Emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership.
Think about all the “best boss I ever had” stories you’ve heard throughout your life. What are the common threads in them?
As you take inventory of what people say makes a great boss (including what you’ve encountered in your own experiences), I think you’ll find that these narratives rarely focus solely on someone’s business acumen or technological know-how. What stands out to most people who tell these stories is how their bosses relate to other people.
I’ve had a lot of bosses over the course of my professional life, but one experience in particular stands out. My first job out of college was as an engineer at Rolls-Royce, and somehow my first four years there passed and I had yet to even consider taking time off for a long vacation. Finally, my boss insisted that I get out of the office and go on one of the big international trips I’d been dreaming of. Honestly, I was darn good at my job, so my absence wouldn’t exactly benefit the company’s bottom line (at least not in the short term). But this boss recognized me as a human being with a unique personality and my own interests outside of work—and by relating to me on that level, he strengthened our connection as work colleagues1.
Someone’s ability to inspire, encourage, and challenge employees can have a tremendous impact on how others perceive—and interact with—them. This ability is shaped in large part by that leader’s emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence Defined
Some of the greatest moments in human history were fueled by emotional intelligence.
– Adam Grant
Before we dive into a big discussion of emotional intelligence, let’s establish what it is. One of the earliest definitions comes from Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, who offered a formal definition of the term in 1990: “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”2
They weren’t necessarily describing something new, but they were among the first to put a name to it—and having a name made it a lot easier for other people to explore this topic and share their findings about it. People started thinking about how to apply emotional intelligence to various aspects of their lives, and before long researchers were shining a light on the role of emotional intelligence in the business world.
Then in 1995 science journalist Daniel Goleman published the landmark book Emotional Intelligence, which drew a direct line between emotional intelligence and professional success.Over the past quarter century, Goleman’s work has done a lot to help the business world see the value of emotional intelligence. He’s such a leader in this field that if you’ve read anything about emotional intelligence before, I’d be astonished if Goleman’s research wasn’t at least mentioned in it. In fact, in the introduction to the tenth-anniversary edition of his seminal book, Goleman writes:
The phrase emotional intelligence, or its casual shorthand EQ, has become ubiquitous, showing up in settings as unlikely as the cartoon strips Dilbert (see below) and Zippy the Pinhead and in Roz Chast’s sequential art in The New Yorker. I’ve seen boxes of toys that claim to boost a child’s EQ; lovely personal ads sometimes trumpet it in those seeking prospective mates. I once found a quip about EQ printed on a shampoo bottle in my hotel room. And the concept has spread to the far corners of our planet. EQ has become a word recognized, I’m told, in languages as diverse as German and Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Malay.3
In one of his more recent works, Goleman offers a very succinct definition of emotional intelligence: “how leaders handle themselves and their relationships.”4 This perfectly encapsulates the key factors I want to address today.
EQ and the Business World
Leadership is all about emotional intelligence. Management is taught, while leadership is experienced.
Emotional intelligence is something that shapes all aspects of our lives, especially when we interact with other people. The ability to have stronger, more positive relationships with others and skill at conflict resolution can improve our mental health and (thanks to well-established links between mind and body) our physical health as well (see a previous blog I wrote on this topic: Beating Burnout and Getting Out of a Rut).
In the business world, though, emotional intelligence can have a particularly strong impact. That’s why if you do an Internet search for “emotional intelligence,” you’ll see that the results are dominated by links to websites and publications that look at it from a business-oriented perspective.
Why? Because there is a strong correlation between having a high emotional intelligence and achieving professional success.
That explains why you’ll see emotional intelligence ranked highly on lists of must-have attributes for today’s leaders. In fact, it’s on the list “14 Critical Skills Every Tech Executive Should Master In 2020” put together by the Forbes Technology Council. (It’s in the #8 position there. But everything on that list has some connection to emotional intelligence, so I think limiting EQ to just one spot on that list is a bit inaccurate.)
There’s plenty of research to support the EQ–leadership connection. For example, one three-year study found that a manager’s emotional intelligence had a direct impact on their performance, and that organizations that had managers with high EQ had higher rates of employee engagement, productivity, and retention. Goleman’s decades of research have found that “for top-level C-suite jobs, 80 percent to 90 percent of the abilities that distinguish high performers, as identified by the company itself, is based on emotional intelligence.” Leaders with high emotional intelligence are seen as “approachable, influential, and decisive”—which in turn helps them motivate and inspire their teams.
I could go on and on—this is just a tiny bit of the research that supports the claim that someone who has high emotional intelligence is a more effective and successful leader—but you get the gist of it. The point I want to emphasize here is:
One of the best things you can do to increase your chances of achieving professional success is to work actively on your emotional intelligence.
I’ll be frank with you: this isn’t an easy task. It requires honest introspection, ruthless self-reflection, and empathy towards others. But improving your emotional intelligence is definitely doable—and there is plenty of guidance available to help you accomplish this. Don’t miss my next blog post, in which I offer some pointers!
- Incidentally, that first trip I took launched two decades (and over 300,000 miles!) of global travel with my mom, which I wrote about in my book Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (2015).
- Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. 1990. “Emotional intelligence.” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185–211.
- Daniel Goleman. 2005. Emotional Intelligence: The 10th Anniversary Edition. Bantam: New York, pp. ix–x.
- Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. 2013. Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, Mass., p. 6.