UPDATED: September 19, 2023
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2023
Photograph of a Black man leading his colleagues through a presentation, speaking with his hands to demonstrate emotional intelligence in leadership

Are you a leader? Do you want to be one? Then know this: You will need more than cognitive intelligence and technical expertise to get there and be successful at it. You also need emotional intelligence—maybe even more so than that impressive IQ. And you might be surprised at how vital mastering emotional intelligence, or EQ, in leadership can be to your overall success

Emotional intelligence refers to your capacity to handle internal and external emotions. If you have a high EQ, you’re able to recognize your own emotions and keep them under control. You’re also able to recognize the emotions of others and respond to those emotions in a healthier, more productive way. 

Becoming a better leader is completely under your control, and it’s a matter of emotional intelligence. You might think that emotional intelligence is an inherent quality, present due to genetics or personal history. But unlike innate, fixed characteristics, such as your IQ, EQ is a flexible skill that you can improve. You can develop and hone emotional intelligence over time with the help of good habits and dedication.

Why should leaders master emotional intelligence?

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., enumerates the specific components of emotional intelligence as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. These components can help you perceive nuance and communicate and behave more intelligently. They can also make or break your ability to lead with clarity and competence. 

Here are five reasons everyone in a leadership role must master emotional intelligence:

1. The ability to develop strong relationships is critical.

As a leader, your ability to cultivate relationships by developing rapport and managing long-term interactions will determine whether people feel drawn to you—and ultimately desire to work with you now or in the future. This is the “social skill” component of emotional intelligence.

We were created to connect, so the ability to develop healthy relationships is an important aspect of the human experience. You need this charismatic appeal to successfully connect, influence and lead others.

2. Communication impacts everything.

“It is simply impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator,” says Mike Myatt, a leadership adviser to Fortune 500 CEOs and author of Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual.

Without the ability to effectively communicate your vision and the way forward, it is difficult to lead or empower others to embrace change. As a leader, you are always poised to communicate. A keen awareness of your emotions, motivation and the susceptibility of others to your message is necessary to advance your value proposition and inspire others to take decisive steps forward.

3. Leaders develop others.

To effectively develop others, you must be able to identify nuances in behavior, discover areas of weakness and prescribe relevant solutions. But you cannot do any of these without self-awareness and empathy. Demonstrating these strong perceptive abilities can help you to establish and maintain credibility as you develop others.

Emotional intelligence in leadership also helps create the context for modeling the behavior you seek to develop in your team. By confronting your own strengths and weaknesses, you can create a more accurate blueprint for reflecting excellence.

4. Managing crises is par for the course.

Emotionally intelligent leaders not only perform well in crisis situations, they flourish. Because others depend on you for guidance and expertise—especially in times of uncertainty—understanding how your emotions affect your thinking and behavior is absolutely essential and will influence how well you navigate turbulence. Your ability to self-regulate, exercise flexibility and make good decisions in highly charged scenarios is the cornerstone of effective leadership.

5. Good decisions produce optimal results.

Leaders are always making critical decisions. But no decision is good if it’s not well-informed. And well-informed decisions are rooted in the tenets of emotional intelligence, especially in leadership.

By peeling back the layers of pretense and taking a closer look at elements that influence thinking, behavior and results, leaders will always have an opportunity to make better decisions that lead to optimal outcomes.

Ultimately, in leadership, those with high emotional intelligence are able to maintain better relationships with their team members, think clearer in stressful or emotional situations and come up with better ideas for how to manage personnel issues. 

Emotional intelligence traits that are necessary in leadership

These are some of the most important emotional intelligence traits and habits that are necessary for success in a leadership role—and make leaders more likable: 

1. They’re active listeners.

The most important tool in your arsenal is active listening: the practice of listening to others while remaining fully engaged. If you’re actively listening, you’re not distracted with your phone or other tasks. You’re also not simply waiting to talk. Instead, you’re investing your full attention into listening to what someone else has to say. This allows you to better understand their reasoning and motivation and better read their tone—which can help you interpret their emotions and find solutions that work for them.  

2. They form personal connections.

Even in a crowded room, those in leadership who have high emotional intelligence make people feel like they’re having a deep one-on-one conversation, as if they’re the only person in the room who matters. And, for that moment, they are. Likable leaders communicate on a personal, emotional level. Emotionally intelligent leaders never forget that there’s a flesh-and-blood human being standing in front of them.

3. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence have patience.

Emotionally intelligent leaders also practice patience. Too many leaders are action oriented, responding to questions, concerns and issues as quickly as possible. But leaders with high EQ are patient and comfortable allowing more time between a new situation and their response. This patience allows you more time to monitor and respond to your own emotions, making you calmer and more rational. It also helps you establish a calmer environment for your employees. 

4. They have empathy.

For most people, empathy occurs naturally; you can’t help but subjectively feel a shade of the emotions that others are feeling. For some people, this is challenging or impossible. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, you can make it a habit to practice “active empathy.” In other words, spend more time imagining how other people might feel given their personal circumstances. Can you see why they might be stressed, impatient or excited? The more you practice this, the easier it’s going to be. Some regard empathy as the most important skill a leader can have.

5. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence appreciate potential.

Robert Brault said, “Charisma is not so much getting people to like you as getting people to like themselves when you’re around.” Likable, emotionally intelligent leaders not only see the best in their people, but they also make sure everyone else sees it too. They draw out people’s talents so everyone is bettering themselves and the work at hand.

6. They’re approachable.

You know those people who only have time for you if you can do something for them? Likable, emotionally intelligent leaders truly believe that everyone, regardless of rank or ability, is worth their time and attention. They make everyone feel valuable because they believe that everyone is valuable.

7. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence pay attention to body language.

Although obviously difficult to quantify, Mehrabian’s Communication Model says that as much as 55% of communication is conveyed through body language. Accordingly, emotionally intelligent leaders actively pay attention to the body language of their employees. They know unspoken communication is often more important than the words people say. They note facial expressions, body language and tone of voice to understand what’s really going on with their people. An employee may tell them they’re fine with your decision or that they aren’t stressed, but their crossed arms and nervous hand wringing may tell a different story. Leaders with high emotional intelligence notice these subtle behavioral differences and note whether they’re an indication of a deeper sentiment. In other words, they have high social awareness—a critical EQ skill.

8. They’re humble.

Few things kill likability as quickly as arrogance. Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t act as if they’re better than you because they don’t think they’re better than you. Rather than being a source of prestige, they see their leadership position as additional accountability to serve those who follow them.

9. They’re positive.

Those in leadership who have emotional intelligence typically maintain a positive outlook and this shows in how they describe things. They don’t have to give a presentation to the board of directors; they get to share their vision and ideas with the board. Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t have to go on a plant tour; they get to meet and visit with the people who make their company’s products. They don’t even have to diet; they get to experience the benefits of eating healthfully. Even in undeniably negative situations, likable, emotionally intelligent leaders emanate an enthusiastic hope for the future, a confidence that they can help make tomorrow better than today.

10. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence regularly meditate.

There are many ways to meditate, but most of them serve the same purpose: giving you greater awareness of the present moment and greater control over your own thoughts and feelings. Meditation isn’t something that provides you with immediate benefits. Instead, these must be cultivated over time with consistent practice. If you practice meditation for just 10 or 15 minutes per day, eventually you’ll become more in tune with your own thoughts and feelings. Many studies have found a strong correlation between meditation and emotional control, which can help you stay calm and rational even in demanding situations. 

11. They’re even-keeled.

When it comes to their own accomplishments and failures, those in leadership with high emotional intelligence take things in stride. They don’t toot their own horns, nor do they get rattled when they make mistakes. Emotionally intelligent leaders savor success without letting it go to their heads and readily acknowledge failure without getting mired in it. They learn from both and move on.

12. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence are generous.

We’ve all worked for someone who constantly holds something back, whether it’s knowledge or resources. They act as if they’re afraid you’ll outshine them if they give you access to everything you need to do your job. Likable, emotionally intelligent leaders are unfailingly generous with who they know, what they know and the resources they have. They want you to do well more than anything else because they understand this is their job as a leader. Plus, they’re confident enough to never worry that your success might make them look bad. In fact, they believe that your success is their success.

13. They regularly journal.

Along similar lines, emotionally intelligent leaders often practice journaling or a similar habit that allows them to confront and sort out their personal thoughts and feelings. This is important for recognizing and controlling your own emotions, but can also help you process what you observe in the members of your team. For example, through personal writing, leaders might reach realizations about team members’ motivations and feelings of an unproductive co-worker; this can lead you to more thoughtful and more successful resolutions. 

14. Those in leadership with emotional intelligence have work-life balance.

Emotionally intelligent leaders also realize the importance of work-life balance and practice it in their lives while supporting it in the lives of their employees. They’re willing to take breaks and walk away from high-stress situations, and they aren’t afraid to take vacations to avoid burnout. They also prioritize healthy habits like sleep, exercise and a balanced diet—which allows them and their teams to stay more stable, both mentally and emotionally. 

15. They demonstrate integrity.

Likable leaders who have high emotional intelligence inspire trust and admiration through their actions, not just their words. Many leaders say integrity is important to them, but emotionally intelligent leaders walk the talk by demonstrating integrity every day. Even an emotionally intelligent leader who oozes charm won’t be likable if that charm isn’t backed by a solid foundation of integrity.

16. They have substance.

Daniel Quinn said, “Charisma only wins people’s attention. Once you have their attention, you have to have something to tell them.” Emotionally intelligent leaders understand their knowledge and expertise are critical to the success of everyone who follows them. Therefore, they regularly connect with people to share their substance (as opposed to superficial small talk). Likable leaders don’t puff themselves up or pretend to be something they’re not because they don’t have to. They have substance, and they share it with their people.

Emotional intelligence isn’t just for those in leadership

Emotional intelligence isn’t only helpful for leaders; almost anyone can benefit from having a higher EQ. Accordingly, part of a leader’s responsibility is educating their team members about the value of EQ and helping them establish habits like those listed above. 

Make emotional intelligence a higher priority in your organization and you’ll all stand to reap the rewards. 

This article was originally published in March 2015 and has been updated. Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Jayson DeMers is the founder and CEO of EmailAnalytics, a productivity tool that connects to your Gmail or G Suite account and visualizes your email activity—or that of your employees.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue chip experience in law, business and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, her expert insights help clients to successfully navigate today's ever-changing and competitive global business environment. Karima is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised For Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As an extension of her work, she speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the co-founder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His best-selling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry is a top LinkedIn Influencer and he has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.