Leadership Development: The Role of Emotional Intelligence

How a degree of emotional intelligence is critical for improving in key leadership development areas. This article runs through the key components of emotional intelligence and why it helps support learning and development.

By: Leadership Dynamics team


5 min

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This article on emotional intelligence in leadership is part of our series on leadership development.

Along with good succession planning, leadership development ensures a company has effective leaders in place at all times – especially critical for those adhering to a value creation plan.

Emotional intelligence is a key asset for leadership; leaders are leaders of people, not only products and services, so the ability to understand and anticipate the emotions of others impacts how skilled they are at people management.

But EI is not just an asset for practising good leadership behaviour; it's highly effective when a business needs to develop the competencies and behaviours of its existing leaders or high-potential employees. This article discusses how and why EI can help a leader (or future leader) grow into the responsibilities and demands of their expanding role.

Emotional intelligence in leadership

At Leadership Dynamics, we work with leadership teams in high-growth companies and study the qualities that make for the best performing teams.

We have found that 'behaviours' are better predictors of success in leaders than personality traits or performance history. Behaviours tell us what a person is likely to do in a given situation, no matter their background.

After several years of working with leaders in high growth companies, we have found the sets of behaviours that correlate with the best performing individuals and teams. We have grouped them under four overarching categories: Pragmatism, Agility, Curiosity and Execution. (For more details on this model, and how we use it to assess the behaviours of leadership teams, go to our PACE page.)

What every set of high-performing behaviours has in common is how they are dialled up or down by the level of emotional intelligence each leader displays. In other words, emotional intelligence is the catalyst for developing good leadership qualities.

The key components of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to 1) understand one's own emotions, 2) manage them and 3) recognise the emotions of others. Let's look at each component and see how they influence leadership.

Self awareness

Before you can start developing yourself, you need to understand yourself. The ability to understand your own emotions also means you can understand your own strengths and weaknesses. A clear idea means you do not over- or underestimate your capabilities and therefore know where you should apply yourself, and where you have room for improvement.

According to organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich, 95 percent of people think they’re self-aware; in reality only 10-15 percent truly understand their strengths and weaknesses. There is likely to be a significant opportunity to close that gap within your own organisation.

Self-aware people are more agile, able to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances and tend to maintain a growth mindset. Based on our work, these are qualities of high performing leaders.

Self management

Once you understand your own emotions, it's easier to manage them. In stressful situations, taking a step back before responding to stimuli rather than reacting on impulse will give you room to take on board other perspectives in the team.

Self management gives leaders a higher capacity for handling and adapting to challenges, and allows them to solve problems more creatively.

Social awareness

The other side of emotional intelligence is recognising the emotions and social cues of others. It helps leaders display empathy when interacting with others, considering their perspectives and why they may be feeling any number of emotions.

When managing employees, this is part of knowing how to communicate in an effective way and manage conflict in the workplace.

When working as part of a leadership team, it is helpful to have people with a good level of emotional intelligence, but ideally a diverse range as too much similarity of any kind of behaviour can lead to dysfunction.

People with high EQ (emotional quotient, a measure of emotional intelligence) are good at reading non-verbal cues and will hold back what they truly think if they feel like their views will not be well received. A diverse team with varying degrees of emotional intelligence can help avoid paralysis in decision making.

It also helps to understand the unwritten rules of an organisation's culture

Relationship management

A successful leader can maintain positive relationships not just with clients and partners, but within the business itself. Strong relationship management means an ability to influence others, and makes broaching tough conversations and managing conflict far easier, while also creating the conditions for good mentorship.

Key leadership development areas

Some of the most important areas for leadership development do better with emotionally intelligent behaviours. How does EI act as a tool for growth in the following?

Area 1: Communication

How does EI help you become a better communicator?

Understanding your audience is a key part of good communication. Being able to recognise emotions and social cues in others means you can adapt your way of speaking to get your message across more effectively.

Leaders who are active and empathetic listeners show they understand the feelings and opinions of others so they can get honest information, and use it to bring out the best in their employees.

Those who build a culture of clear communication improve a company's likelihood of success because they are better at keeping everyone bought into the value creation plan.

Area 2: Decision making

As we mentioned earlier, one of the most effective components of emotional intelligence is self awareness. Knowing your own strengths means you can be confident in your abilities where they are relevant, and apply them effectively.

While a degree of self awareness can be a help for making decisions, having high emotional intelligence can also be a hindrance. People can be overly concerned with how they are perceived, which prevents them from revealing their thoughts if they feel other people on the team will not listen. Thoughts that could have been constructive to solving the problem.

People who lack emotional intelligence, or at least who have a lower degree of emotional intelligence, can help drive through decisions either because they are not burdened with the ability to "read the room", or because they can read the room but see action as more important than harmony.

Area 3: Problem solving

How does EI help you become better at problem solving?

One of the components of EI, self-management – the ability to react to stimuli, take a breath and respond to challenges without giving into impulses – is part of being an agile leader. Agile leaders have an attitude of willingness to take on unfamiliar challenges and to be experimental with solutions to business problems.

Emotional intelligence allows leaders to behave in a more 'curious' way (see PACE for full description). This means they have the ability to be flexible and consider multiple perspectives before landing on a solution. They are comfortable with the uncertainty necessary to spend time experimenting.

Area 4: Mentoring

Mentoring is a key part of leadership and, more importantly, of a company's leadership sustainability. A transfer of knowledge from the more experienced to the less experienced secures the longevity of a company and makes sure that there are always high-performing leaders in place.

The ability to form strong relationships and manage them well is critical to being a good mentor. The practice involves asking open questions, understanding what your mentee's goals are and building their confidence to achieve them. 

Successful leadership development requires EI

When building a high-performing team, a dose of emotional intelligence helps develop and amplify an individual's leadership behaviours. It also helps the cohesiveness of the team because it is key to working well together.

We know from our work in people analytics that a diverse and balanced range of behaviours makes for the best performing leadership teams.

See for yourself what your behavioural profile looks like, or how your team matches up with peers in your industry, with PACE.

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