing things that make other people feel good, donating time and money to charitable organizations, or making rational decisions. It goes much deeper than that.

What are the characteristics of an emotionally intelligent leader?

  • They know themselves well, are open about their flaws, and utilize their strengths.

  • They are in tune with their emotions and know how to navigate them effectively.

  • They hold themselves accountable and have no shame in being called out by others.

  • They understand they cannot learn from living and leading in a vacuum and surrounding themselves with “yes people.”

  • They are okay with saying they don’t know.

  • They do what is necessary for the greater good, regardless of popularity.

  • They are often connected to a deep sense of purpose.

  • They understand that their reality is not shared with everyone and respect diverse thoughts.

  • They appreciate gaining insight from others before making a decision.

  • They do not let fear hold them back.

  • They regularly check in with themselves and others’ emotions.

  • They do not condemn others for their shortcomings and offer support to help others develop their natural talents.

  • They know how to detach the situation or behavior from an individual’s identity—thereby not allowing conflict to become personal.

There are hundreds of leaders throughout history who have displayed emotional intelligence. Many of whom are not listed below, not due to their importance but simply because they were not proposed when we solicited feedback for this article. That said, we would love to hear your suggestions for emotionally intelligent leaders in the comments below.

Mimi Paul, of Starkflow, nominated Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill for the following reasons:

Abraham Lincoln was both merciful and merciless, confident and humble, patient and persistent—able to mediate among factions and sustain the spirits of his countrymen. Lincoln displayed an extraordinary ability to absorb the conflicting wills of a divided people and reflect back to them an unbending faith in a unified future.

Winston Churchill tapped into the emotions of his country and rose to the challenge, balancing cold calculations with emotional understanding. Churchill was able to recognize and acknowledge his failures and keep moving forward despite sometimes harrowing challenges."

How can we emulate these leaders, Mimi?

• Practice mindfulness to develop self-awareness.

• Learn to accept feedback without becoming defensive.

• Use 1-on-1s and downtime to develop empathy towards others.

• Develop interpersonal understanding.

• Empower your people.

Eliana Levine, co-founder of FindPeopleEasy nominated Ratan Tata:

“I closely like to follow a successful Indian leader [Ratan Tata] whose stories and achievements fuel me to drive change.

I appreciate his honesty with his people, and how he expresses why he has taken a decision. He is vocal and expressive about how, sometimes, even he is clueless but hopeful about the changing dynamics of the business world. This heart-to-heart with his workforce is a major reason why, I believe, his company has the most loyal employees. Adding to this, Ratan Tata’s belief that companies need to go above and beyond their businesses to serve the community shows his deeply instilled morals and ethics where he values empathizing with people more than the business.”

How can we emulate this leader, Eliana?

“Team-building with the workforce is the most common yet most underrated activity that helps emulate each leader's EI traits. Also, establishing interpersonal relationships with people to understand what drives each one of them can help build some EI traits.”

Michael Green, from Winona, nominated Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. will always be regarded as a leader who exhibited high levels of emotional intelligence. He was a spokesperson for many who at the time did not have a voice, and he even lost his life for it. He put others before himself, which demonstrates his empathetic character.”

How can we emulate this leader, Michael?

“One way modern leaders can emulate MLK Jr. is by always making it a point to stand up for what's right, even when it may not feel like the popular thing to do.”

Other leaders that come to mind for me personally are many of the individuals’ religions were founded around: Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Abraham… These individuals exuded high emotional intelligence and awareness at the utmost level.

What are your thoughts on emotionally intelligent leaders? Let us know in the comments.


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