Mon. May 20th, 2024

What is EI and why does it matter?

Emotional intelligence is defined as a critical group of non-cognitive skills, capabilities and competencies which help individuals to control and manage their emotional response to events and pressures. The EI guru of gurus is Daniel Goleman. He and numerous other researchers suggest it’s EI that makes the difference between a truly effective leader – and the rest. Intelligence (IQ) and technical skills are important for leaders too, but they are essentially threshold capabilities – entry level requirements for executive positions. Once in that position, it is emotional intelligence that makes the difference.

What does emotional intelligence in leadership look like?

According to Goleman there are 5 EI competencies: Motivation, Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Social skills and Empathy. These competencies are critical to being a successful leader, and are demonstrated through leadership behaviours. Think about the very best leader you can – what makes them so good? When we ask participants to do this in our leadership development programmes, typical responses include:

  • Leaders lead by example, inspiring, not afraid of difficult stuff, focused and driven (motivation)
  • Leaders are confident, honest, direct, consistent (self-awareness)
  • Leaders are clear, decisive, straight forward, intuitive (self-regulation)
  • Leaders are good communicators, approachable and listen to others (social skills)
  • Leaders are empathetic, influential (empathy)

Clearly these traits go well beyond IQ and knowledge. The best leaders show these traits through their words and actions, demonstrating their emotional intelligence.

How do leaders use Emotional Intelligence?

Successful leadership is about being effective in three ways: leading self, leading others, and leading the organisation.

Leading self

Successful leaders know that they are not perfect. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and strive for continuous improvement. A Chief Executive that does not acknowledge their own flaws or blind spots, who tries to do everything by him- or herself, doesn’t learn from mistakes and is unable to delegate, will soon be derailed. If you’re self-aware as a leader you can work to overcome your weaknesses either through personal development and learning new skills, or by empowering others and using their skills. Motivation is equally important here. Having goals to work towards, and setting high standards for yourself, means acknowledging that there will be obstacles along the way. As a leader, this means constantly challenging yourself, finding ways round the obstacles, and picking yourself up when things go wrong. And you need self-regulation to manage your emotions as a leader. Leadership is tough. So having the ability to keep calm, deal well with pressure and stay optimistic is vital. Mastering leadership of self requires admitting you’re not perfect and striving for improvement.

Leading others

Leaders know that they need other people – after all, leadership doesn’t mean a lot without followership. Being personally motivated isn’t enough – leaders need to unlock the potential of others. This means understanding what matters to people, what their motivations are and how these motivations relate to the purpose of the organisation. Not everyone is the same which makes social skills are important . Successful leaders understand that they need to be flexible and adaptable, as well as able to read and understand others. You need to spend time with different teams, and not just your direct reports. As a leader you don’t have to be the master of all trades, but you do need to be willing to listen, to respect the expertise of others and to change your mind, if it’s appropriate. And in this time of change, you need to be able to demonstrate real empathy to undertake the most difficult workplace conversations with tact and sensitivity.


Leading organisations

Successful leaders know how to inspire others. Leadership means being visionary, keeping in mind at all times the bigger picture. Leaders can articulate that big picture to others – and the best leaders help people to see their role in that big picture. They also hold themselves and their organisation accountable to that goal. The goal is what is important, not personal gain or success. Leaders need to build strong relationships with boards, partners, stakeholders and even competitors to reach organisational goals. They demonstrate political astuteness, recognising that power and influence in organisations does not work in neat hierarchical lines. They ensure success through influencing and by networking. Mastering leadership of organisations requires inspiration, accountability and relationship building.



To develop your leadership skills, you don’t need to be a robot and turn your emotions off, but rather to focus on interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Being an effective leader is about technical skill, strategic thinking and knowledge. Being a great leader also requires emotional intelligence.

Next steps

You can find a fuller explanation about EI – and the work of Daniel Goleman and other academics in observing and codifying EI – in Emotional Intelligence at Work.

If you’ve found this article helpful and you would like speak to one of our experienced consultants about our Leadership or Emotional Intelligence development programmes, 



By Rachel

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