Leadership & Professional Development

Why it’s so important for leaders to learn and use emotional intelligence

September 25, 2019 7:18 pm
  • Emotional intelligence is a factor that separates successful leaders from those who struggle in their roles.
  • Unlike cognitive capacity, emotional intelligence can be nurtured and learned.
  • People with high emotional intelligence are self-aware, empathetic and optimistic.
  • A good first step to improve emotional intelligence is to engage in active listening.

Emotional intelligence, an emerging must-have trait of leaders, differs from other types of intelligence in that it can be learned. That means anyone can become more emotionally intelligent and, in turn, more effective as leaders.

In contrast, cognitive capacity has been proven to be something you have or don’t have. You can accumulate knowledge, but you cannot become “smarter” because of the added knowledge.

For leaders looking to develop themselves, become more effective and reach more people with greater impact, emotional intelligence is a vital tool set.

Missed opportunities to use emotional intelligence

Unfortunately, many leaders either don’t exhibit emotional intelligence or don’t understand its power. They may lack an understanding of how they present themselves and how their behavior affects their message (e.g., thinking a meeting went well before receiving feedback suggesting they were disorganized, dogmatic and off-point). They may talk more than they listen.

Even leaders who have high emotional intelligence may not use those skills in certain settings. They may come into a meeting with their minds already made up, for example, not wanting to hear what the other side has to say. They may try to dominate the meeting with their point of view. As a tool set to be used, emotional intelligence can be “left on the bench” at the wrong times, especially when there is low awareness as to the power of this tool set.

The biggest obstacles to achieving emotional intelligence include:

  • Impulsivity: Displaying behavior that’s characterized by little or no forethought, reflection or consideration of the consequences
  • Failure to actively listen: Hearing something without the intention of responding to it or listening only with the intention to respond from your perspective
  • Lack of self-reflection: Not being aware of why you act or make decisions the way you do

Characteristics indicating emotional intelligence

When engaging with others, emotional intelligence helps you be more in tune with how you can bring your best, most appropriate self to your interactions.

For example, if your team is experiencing change fatigue due to the sheer number of change initiatives you have been forced to activate, that is not the time to tap into your fiery side and give a motivational speech about doing better. Such an approach may cause your team to resist and disengage. Instead, drawing on your ability to listen and empathize will provide a respite and space to breathe so the team can return to the work feeling heard, seen and supported.

Traits that indicate emotional intelligence include:

  • Self-awareness: Being conscious of your character, feelings, motives and desires
  • Empathy: Sensing other people’s emotions and inferring what they might be thinking or feeling
  • Optimism: Remaining hopeful and resilient despite occasional setbacks

Developing and practicing emotional intelligence

Most people aren’t going to develop emotional intelligence overnight, but active listening and thinking before responding are good starting points. It’s important to let others speak without focusing on what you’re going to say next, to truly listen to what they tell you. Notice their inflection and body language. Allow yourself time to understand how the conversation is making you feel and why you feel that way.

After a moment of reflection, think about the best thing to say next. You don’t want to simply say something to fill the silence, and you don’t want to go along just to get along. Stick to your convictions, but also be cognizant of what you’re feeling in the moment and how best to express those feelings. By supporting your convictions with appropriate emotional tones, you can avoid creating a disconnect. One way to think about it is, “How do I get my point across in a way that leads to a supportive and productive outcome for both me and those with whom I’m attempting to connect?”

Modeling these behaviors to your team or department members can inspire them to adopt the same approaches.

Practical steps to higher emotional intelligence

Whether you are confident you have strong emotional intelligence or know it’s something you need to work on, conducting an emotional intelligence profile of yourself is worthwhile. This step entails answering questions that describe certain situations or impressions you have of yourself or others. Among the many types of assessments, our experience suggests a few are getting traction and positive responses in the healthcare field. Examples are the EQ-I 2.0 and the MSCEIT.

In addition, seek out reading material about successful business leaders and political leaders, specifically those who have experienced significant hardships and challenges and used their emotional intelligence capabilities to succeed. A useful book is Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, in which the authors present a compelling case that self-reflection and taking full responsibility for all aspects of your life and career can help you become a stronger and more emotionally intelligent leader.

Finally, those who are struggling with aberrant behaviors or personality traits can consider seeking counseling or coaching to help them overcome these issues and develop a higher level of emotional intelligence.

Evidence increasingly suggests that cognitive intelligence alone no longer suffices. Leaders who can provide clear thinking and solve complex problems are far more effective if they pair those skills with emotional self-awareness and the ability to empathize and connect with others. Why not develop and leverage both tool sets?


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