How to Develop Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Skills

emotionally intelligent leadership

Even if you weren’t class valedictorian or the star of the school sports team, you can excel as an amazing leader.  By utilizing emotionally intelligent leadership along with your professional intellect, you can give yourself a definite advantage to shine.

Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Is More Important than you Realized

Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves explain in their book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” that emotional intelligence “accounts for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs. It’s the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence.”

Wow. That’s huge.

And perhaps the most surprising (and motiving) of all, a Talentsmart study shared the following statistic about how emotional intelligence correlates with income:

“…90% of top performers are also high in emotional intelligence….  You can be a top performer without emotional intelligence, but the chances are slim. Naturally, people with a high degree of emotional intelligence make more money—an average of $29,000 more per year than people with a low degree of emotional intelligence. The link between emotional intelligence and earnings is so direct that every point increase in emotional intelligence adds $1,300 to an annual salary. These findings hold true for people in all industries, at all levels, in every region of the world. We haven’t yet been able to find a job in which performance and pay aren’t tied closely to emotional intelligence.”

Holy cow – who knew?!

So there’s strong evidence that if you want to do well in your career, improving your emotional intelligence is a great place to focus.

With all this talk of emotional intelligence and research touting its correlation to professional success, it’s worthwhile to examine more closely and leverage its power.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

In 1990, Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term Emotional Intelligence, and defined it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”

Basically, emotional intelligence helps you be more aware of how situations make you feel, how others might feel, and increases your ability to adapt your behavior accordingly.

Emotional intelligence helps you do the following:

  • recognize and manage your own emotions
  • recognize, respond to, or influence other’s emotions

In his book “Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman explains that it’s easy for information to bypass the brain’s neocortex, which is responsible for rational thought. When this happens, we react suddenly based purely on emotion. Knee-jerk reactions can result in poor results. Yelling at a co-worker before thinking things through can even result in termination.

However, we know that emotions are beneficial in many obvious ways. They enrich our experiences. They solidify learning by associating actions with feelings. For example, touching a hot stove can cause pain. Loving our children ensures we care for them.

Yet it’s important to have a balance between emotions and reason.

How Emotional Intelligence Applies to Leadership

Teams rely on leaders for guidance and motivation.  If a leader lacks emotional intelligence, it will impact the team in negative ways, such as low morale, conflict, and resistance to change.

Great leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence can inspire teams to perform their best.

Emotionally intelligent leadership seems to be the key to leading and inspiring others.


To get a clearer idea of what emotionally intelligent leadership looks like in practice, see the following list of behaviors.

Emotionally intelligent leaders generally…

  1. Are aware of their emotions. Leaders who ignore their emotions are not aware of how their behavior can impact others. Emotionally intelligent leaders instead are aware of their emotions and assess how they feel before immediately reacting in a situation.
  2. Are aware of other’s emotions. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are sensitive to the emotions of others. They consider this in their communications and manage team communications accordingly.
  3. Allow team members to get credit and accolades. They allow team members to get credit for work well-done. They give positive feedback and public recognition and allow others to shine.
  4. Don’t take things too personally. They don’t automatically get defensive when criticized. They realize that feedback is not usually personal, and are open to hearing feedback and input from others.
  5. Value different perspectives. They understand that being open to hearing different opinions and viewpoints can help them improve and grow.
  6. Know their limitations and are not afraid to ask for help. Ego does not get in the way of getting help from others.
  7. Empower others by seeking to help others grow and thriveThey are not intimidated or afraid of others succeeding.
  8. Promote teamwork.  They respect teammates working towards a group goal and are open to collaboration.
  9. Focus on items that are more important and don’t get bogged down in trivial matters. They can assess demands and allocate attention accordingly.
  10. Motivate teams. They can inspire others to work toward a common goal.  
  11. Build trust by seeking to understand how others feel and acknowledge those feelings.
  12. Are good negotiators.  By listening and seeking to understand differing perspectives, they are better equipped to negotiate for positive outcomes.
  13. Are good at managing conflict. They can understand not only the reasoning behind arguments, but the emotions at play, and factor this into respectful communication that helps resolve disagreement.
  14. Are good at change management. They understand that change can be difficult for teams. They help the team gain insight and motivation needed to accept change.
  15. Handle stress in healthy ways. They’re better able to discern how they feel and manage those feelings. Therefore, they’re less vulnerable to allowing stress to dominate and negatively impact them.
  16. Are self-motivated to work toward goals.  They can channel the appropriate emotions needed for motivation in various situations. For example, they might call up anxiety to improve focus on an important deliverable, or confidence before making a presentation.
  17. Are adaptive problem solvers.  They consider how different choices will impact their internal states.
  18. Are pleasant to be around and can make others feel better.  By understanding their emotions and reading the emotions of others, they can adjust behavior and act in the most appropriate manner during interactions. They give others their attention and make them feel valued.
  19. Are accessible to their teams. They recognize that team members may need them as a resource for any number of reasons, and make themselves available to support the team by answering questions, helping to remove roadblocks, etc.
  20. Understand that team members have lives outside of work. They understand that teams are made up of people with situations outside of work, such as family illnesses or children’s school plays. They respect that family responsibilities are important and respect those needs.
  21. Are accountable for their actions.  They acknowledge their mistakes and take ownership of their role in situations, rather than simply blaming others.
  22. Are optimistic. They exhibit persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.  Being able to find the positive and look at potential upsides of a situation can help manage reactionary emotions.
  23. Pick up on power structures and relationships within groups. People with emotional intelligence can read the body language and dynamics of a group to get a good understanding of the power structure and relationships.
  24. Are sensitive to customers’ needs. Because they recognize the importance of others’ feelings, this extends to customers as well.
  25. Creatively solve problems – Some studies (such as here and here) show that positive moods may positively impact creativity and problem solving.

Now that you know what emotionally intelligent leadership looks like, it’s time to learn how to develop or strengthen your own emotional intelligence. If you want to increase your leadership abilities through emotionally intelligent leadership, READ ON…


I’ll organize the ways of developing emotionally intelligent leadership using the four categories suggested by Daniel Goleman in his article “Daniel Goleman: How Emotionally Intelligent Are You?”:

1.     Self-awareness – you’re aware of your emotions – the first step in being able to regulate them.

2.     Self-management – you’re able to manage internal states and impulses. This helps to reduce stress and interact with others more calmly.

3.     Empathy and Social Awareness – you’re able to sense the emotions of others by observation and communication.

4.     Relationship Management – you’re able to maintain healthy relationships through respect and positive interaction. This can build trust and create more positive interactions with others.

Self-Awareness for Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Self-awareness is the ability to understand your emotions to the extent that you don’t become overwhelmed by them or controlled by them.

You likely know that events can influence your emotions. But even unrelated events can impact how you feel about things. Being aware that you might be frustrated because of an unrelated event can help you keep those feelings under control. For example, if your daughter broke her cereal bowl at breakfast, and couldn’t find her shoes before leaving for school, you might be frustrated even later in the day. Being emotionally aware of this can help prevent you allowing that to impact your day.

The following activities can help you develop more self-awareness if this is an area you would benefit from improving.

  1. Recognize how you feel and name your feelings. This can help you manage them better.
  2. Notice what’s going on in your body to quickly identify feelings of stress. Being aware of sensations in your body will give you early clues to your emotions. Tension in the shoulders or tightness in the chest or stomach can indicate stress.
  3. Document your feelings.  You could simply use a notebook for this. There are also numerous digital apps and software that allow you to do this.
  4. Develop self-awareness of your emotions and moods. Is it a bad mood, based on something that happened earlier in the day, or is it an emotion based on the current situation? Your impatience may have nothing to do with what’s happening in the moment but related to something else. Determine if you’re really just tired or hungry instead of really upset.
  5. If the feeling is uncomfortable, don’t simply dismiss it. There may be something to be learned from examining the feeling in the current situation.

Self-Management for Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Self-management is the ability to manage internal states and impulses.  

You don’t make rash decisions because of your emotions. If something causes you to feel angry, pausing before reacting and considering the impacts of your actions can keep you from doing something you might regret later.

The following activities can help you develop better self-management if this is an area you would benefit from improving.

  1. Don’t stuff your feelings, but rather find constructive, healthy ways of dealing with them. In a moment of extreme anger, you might write a letter that you destroy, or share your feelings about a work situation for feedback with your spouse. I taught my daughter that if she ever gets so angry with me that she wants to say terrible things, she can first write them down and put the paper in the shredder if she wants, and then we can talk about it after she calms down.
  2. Be aware of triggers that can cause feelings of stress. Be aware of what causes certain feelings and reactions. Knowing that a situation triggers a certain feeling can help you manage your reaction. Identify times you’ve felt this way in the past and see if there are any linkages or commonalities. The past situation may give you clues as to why you react a certain way in the current situation.
  3. Emotions are usually caused by thoughts. Examine your thoughts and consider different perspectives or ideas. For example, when I’m cut off in traffic by someone driving too fast, I remember that I don’t really know their motivations. It could be that their spouse is injured and they’re hurrying to get to them. This keeps me from feeling upset in the moment – a feeling that won’t benefit me in that situation.
  4. Find ways to manage these feelings of stress, anger, etc. You might take some time to calm down by going for a walk or taking deep breaths.
  5. Have an inner dialogue – or self-talk – to help you shift your approach if you’re feeling upset. This relates to the item above regarding managing your thoughts, too.
  6. Don’t hold grudges or cling to negative feelings from the past.
  7. Focus on the positive when it is appropriate and can be helpful. When trying to deal with an unavoidable situation, like a big change mandated by executives, rather than dreading it and assuming it will be bad, seek to find the positive in the situation. You’ll better adapt and be a positive model for your team.
  8. Self-induce motivation. If you are having trouble getting or staying motivated on a goal, ask yourself why you want it. Examining the “why” can reignite your focus or passion.
  9. Manage non-verbal communication that might send negative messages. Facial expressions or crossing your arms may send a message contrary to what you want to convey.
  10. Accept responsibility. When you’ve played a role in a situation acknowledge it and don’t blame others.
  11. Be mindful of your feelings and what triggers them. Not only negative emotions but what can bring on feelings of calm or happiness. There will be times that being able to rely on those activities or even memories can be a good resource.
  12. Make your words match your body language. Others will pick up on inconsistencies. If you say you like a teammate’s report, yet you scowl and put your head in your hands, they’ll be very aware that you may not mean what you say.
  13. If you are upset, take time to cool off and decrease the intensity of your emotion before reacting to a situation.
  14. Get enough rest to manage stress.

Never react emotionally to criticism. Analyze yourself to determine whether it is justified. If it is, correct yourself. Otherwise, go on about your business. 

Norman Vincent Peale

Empathy and Social Awareness for Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Empathy can help you imagine how others might feel and they might react to situations.

Using empathy can help guide your approach to gain agreement or inspire behavior change.

The following activities can help you develop more empathy for greater emotionally intelligent leadership.

  1. Seek to understand how others feel. Look at their eyes and mouth for clues to emotions.
  2. Look at other indicators that might give clues to people’s reactions or moods, such as how others are positioning their bodies. Are they turned toward you, or turning away indicating a desire to end a conversation?
  3. Really listen when teammates or co-workers are talking with you.
  4. Pay attention.  Being aware of situations, interactions, and actions that lead up to a situation can give you insight and more information.
  5. Attune to the emotional atmosphere. Pay attention to the emotional atmosphere in the office or the group. There will be clues and if you take the time, you’ll pick up if the group is stressed or worried.  Additionally, it could be that one very negative person is impacting the atmosphere for everyone. Being aware of this can help you address it.
  6. Relate to how others might feel.  If someone is sharing information or self-disclosing about a difficult situation and you find it hard to relate, recall a time when you may have felt similar.
  7. When you identify what others might be feeling, convey understanding and empathy.
  8. To show others that you understand their feelings, you can mirror their body language to make them more comfortable and feel more understood.

Relationship Management for Emotionally Intelligent Leadership

Relationship-management is the ability to engage in positive and respectful interactions with others, despite disagreements or external factors.

Leaders are able to maintain healthy relationships through respect and positive interaction.

Being able to effectively communicate a vision and motivate others can lead to success and positive outcomes.

The following activities can help you improve relationship management for greater emotionally intelligent leadership.

  1. Think before you act. Consider how your action might impact the situation.
  2. Choose how you react. Remember that you may not have control over how others act, but you can control how you react. Adjust your behavior accordingly.
  3. If someone seems upset, adjust your message or tone to more closely match their feelings to show you understand.
  4. Ensure others feel heard. Use phrases such as “I hear your frustration…” or “I understand your concern….”
  5. Be non-judgemental – don’t point fingers or blame.
  6. Develop and nurture relationships by getting face-time. Don’t rely solely on email. Having face-to-face communication helps build relationships.
  7. Encourage team members to contribute to project success. Everyone has strengths and wants to feel valuable.
  8. Focus on team success rather than your individual success.
  9. Consider what is needed from you. If the situation calls for excitement when a teammate has won an award, do you best to muster some even if you’re not feeling it.  If a co-worker is sharing pictures of her cat, and you really don’t care, at least pretend a little.

And to round this out, another piece of advice:

  • Balance your emotional and logical sides.  In their book “Leadership on the line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leadership”, Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky talk about “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony”. It’s valuable to step back from an emotional situation and get a broader perspective of what’s going on. Observing behaviors and environmental situations, assessing and making decisions based on the information, requires a balance of both reason and emotional understanding. This gives you clear view of what’s going on and broad perspective. You’ll be better equipped to manage the situation.

Exercises for Developing Emotional Intelligence

Just for fun, to add to this resource, I wanted to share some exercises suggested in the book The Emotionally Intelligent Manager: How to Develop and Use the Four Key Emotional Skills of Leadership 1st Edition, David R. Caruso (Author), Peter Salovey (Author). You might find these intriguing.

–       People watching – Subtly observe interactions between others and try to discern what’s happening.

–       Watching a moving with the sound off and writing down what you think is occurring. I have a love of Bollywood films and can follow the general story by watching the emotions played out.

–       Expressing emotions in front of a mirror to see if your expressions convey what you’re trying to. I used to play this game with my daughter when she was tiny, kind of like charades.

Possible Downside to High Emotional Intelligence

Janae Ernst makes the case that if you naturally possess this gift, you may be prone to engaging in negative behaviors. For example, you may make decisions because you feel sorry for someone rather than using sound judgment. Be aware of this possibility. Years ago, a dear friend stayed with a boyfriend simply because she felt sorry for him. This wasn’t healthy for either of them.


When considering leadership skills and ways to develop professionally, keep emotional intelligence high on your radar. It’s a valuable trait that can help you be recognized as a great leader. Emotionally intelligent leadership is just as important as domain or institutional knowledge, and rounding out your skill set will give you a definite advantage.

For additional reading on leadership, check out Top Leadership Skills and How to Develop Them

Photo credit Amy Hirschi – Unsplash

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