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Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: Why It’s Important and How to Get Better

Learn what it means to have high emotional intelligence in leadership, why it’s crucial to leadership success, and how it can be developed.

Publish Date: March 17, 2021

Read Time: 10 min

Author: Bruce Court

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What are some defining traits of great leaders? The ability to connect with others. High control of their own emotions and the ability to correctly gauge people’s emotions. High social awareness. These traits also form the foundation of emotional intelligence in leadership.

But what is emotional intelligence? Why is it important at work? And how can leaders get better?

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

In The EQ Difference: A Powerful Plan for Putting Emotional Intelligence to Work, Adele Lynn defines emotional intelligence as the ability to manage yourself and your relationships with others so that you truly live your intentions.

While the term "emotional intelligence" was coined around 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked emotional intelligence as one of the top 10 most important workplace skills for success in 2020. And emotional intelligence has also been listed as a crucial ingredient of great leadership. It’s clear emotional intelligence continues to be important on the job.

Why Emotional Intelligence Is Important at Work

A couple years ago I worked with a senior leader who was also a candidate for a C-suite position. The company started having second thoughts about promoting him. Even though his business unit was hitting all its objectives, turnover on his team was at an all-time high and climbing. His business unit included an equal mix of employees from the parent company and the newly acquired company after a recent acquisition.

What was going on with this senior leader? He was so focused on hitting the numbers that he was making little effort to get to know his new team. He also wasn’t doing much to let them get to know him. The perception from this senior leader’s team? He did not care about them. The only thing his team members thought mattered to him? Hitting the numbers.

Fortunately, the company decided to give the leader a shot at remedying the turnover on his team. This leader shifted his approach. He spent more time focusing on his team. He asked them questions about how they were feeling. He asked for their ideas. And he also asked how he could help them get tasks accomplished, all while sharing his thoughts and feelings along the way.

The result? Very soon, turnover decreased. And other performance metrics continued to improve. This leader had made a typical mistake. He was so focused on the numbers that he’d forgotten about the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership.

The Skills That Make Up Emotional Intelligence

From the definition of emotional intelligence by American psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, we can learn what emotional intelligence skills are all about: “The emotionally intelligent person is skilled in four areas: identifying emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions, and regulating emotions.” Successful leaders are proficient in all four areas.

But how do people show emotional intelligence in leadership? Leaders show emotional intelligence when they are open-minded. They also give thoughtful consideration to other ideas and perspectives. They’re nonjudgmental in their responses and emotional reaction. 

An emotionally intelligent leader is fully present and able to read others well. But emotionally intelligent leaders can also adjust their thinking or approach in response to the emotion or behavior of others. And this often results in better outcomes.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important in Difficult Situations?

One reason emotional intelligence is so important when dealing with a difficult situation is that an emotionally intelligent leader will respond to adversity in a calm, considered way. The emotionally intelligent leader is better at managing emotions—both their own and those of others—during times of stress or pressure.

But a worrying trend today’s leader must consider is the increased risk of burnout. DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021 reports that 86% of high-potential leaders are at risk of burnout. The forecast shows that the number-one factor that influences burnout is leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy. The root of empathy is the ability to connect with people on a more human level.

This is just one example of what leaders today must deal with. But there are many more situations where emotional intelligence in leadership is important, if not essential. And today, crisis is part of every leader's “new normal.”

How Should Leaders Use Emotional Intelligence During a Crisis?

Here are four things leaders should keep in mind when it comes to using emotional intelligence in crisis.

1. Ensure their people are safe and cared for. This is the first and most important job of leaders, especially during challenging times.

2. Keep track of the big picture and strategic concerns. Remind team members to do their best at balancing short- and long-term considerations. Solving short-term problems without any consideration of the long-term can result in decisions that lead the team in the wrong direction.

3. Be mindful of the interpersonal aspects of emotional intelligence. For example, use empathy as much as possible in communication. Continuing to build relationships must be a part of a leader’s daily routine during times of crisis. And especially during difficult conversations, listening is a crucial leadership skill. A good measure of a leader’s emotional intelligence is their ability to listen to feedback, and then to play it back in a way that truly reflects what they heard.

4. Maintain a balance between optimism and reality to adopt a resilient mindset. A resilient mindset starts and ends with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to center our thinking, avoiding overreactions to negative events, and responding thoughtfully when dealing with disruptions of any size.

Which Is More Important—EQ or IQ in Leadership?

A leadership consultant’s response to a question like this is often, “It depends.” And the research tends to support that reply.

DDI’s High-Resolution Leadership study looked at assessment data from 15,000 leaders. The data shows that when leaders need to network, drive execution, lead teams, or communicate in a compelling way, emotional intelligence (EQ) trumps IQ. IQ is more important when leaders need to draw on their business savvy or financial acumen.

A surprising finding came out of the research about when a leader is called upon to influence or drive execution. Influence seems to depend far more on IQ than EQ. The implication? If you want to win someone over, a business case and strong rationale may be more critical than emotional intelligence skill.

On the other hand, once you have influenced someone to take a particular direction, EQ will play a far stronger role in its execution. Why? EQ is crucial to getting everyone marching in the same direction.

In conclusion, both EQ and IQ matter. However, when it comes to being an effective leader, it’s fair to say that a larger percentage of leadership failures may be attributed to insensitivity. Given that last comment, the good news is that emotional intelligence in leadership can be developed.

How Can Leaders Develop Emotional Intelligence?

Leaders can develop EQ through emotional intelligence training and development activities. The five Key Principles from DDI’s Foundation Subscription leadership development program provide an easy to learn and apply framework for the appropriate level of EQ in every interaction.

Some companies have taken the five Key Principles all the way to the corner office. Others have also implemented Mastering Emotional Intelligence, a course in DDI’s leadership development program for mid-level managers. This course is more immersive on the subject, exploring why people behave and react in certain ways. Leaders learn about emotional triggers—both their own and those of the people they interact with.

But what makes developing EQ easier for some leaders? Raising EQ is easier when leaders want to get better at it. But it also helps when leaders have a safe environment to practice, where feedback is built in.

For example, one VP of HR was determined to change. He asked his direct reports to say "ouch" every time he missed an opportunity to show EQ. In his first all-day meeting with his team, he had 300 "ouches." In his next meeting three weeks later, he had none! By becoming more mindful of EQ and practicing ways to get better, he was able to greatly improve.

How Does EQ Change with Higher Levels of Leadership?

Another interesting finding from High-Resolution Leadership is that as leaders move up in the company, they tend to rely more on execution behaviors and less on engagement. And it’s hard to have engagement without EQ.

Remember the example I gave at the opening of this blog? That leader had tipped the scales too far to one side. The solution? Tipping the scales back towards engagement by spending some time talking to his team to make them feel valued and appreciated.

But emotional intelligence in leadership is important no matter where people are on the organization chart. Even CEOs benefit from having high EQ.

So, the bottom line for having high emotional intelligence? Use it or lose it! Like any other skill, without practice and application, the behaviors associated with EQ will diminish over time.

Therefore, it’s important to not just develop EQ but to also spend time making sure leaders stay on top of their game. Without dedicated time for getting better, leaders are more likely to stall in their development or slip back into bad habits. For example, I know of one CEO who practices for every difficult meeting by using the interaction simulation from the Communicating for Leadership Success course to make sure he’s EQ ready for the challenge.

How Emotionally Intelligent Are Your Leaders?

Clues can come from many sources—employee engagement surveys, 360s, assessments, exit interviews, or performance data. It’s important to use this data to focus on improvement efforts.

But also remember that just as a concert pianist or a sports star practices the basics of their craft every day, leaders should do the same. They need to devote some of their 480 minutes each day to maintaining and developing core leadership skills like emotional intelligence.

Learn how DDI leadership courses can help your leaders develop their emotional intelligence.

Bruce Court partners with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy. He’s experienced in every facet of leadership strategy design, development, and execution. Outside of work, Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen. He loves eating at great restaurants, as well as sampling good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.

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