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Why Emotional Intelligence Should Be a Prerequisite for Leaders

Emotions are our most powerful tool—use them wisely.

Think back to a job you couldn’t stand. Now, think of your boss or manager at that job. Did a grimace spread across your face? If I had to guess, this leader was one of the reasons you were unsatisfied with your job. Maybe they didn’t show appreciation for you, blew up at every minor inconvenience, or just flat-out didn’t care about you. Whatever it was, this leader’s lack of emotional intelligence negatively affected how you felt about your job and probably led to decreased productivity.

Defined by Dr. Daniel Goleman as “the capacity for recognizing our feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and our relationships,” emotional intelligence allows us to develop conscious awareness and control of our emotional center of the brain—which directly influences our ability to problem-solve, make rational decisions, and interact with the world around us.

Why should leaders care about emotional intelligence?

A person can be incredibly skilled, experienced, and intelligent, but if they cannot manage their emotions, how can they manage an entire company?

A fact often overlooked when hiring or promoting an executive is that a leader’s paramount obligation is to lead their people to success. While experience and expertise are obvious requirements for higher-up positions, people skills are just as, if not more, important—and you can’t have good people skills without emotional intelligence.

When leaders lack empathy and cannot properly connect with their employees or manage their emotions, tension forms between leadership and employees. Individuals won’t feel driven to be productive and might engage in “quiet quitting” if they don’t appreciate how their leader leads. They’ll stop caring about the company when they feel the person at the forefront of the company doesn’t care about them.

In contrast, when the leader of a company is emotionally intelligent, they can empathize with their employees, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes, and take responsibility for their shortcomings. As a result, employees will feel motivated and loyal to the leader and, possibly, the company.

For example, at one of the companies I coached, a new employee was thrown into an important client call by herself. She made a mistake and was terrified when the CEO asked her to lunch. But when she got there, he asked her what happened, apologized for not giving her more support on her first call, and asked what she needed to succeed in the future. They both learned something, and the productive nature of the conversation led to better work from both the CEO and the new hire.

Emotional intelligence is fundamental to good leadership

90% of top performers have developed a high level of emotional intelligence and make an average of $29,000 more in yearly income, according to a survey by TalentSmart led by emotional intelligence expert Travis Bradberry.

Considering that higher emotional intelligence directly correlates to success, you would think there would be a greater focus on teaching these skills to executives. Just as journalists are trained in communication and psychologists are trained in counseling, leaders should be trained in the art of dealing with people.

After coaching countless executives, I’ve come to realize three skills executives need for emotionally intelligent leadership:

  1. Express vulnerability appropriately: Much of the published literature encourages leaders to claim their mistakes and be vulnerable. Along with this, executives need to have the emotional intelligence to know when to share their vulnerability and when to stay strong.

  2. Know yourself: When 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business were asked what the most essential quality of a leader is, they all agreed it was self-awareness. Executives must uncover their blind spots to lead their people to success.

  3. Be authentic: The Harvard Business Review conducted a study of 125 leaders who were deemed “authentic” by their peers. They were asked how they realized their potential. An interesting result was uncovered about authentic leaders: Their leadership emerged from their life stories. They discovered that being more authentic made them more effective and led to higher performance.

Understanding and having compassion for your people is imperative if you want your company to succeed, and the first step to understanding others and their emotions is understanding yourself.

How to use emotional intelligence to make decisions

Step 1: Recognize the power of your emotions.

To get control over your emotional brain, acknowledge the hold it has on you when you lack awareness. Make a list of the top three things you are fearful of or angry about. Write these things down so they are no longer just living in your head and controlling your brain.

Step 2: Pause for 5 minutes.

Take a break. Go for a walk. Get a drink of water. Do whatever you need to distract yourself for a moment. Taking a pause will keep your emotional brain and impulses from taking over.

Step 3: Rewire your brain by thinking of a time you were successful at work.

Remember why you are here and why you are doing this. Remind yourself how it felt, whether it was an important deal, a promotion, or a degree. Bringing your brain into that positive mindset will allow you to make a logical, rather than emotional, decision.

Making logical, not emotionally driven, decisions is one way to demonstrate emotional intelligence as a leader. But the most important reason for being emotionally intelligent as a leader is to show the people you lead that you care. If employees feel cared about, they will perform better, and, in the long run, the results will make your life more fulfilling and rewarding.


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