How much of an impact does emotional intelligence have on your professional success? The short answer is: a lot! It’s a powerful way to focus your energy in one direction with a tremendous result. TalentSmart tested emotional intelligence alongside 33 other important workplace skills and found that emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance1.

But it was not until 1985 that the term ‘emotional intelligence’ was first used in a doctoral dissertation by Wayne Payne2. In 1990, psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer published their landmark article, ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ in the journal ‘Imagination, Cognition, and Personality’3 with the concept further popularised by Dan Goleman in his 1995 book ‘Emotional Intelligence’.  

Since then, the theory has grown unusually fast. Emotional Intelligence is now rooted in the language of CEOs and managers, but it is still a young theory with immense potential to grow.
If emotional intelligence is such a key component in being a good and successful leader, are we saying good leaders did not exist or were not as good as they thought pre 1985 because they were not taught about emotional intelligence or are we simply giving a new label to something leaders have been doing for hundreds of years?  

There appears to be little doubt in today’s leadership community that emotional intelligence is an essential quality for leaders to possess. It refers to the ability to understand, manage, and express one's emotions effectively, as well as to perceive and respond to the emotions of others. Leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence are supposedly more successful in leading their teams, building relationships, and achieving their goals. Firstly, leaders with high emotional intelligence are deemed to be better able to communicate and connect with their team members. They can understand their team's emotions, motivations, and concerns, which helps them build trust and rapport with them. This leads to stronger relationships, increased engagement, and better performance from their team members. Secondly, leaders with high emotional intelligence are cited as being better at managing conflicts and resolving issues. They can recognize and regulate their own emotions, which allows them to approach problems with a calm and rational mindset. They are also more empathetic, which helps them understand the perspectives of others and find solutions that work for everyone. Lastly, leaders with high emotional intelligence are supposedly better at adapting to change and uncertainty. They can manage their emotions during stressful or challenging situations, which helps them stay focused and make sound decisions. They are also deemed to be more resilient, which allows them to prepare for, anticipate and bounce back from setbacks and lead their team through difficult times.

Given it is less than forty years old it is worth identifying what emotional intelligence is purported to be. Goleman (1995)4 suggests that there are five elements to emotional intelligence;

➢ Self-awareness which involves recognizing your own emotions and the impact they may have on others. Self-awareness also influences your moral compass and ability to lead by example.
➢ Self-regulation is about managing your emotions in order to be honest and accountable to yourself and others.
➢ Motivation, being decisive and trying to act on opportunities rather than shy away from any perceived threats.
➢ Empathy and trying to see something from someone else’s perspective; this is really difficult as we are all individuals so can never truly know how someone else feels and therefore can never show one hundred percent true empathy.
➢ Social skills such as being a good communicator, in short being a good ‘people person’.

Goleman claims these traits go well beyond intellect and knowledge with the best leaders demonstrating these traits through their words and actions, thus demonstrating their level of emotional intelligence. Goleman goes further to say that an emotionally intelligent leader will lead themselves, the team and the organisation. This concept sounds familiar to the principles of Adair’s action centred leadership model5 . This suggests leaders be accountable, maintain discipline and ethics, communicate and understand team members as individuals in order to manage the task, the team and themselves. Or in other words be a self-regulating, skilled communicator with a level of empathy. Add to this is the assumption that leaders will lead by example by default and therefore have a level of self-awareness. Emotional intelligence is essential for effective communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, and motivation, all of which are crucial elements of Adair's theory. A leader who possesses high levels of emotional intelligence is therefore more likely to be successful in implementing Adair's theory. These character traits enhance a leader's ability to balance the task, the team, and individual aspects of leadership. Therefore, it could be argued that within Adair’s model there were elements of emotional intelligence it was just wrapped up and presented differently as far back as the 1960s.  

Emotional intelligence has been shown to get people to work better together and more efficiently especially in flatter more dynamic organisations. As the British economy adapts to the ever-changing landscape of its challenges and influences then maybe this is why emotional intelligence is now front and centre of current leadership thinking and training. Maybe in the past the softer skills such as the self-awareness and self-regulation elements of emotional intelligence were there they were just deemed to be not as important as other elements such as motivation.  

Leadership is an essential trait that any organisation requires to attain its objectives but measuring leadership is a complex process as it involves assessing the skills, abilities, and qualities of a leader.  

Various tools and techniques can be used to measure leadership effectively. These include self-assessment questionnaires, peer evaluations, 360-degree feedback, and performance evaluations. Self-assessment questionnaires are an effective tool to measure leadership as they allow individuals to reflect on their leadership skills and identify areas of improvement. Peer evaluations involve assessing a leader's abilities by their colleagues, which provides a more comprehensive picture of the leader's effectiveness. 360-degree feedback involves obtaining feedback from various stakeholders, including superiors, subordinates, and peers, which provides a more holistic view of the leader's skills. Performance evaluations measure the leader's effectiveness in achieving organisational goals and objectives. This includes assessing the leader's ability to motivate and inspire their team, their decision-making skills, and their communication skills. It also involves evaluating the leader's ability to handle complex situations and adapt to changing circumstances. Measuring leadership is therefore a crucial aspect of any organisation. It is essential to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a leader to enhance their performance and achieve organisational goals. Mullins (2016)6 suggests emotional intelligence is not something people are born with but rather a learned capability that can be measured as part of a leader’s skill set with Landale (2007)7 citing “there seems little doubt leaders who have trained in emotional intelligence have far more initiative in dealing with organisational life than those who have not”. In terms of measuring emotional intelligence similar measures are used to that of measuring leadership including self-reporting, peer evaluations and 360-degree feedback. So, in terms of measuring emotional intelligence are we not simply using the same metrics we use to measure leadership but using a different vocabulary? That said some psychologists argue that emotional intelligence is not a valid construct as it cannot be accurately measured via psychometric testing and is therefore simply a description of an interpersonal skill (Psychology Today, 2021).

There is evidence to suggest that measuring emotional intelligence can be a good way to measure leadership. Emotional intelligence involves the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. This is an important skill for leaders to have as they must be able to connect with their team and motivate them towards a common goal. Research has shown that leaders with high emotional intelligence are more effective in their roles and are better able to navigate difficult situations. Therefore, measuring emotional intelligence can provide insight into a leader's potential for success. Despite Goleman’s claims that the most effective leaders all have a high degree of emotional intelligence Joseph and Newman (2010)8 claim this is not true of all leaders and high levels of emotional intelligence being linked to good leadership only prevails in certain industry sectors and jobs. They found that people in jobs that required attention to emotions, mainly those that involved interacting with other people, who had high levels of emotional intelligence tended to perform better than their peers.  However, when it came to people in jobs that were more technical or involved analysing data and relied less on human interaction, those with high levels of emotional intelligence were not the highest performers. In fact, in some cases, they were among the lowest performers therefore making emotional intelligence a liability rather than an asset. Maybe the link between being a good leader and having high levels of emotional intelligence very much depends upon the role the person is in rather than simply assuming the presence or absence of high levels of emotional intelligence makes someone a good leader. These conflicting views continue to fuel uncertainty about emotional intelligence as a viable construct as critics continue to disagree about its definition, means to measure it and whether it provides a meaningful way of predicting good leadership (Huynh, et al 2017)9.

Despite all the current hype about the importance and positive benefits of emotional intelligence it is worth considering the other side of the coin and the dark side of emotional intelligence. Evidence shows that when people hone their emotional skills, they become better at manipulating others. When you’re good at controlling your own emotions, you can disguise your true feelings. When you know what others are feeling, you can tug at their heartstrings and motivate them to act against their own best interests (Grant, 2014)10. Menges (2009)11 suggests if a leader is inspiring and speaks to their team with a narrative full of emotion the message is often not heard or scrutinized only the fact that the message was filled with emotion is remembered. Emotionally intelligent people “intentionally shape their emotions to fabricate favourable impressions of themselves, the strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviours evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors of power” (Kilduff, 2010)12 On the other hand Guarino (2016)13 argues that good leaders persuade rather than manipulate and those who do manipulate actually do so because they have very low levels of emotional intelligence. These conflicting views suggest that it may not simply be having a level of emotional intelligence that makes you a good leader but more how you use it.  A good leader will use it to persuade, and a less good leader will abuse the trait for personal gain. When used for good, emotional intelligence is capable of turning enemies into allies according to Uzzi and Dunlap (2012)14. Through a process of the Three Rs, redirection, reciprocity and rationality a leader can change the views of disillusioned subordinates.  This involves redirecting the negative emotions being felt towards the leader towards the reality of the situation, conducting transactional behaviours so all parties benefit and then explaining the rationale for it creating a level of transparency and subsequently trust between all parties.  From this people can start to focus on how to make the most from a situation rather than focus on the negatives generated by it.

As society becomes more culturally diverse this also has an implication for the high level of focus being placed on emotional intelligence and its links to having emotional intelligence making people good leaders. According to Molinsky
(2015)15 one of the greatest assets we have as natives of a culture is the ability to read another person’s emotions.  However, it is increasingly difficult to develop emotional intelligence across cultures due to differing emotional responses and the meaning given to those responses. For example, in Western culture being emotional and expressive in the workplace is considered quite normal whereas within cultures from some parts of East Asia it is seen as less normal or acceptable to display emotion particularly in the workplace. East Asian cultural norm results in people being more likely to suppress and mask their emotions rather than display them openly (Matsumoto, et al 2008)16. Molinsky suggests that in order to navigate this tricky area we should treat emotions like language and learn a little of the emotional language of the cultures we will be working with to allow us to develop a level of emotional intelligence with teams made from people who are not from the same cultural background as ourselves. When it came to measuring emotional intelligence in leaders Joseph and Newman (2010) found the metrics used to measure emotional intelligence were biased in favour of white over African respondents. This stems from different cultural views on where emotions originate from, in the West emotions are often deemed to come from within the person whilst in the East they are believed to come from the social context. This could result in a person from the West feeling anger when they fail a test while someone from the East feels shame if they fail the same test. These cultural variations are not considered when measuring emotional intelligence and therefore provide a major limitation in using emotional intelligence to gauge leadership potential and measure success especially amongst non-white leaders.

In conclusion, having high levels of emotional intelligence is currently seen as crucial for leaders to be successful. Much of the evidence and research suggests that those who possess the highest levels of emotional intelligence go on to make the best leaders and produce the best organisational outcomes. There are those who would dispute this and suggest it is only the ‘magic ingredient’ for leadership in certain people employed in certain people facing roles whilst in other more echnical roles it can actually be a disadvantage. Concerns are also raised in some quarters regarding the development and then abuse of such a powerful characteristic by people to further their own gains. Further concerns around the absence of an accurate means to measure levels of emotional intelligence and significant cultural variations leave some psychology experts dubious over its ability to be seen as a viable construct. There appears little doubt in terms of the phrase ‘emotional intelligence’ it is a new leadership trait less than forty years old but the actual construct of emotional intelligence bares significant similarities to leadership traits that have been taught and used by organisations for hundreds of years.

Written by Jason Smith, Ex Royal Engineers

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