How Emotional Intelligence Can Make You a Better Leader


A leader has a difficult but important job: leading a team of unique individuals to follow a single vision and to motivate them to work collaboratively toward a common goal. Not all leaders can do this effectively.

Why do some leaders succeed while others fail?

Although there are some exceptions, most great leaders succeed because they have a high degree of emotional intelligence.

Mariah DeLeon, in her article “The Importance of Emotional Intelligence at Work” writes:

…it’s vital for managers and other business leaders to operate in emotionally intelligent ways to meet the needs of today’s workers.

Jeff Immelt, the widely respected CEO of General Electric, agrees:

Leadership is an intense journey into yourself. You can use your own style to get anything done. It’s about being self-aware. Every morning, I look in the mirror and say, ‘I could have done three things better yesterday.’

Emotional intelligence (sometimes also called EI or EQ) is the ability to identify and regulate your own feelings, and the feelings of people around you. Leadership coach Brent Gleeson describes it as:

The act of knowing, understanding, and responding to emotions, overcoming stress in the moment, and being aware of how your words and actions affect others…

EQ is incredibly important in the workplace – even more important than the traditional measure of intelligence – IQ. It turns out that people with a high EQ are better teammates and better leaders than people with a high IQ.

Emotional intelligence experts at TalentSmart tested a host of 33 variables to determine which had the greatest impact on workplace success. Emotional intelligence was the strongest predictor of performance, accounting for 58% of a person’s job performance.

TalentSmart president Travis Bradberry points out,

Your emotional intelligence is the foundation for a host of critical skills—it impacts most everything you do and say each day.

Contrary to conventional thinking, there’s not one common type of emotional intelligence. Daniel Goleman, the author of the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, breaks EQ down into 4 components:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Empathy
  • Relationship management

Goleman also reveals that EQ (unlike IQ) is a skill that can be learned and improved.

Let’s take a deeper look into each of the four pillars of emotional intelligence to discover how you can become a better leader and build the necessary soft skills that separate great leaders from others.

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Self-awareness is the first pillar of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness refers to your ability to identify your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and behavioral patterns. Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence. In fact, the remaining 3 components of emotional intelligence all hinge upon the ability to be self-aware.

Laura Wilcox, former director of management programs at Harvard Extension School explains:

The core of high EI is self-awareness: if you don’t understand your own motivations and behaviors, it’s nearly impossible to develop an understanding of others.

Cultivating self-awareness increases your ability to understand your own emotional and behavioral landscape, in turn making it easier to understand the emotions and behaviors of others.

Self-awareness also gives you a better perspective to identify the traits that serve you well and the traits that don’t serve you at all. You can modify your behavior for the better if you can identify your own bad habits and catch yourself when you’re doing them. So, in addition to creating the foundation for EQ, self-awareness is also the foundation for self-improvement.

How can you cultivate a stronger sense of self-awareness?

Bill George, the author of Finding Your True North and Psychology Today contributor, suggests developing a habit of daily self-reflection.

Self-reflection can come in a number of forms. Meditation, journaling, yoga, prayer… even a thoughtful walk or jog can provide you with the opportunity to know yourself better.

Harvard Business Review’s Anthony K. Tjan suggests spending some time with the following questions:

  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that is working?
  • What am I doing that is slowing me down?
  • What can I do to change?

You can also simply observe your emotions as you experience them, accepting them without judgment. Emotions are not inherently good or bad. But an awareness of your emotional state can help you to make informed decisions about how you choose to behave toward yourself and others.

And although the journey to self-awareness always starts with the self, it’s also a good idea to seek outside perspectives. Many times we are too close to our behavior to see or understand it. Bill George reflects,

We all have traits that others see, but we are unable to see in ourselves. We call these “blind spots.”

Asking close friends or family for honest feedback about your blind spots may help you learn something about yourself that you couldn’t otherwise see. Just be prepared to receive their answers with humility and grace – some truths are uncomfortable.

How To Cultivate Self-Awareness:

  • Develop a daily self-reflection practice.
  • Ask peers for feedback about your blind spots.
  • Be prepared to face some uncomfortable truths.


The second pillar of emotional intelligence is self-regulation – also known as self-discipline.

Self-regulation is the action-based companion to self-awareness. Your ability to control your emotions, your behavior, and your inner resources are all determined by your self-regulation. And, it is a valuable skill.

A study at the University of Pennsylvania revealed that self-discipline outperformed IQ more than 2-to-1 in determining which students would succeed academically. And, why wouldn’t it? Intelligence doesn’t count for much if you don’t put in the effort to apply it.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. It would be tough to practice anything for 10,000 hours without some serious self-discipline. With that in mind, it’s easy to see the relationship between self-regulation and mastery. And with mastery success is typically not far behind.

But self-regulation applies to more than our external behavior. Self-regulation also applies to our internal, emotional behavior. Steven Stosny, Ph.D. explains in his Psychology Today article “Self-Regulation“:

Behaviorally, self-regulation is the ability to act in your long-term best interest, consistent with your deepest values. (Violation of one’s deepest values causes guilt, shame, and anxiety, which undermine well being.) Emotionally, self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down when you’re upset and cheer yourself up when you’re down.

But, how exactly does one regulate emotion?

Dr. Stosny recommends you start by examining your values. He contends that attempting to manage feelings, devoid of value context, can lead to behaviors meant only to treat negative feelings rather than fix the underlying cause. Stosny posits that behaving in accordance with your values will lead to more positive, balanced emotions.

Consistent self-regulation requires focus on your deepest values rather than feelings. It’s also the best way to feel better. Violation of values invariably produces bad feelings, while fidelity to them eventually makes you feel more authentic and empowered.

So, a practice of self-awareness that includes examining one’s most important values, and identifying positive and negative emotions as they occur, provides you with the information you need to make informed behavioral choices.

Meditation has also been shown to have positive effects on one’s ability to self-regulate. And, since meditation also increases self-awareness, it provides a powerful two-for-one benefit to emotional intelligence.

But, how does one make the leap from knowing what is good for you, to actually doing it?

Personal development guru and business philosopher Jim Rohn offers an answer:

Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.

This makes sense. Self-regulation can also be said to be practicing simple disciplines every day.

If you need a little more direct guidance, meet Tim Elmore. Elmore is the author of Artificial Maturity, president of Growing Leaders and a former university professor. In his years in the classroom, he has proactively worked to improve self-discipline in his students. Here are a few techniques Elmore found to be effective:

1. Do it if you hate it. This technique is pretty straightforward. Pick a task you hate to do and make yourself do it. But, don’t just do it once. Do it every day. Think of it as altitude training for your self-regulation. If you can do a task that you hate every day, then lesser chores become easier to complete by comparison.

2. Leverage Accountability. If you are actively working to strengthen your self-discipline, ask a buddy to hold you accountable. Elmore explains that you are more likely to stick to positive habits if you know someone may be checking up on you.

3. Visualize success. Elmore points out that our brains work like a muscle – they need periods of work and rest in order to grow. Elmore recommends spending time envisioning a more self-disciplined you, and then rewarding yourself or “resting” with relaxation.

How To Develop Self-Regulation:

  • Act in accordance with your deepest values.
  • Practice daily meditation to strengthen your brain’s self-regulatory pathways.
  • Do tasks you hate daily to strengthen your will power.
  • Ask a buddy to hold you accountable for your goals.
  • Strengthen self-regulatory “muscles” by visualizing success.


Empathy, the ability to relate to and share someone else’s emotions, thoughts or experiences, is the third pillar of emotional intelligence. It’s that elusive skill that allows us to “walk in someone else’s shoes”.

We all possess empathy to some degree – it’s why humans find watching movies so compelling. We vicariously experience the emotional journey of the characters on the screen. But empathy plays a more vital role in real life and not all leaders have a well-developed sense of empathy.

We previously wrote about empathy in the context of delivering great customer service:

Sympathy is rarely an ideal response to a customer’s problem. Instead, show empathy. Empathy allows to you be professional and caring at the same time. It also allows you to avoid becoming emotionally involved (like when you show sympathy).

Think about it this way: when you’re sympathetic, you simply feel badly for someone. Sympathy doesn’t communicate to a customer that you understand WHY they feel the way they feel – it only allows you to communicate that you understand their problem. A typical response – “I’m sorry” – is insufficient to solve a customer’s problem. You must do more.

Leaders and manager who practice empathy in the workplace are better equipped to understand (and meet) their employees’ needs. It’s one of the traits that makes many women great leaders. Empathy also creates a more supportive environment where people feel valued and heard. You can learn more about why this is so important in my earlier article about leadership styles.

Putting your employees first can lead to happy employees. And, happy employees have been shown to be more creative, more productive and more likely to be retained.

But, don’t just take my word for it. A 2015 study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that higher empathy ratings from a leader’s subordinates regularly predicted higher performance reviews from the leader’s own boss. In other words, empathetic leaders create positive relationships with their employees and also garner accolades from their superiors. Everybody wins.

Fortunately, empathy is a skill that can be learned.

The Center for Creative Leadership suggests practicing active listening in order to strengthen your empathic ability. Here are a few guidelines for practicing active listening:

  • Make listening your entire focus, (instead of waiting for your turn to speak).
  • Ask questions to help you understand the other person’s perspective.
  • Don’t judge what the person is saying.
  • Summarize what you think they’ve shared with you.

This exercise helps you to truly understand another person’s perspective. And, that’s the first step toward empathy.

Another technique for strengthening empathy is to regularly try to see things from a different perspective. True empathy requires that we be able to see beyond our own experience. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that managers make a habit of trying to see things from their employee’s perspectives.

If you find it hard to imagine what that perspective might be, maybe it’s time for some more active listening.

How to Embrace Empathy:

  • Practice active listening.
  • Habitually look at the world from a different perspective.

Relationship management

Relationship management, the fourth pillar of emotional intelligence, is a person’s ability to manage and maintain healthy relationships. Just as the ability to self-regulate grows from self-awareness, relationship management is an active extension of empathy.

If you want to run a successful business, you have to proactively work to maintain positive relationships and establish trust with both subordinates and peers.  Good working relationships create confident, happy employees. And confident happy employees are more productive employees. Forbes contributor Victor Lipman writes,

… trust is a fragile commodity in management, yet an exceedingly valuable one. It can make all the difference between an employee who is emotionally committed to an organization – engaged – and highly productive, and one who is disengaged or even destructive.

Careful relationship management cultivates emotionally engaged employees and may even help to prevent workplace burnout.

So, how exactly does one build and maintain positive workplace relationships?

Like any relationship, you’ll need to set aside some time to actually get to know an employee. This is the time to practice active listening so that you can understand who this person is and what the workplace looks like from their perspective.

The next step is crucial – validate and respect their experience. Karyn Hall Ph.D. of Psychology Today describes validation as:

…the recognition and acceptance of another person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and behaviors as understandable.

Even though some people deny it, everyone craves validation. And here’s why – validating someone’s experience makes that person feel accepted. And acceptance is a fundamental human need. On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our need to be accepted and belong is superseded only by our need for safety and biological demands like food and water.

Making your employees feel understood and accepted is a powerful bonding tool.

Finally, use this newfound understanding of your employees to assign tasks that play to their strengths. Katherine Prendergast of the Association for Talent Development recommends:

Motivate others by recognizing what is important to them and giving them the opportunity to work in those areas. Use their strengths and honor their gifts.

Finding tasks that naturally play to an employee’s strengths will make them feel confident and appreciated while reassuring you that someone well-suited is handling the task. Everybody wins.

How to Practice Relationship Management:

  • Set aside time to grow relationships.
  • Validate your co-workers’ experience and point of view.
  • Assign tasks that play to your co-workers’ strengths.

Ultimately, emotional intelligence is at the heart of highly collaborative teams. Emotional Intelligence at Work, an organization specializing in business performance and transformation suggests:

There is only one area which a business—or any organisation—needs to address if it wants to lift itself from averagely successful to excellent: how well the people in the business work together.

The emotional intelligence you bring to bear in your daily work interactions makes all the difference between success and failure. Ashley Zahabian, public speaker and emotional intelligence advocate reflects:

Statistics from Harvard, Stanford, and Carnegie Foundation show that 85–87% of our success accounts from soft skills, emotional intelligence, and personal skills, yet we only pay attention to them 10% of the time… It was so backwards to me.

Zahabian continues:

As a founder or entrepreneur, it’s important to learn more about your own emotional intelligence and work to increase it. Think about why you want the things you want and whether or not they’ll be good for you or your business in the long run.

Some people have a high degree of emotional intelligence while others do not. The good news is that anyone can improve their emotional intelligence if they are motivated to do so.

You can start by learning more about your EQ strengths and weaknesses with this Emotional Intelligence Assessment from the Global Leadership Foundation.  Then take action to improve your weakest EQ skills.

So there you have it. You can improve each of the four pillars of emotional intelligence through the following actions:

1. Cultivate Self-Awareness By…

  • Developing a daily self-reflection practice.
  • Asking peers for feedback about your blind spots.
  • Preparing to face some uncomfortable truths.

2. Develop Self-Regulation By…

  • Acting in accordance with your deepest values.
  • Practicing daily meditation.
  • Doing tasks you don’t enjoy daily to strengthen willpower.
  • Asking a buddy to hold you accountable for your goals.
  • Strengthening self-regulatory “muscles” by visualizing success.

3. Embrace Empathy By…

  • Practicing active listening.
  • Habitually looking at the world from a different perspective.

4. Practice Relationship Management By…

  • Setting aside time to grow relationships.
  • Validating your co-workers’ experience and point of view.
  • Assigning tasks that play to your co-workers’ strengths.

Become the leader you aspire to be by following the tips we’ve discussed here. Ignore these tips and you’ll quickly find yourself facing bickering teams and poor company culture.

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