Why Emotional Intelligence Has Become a Key Leadership Skill: 5 Key Attributes

Joseph Pineiro


People are naturally attracted to leaders who are perceptive, empathetic, controlled, self-aware and willing to take responsibility for their actions.

In other words, emotional intelligence has always been a key leadership skill.

However, it’s only been in the last 30 years or so that we’ve been able to articulate the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders. It’s been even more recently that we’ve begun to consciously cultivate emotional intelligence in management.

What qualities make a person emotionally intelligent? What’s the relationship between emotional intelligence and effective leadership? Most importantly, can people learn and practice emotional intelligence, or is it a fixed trait?

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

If the traditional concept of intelligence means you’re proficient at acquiring and applying information, then emotional intelligence means you’re proficient at recognizing and managing emotions. Sometimes abbreviated EI or EQ (as a play on IQ), emotionally intelligent leaders can apply these skills to themselves and the people around them.

The theory of emotional intelligence was popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman. In a 1998 Harvard Business Review article called “What Makes a Leader?”, he broke down emotional intelligence into five key elements:

  • Self-awareness: recognizing your own emotions and their impacts on yourself and others.
  • Self-regulation: managing your emotions to produce a more positive outcome.
  • Motivation: possessing internal motivations that are independent of money, attention or advancement.
  • Empathy: understanding the emotions and perspectives of others.
  • Social skills: navigating communication, relationship-building and conflict resolution for a positive outcome.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important for Leadership?

To fully understand the benefits of emotional intelligence in leadership positions, we need to examine the value of all five components of emotional intelligence individually:

1. The Importance of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for self-regulation. Beyond recognizing your emotions in real time, self-awareness includes the ability to recognize the way your emotions impact your behavior and their effect on the people around you.

Self-aware leaders can recognize the consequences of their feelings, understand the tone they set in relationships, assess situations more objectively, and recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

2. The Importance of Self-Regulation

Another word for self-regulation is “self-control.” It includes the ability to stay calm in stressful situations and to manage your anger during interpersonal conflict. By doing so, you’re able to behave more constructively and express yourself appropriately.

Self-regulation is critical to building, rather than burning, bridges. Managers who can self-regulate rarely make impulsive decisions or engage in emotional outbursts. As a consequence, the people they lead can trust them to be predictable, fair and thoughtful about their actions.

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for self-regulation.

3. The Importance of Motivation

Internal motivation helps you focus on your goals, regardless of external feedback. It means staying motivated through setbacks and challenges and not becoming diverted from what matters most.

Emotionally intelligent leaders aren’t driven by external motivations like attention, money or advancement. Instead, they have an internal motivation, like the desire to learn, follow their personal values or achieve a vision. Their standards for assessing their own performance tend to be internal, as well.

Internally motivated leaders are also passionate leaders, and passionate leaders tend to have a contagious effect when it comes to motivation. They excel at sharing their vision and optimism, which improves employee morale, and they can push themselves and others to achieve more.

4. The Importance of Empathy

Empathy involves seeing things from another person’s perspective. Understanding why people behave and react the way they do can help you steer an outcome.

Empathetic leaders can resolve conflict and gauge fairness more accurately. Their perceptiveness also helps them head off conflict by recognizing or even anticipating the emotions of the people around them. They make the people who follow them feel cared for, supported and valued, which results in higher morale, motivation and job satisfaction. In turn, those feelings lead to increased employee engagement, achievement and retention.

5. The Importance of Social Skills

Leaders with excellent social skills are good at accurately conveying their thoughts and ideas to others and finding common ground. They also excel at resolving interpersonal conflict, nurturing trust and building strong relationships.

All five of these skills improve a manager’s effectiveness at setting team goals, overcoming obstacles and creating fruitful collaboration.

Can People Learn Emotional Intelligence?

Sometimes, effective leaders seem to have a magical ability when, in reality, they’re just proficient at a specific set of competencies and skills. The good news is that anyone can develop and improve those skills and competencies:

Leaders can improve their self-awareness by journaling; seeking honest feedback from others; and paying attention to their own thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

They can strengthen their ability to self-regulate by pausing to calm down before they respond, holding themselves accountable for their responses to emotional situations and consciously reframing distorted patterns of thinking.

They can increase their internal motivation by exploring the ways their job connects to their ideals and passions. They can also practice setting and achieving structured goals.

They can cultivate empathy by putting themselves in another person’s shoes, educating themselves on the perspectives and challenges of people who are different from them, and regularly considering others’ points of view. It’s also helpful to practice reading emotional “tells” through body language, tone, word choice and other cues.

They can improve their social skills by practicing verbal and non-verbal communication skills, learning active listening and conflict resolution techniques, and trying to show a genuine interest in others.

Developing Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Effectiveness

Effective leadership, whether it’s in the context of managing a team or leading an organization, requires a broad range of skills, all of which require practice. It’s easy to neglect emotional intelligence in favor of more concrete skills like time management or budgeting. However, the five components of emotional intelligence are the foundation for inspiring, motivating and earning the loyalty of others.

The five components of emotional intelligence are the foundation for inspiring, motivating and earning the loyalty of others.