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How great leaders can improve emotional intelligence

Effective leadership is evolving.



The world of work has changed - and will keep changing - in ways we don’t even know yet. While many of the foundations of good leadership remain, what makes a great leader is not the same as it once was.

Once upon a time, leaders executed organisational strategy and delivered results through their teams using a command-and-control model. The manager/employee relationship played out as a supervisor/subordinate situation with an ideas/execution workflow.


Today, there are very few workplaces and teams that resemble that model.


Today’s workplace is characterised by flatter structures, highly cross-functional working, agile and technology-enabled processes and a high degree of collaboration and partnership - across all levels in an organisation.


Effective leadership is about relationships - and how a leader can motivate and inspire people.


As Simon Sinek puts it:



“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”.



While all leaders need experience, technical skills and cognitive intelligence; emotional intelligence is an important quality that sets a great leader apart.



What is emotional intelligence - and why is it important?


Emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient, often referred to as EQ) is our capacity to be aware of, control and express our emotions.


Emotional intelligence is the ‘other’ type of intelligence - quite distinct from IQ or general intelligence - which is much more tangible and measurable.


While IQ is generally accepted as a measurement of our ability to process information and come to sound decisions, EQ is our ability to process emotions.


Neuroscience tells us that our emotional brain overpowers our rational brain ie emotional responses are faster than cognitive (thinking) responses. Quite simply, humans are ‘hard-wired’ for emotional response.


Emotional intelligence plays a significant role in interpersonal relationships. People with high EQ are more likely to stay calm under pressure, resolve conflict effectively and respond to co-workers with empathy.


EQ is a strong indicator of performance and success in all aspects of life and has been linked to increased sales, productivity and bottom-line results.


It’s no surprise that recent research suggests that employers value EQ over IQ.


The term emotional intelligence was coined in 1990 by psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer before science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote extensively about this topic. Goleman’s work popularised emotional intelligence and described EQ as having five key elements:


  1. Self-awareness

  2. Self-regulation

  3. Motivation

  4. Empathy

  5. Social skills

In 2004, Goleman told Harvard Business Review:


“It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter.. but they are entry-level requirements for executive positions.



The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: They all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence”.


According to Harvard Business Review, emotional intelligence accounts for nearly 90% of what sets high performers apart from peers with similar technical skills and knowledge.



7 ways great leaders can improve their EQ


Building emotional intelligence is completely different from improving other skills. It’s a subtle, ongoing process. While our IQ doesn’t change significantly during our lifetime, EQ can evolve with our personal growth and development.


In the workplace, consider each person in your team, each stakeholder, client, situation and challenge as an opportunity to test and develop your EQ. Here are some practical tips to get you started.



1. Observe and examine


Self-awareness is a key element of emotional intelligence. This starts with observing and reflecting on your feelings and how you react to these feelings, as well as people and situations at work. Really examining these things will build awareness of how you handle stressful situations and how your actions and reactions might affect others.



2. Evaluate


This is about understanding yourself and your own behaviour. Take time to understand what you’re doing - and how you feel about it. No one is perfect. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is an important part of EQ. Working to improve yourself takes courage and can be incredibly powerful. Ask yourself: What are my emotional strengths? What are my weaknesses? How does my current mood affect my thoughts and decision making? When I am triggered, how does my behaviour change? Self-evaluation can yield valuable insights.


3. Pause and regulate


Once you have built some self-awareness and you have an understanding of your own thoughts, feelings and stressors, you can strive to control them. This can be as simple as:


  • Pausing and thinking before you act or react
  • Choosing to respond rather than react
  • Learning to channel emotions
  • Taking responsibility for your actions and reactions
  • Being open to feedback



4. Be positive and motivated


A positive attitude and energy will have a ripple effect on the people around you. Great leaders are motivated and resilient in the face of challenge and see feedback and criticism as a chance to learn. A motivated leader will naturally create motivation in others.



5. Practice humility


Great leaders don’t seek recognition or attention for their own accomplishments, they give praise and let others shine. As a leader, when you commend the work of others, you’re making an important connection and building trust. ‘Seeing’ and acknowledging others will inspire them (and their teammates) to be the best they can be.



6. Practice empathy


Strive to see things from others’ perspective. Not only is empathy key to effective problem solving, but recognising emotions in others shows emotional strength (not weakness).



7. Focus on your social skills


Emotionally-intelligent leaders have very strong social skills. They’re approachable, authentic and clear communicators. Here are some ways you can focus on your social skills:


  • Smile
  • Listen to understand
  • Ensure you understand before you respond
  • Be mindful of how you communicate and your vocabulary
  • Give helpful feedback
  • If you are in a meeting with someone, put your phone away
  • Always keep your word
  • Apologise (emotionally-intelligent leaders know that saying sorry doesn’t mean you’re wrong - it means you value your relationships more than your ego).



Emotional intelligence is the ‘other’ type of smart.


Not only is it a key leadership trait - it’s what sets a great leader apart from the rest.

We hope you found these practical tips useful to improve your emotional intelligence - and help take your career to the next level.


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