Emotional intelligence strongly predicts leadership success

What is emotional intelligence?

“In a high-IQ job pool, soft skills like discipline,
drive, and empathy mark those who emerge as outstanding.”
Daniel Goleman

The importance of emotional intelligence (EI) came into focus with Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. Since then, he’s written and co-authored over 50 books on this and related subjects. Other significant contributors to the field include David Caruso, Peter Salovey, Reuven Bar-on, and many other authors who have explained how EI skills can be strengthened and applied in one’s personal and business life.

More specifically, EI is essentially social and emotional competence, which, in turn, comprises a set of skills (not character traits) that can be learned. This is the exciting premise for the many books and articles dedicated to helping people learn about and strengthen their EI competency. Practical EI training and follow-up coaching have improved emotional and social competence significantly.

Importantly, EI measures are valid and reliable across gender and cultural divides. One of the three or four EI assessments you might find interesting can be found here. Among the many findings from these scientifically-based assessments is that EI improves with age!

Why is EI so important?

EI can also be understood as the ability to identify, understand, and effectively manage emotions–both your own and others. The underlying concept here is that EI can make emotions work for you instead of against you while helping others do the same.

The relative level of EI determines the extent to which a person–

  • Intuitively understands what others need and want,
  • Discern one’s own and others’ strengths and weaknesses to better leverage mutual advantage, and
  • Is engaging and affirming and the kind of person people enjoy being with.

EI includes the capacity to–

  • Understand the link between emotions, thoughts, and actions,
  • Manage one’s emotional states, e.g., to shift undesirable emotional states to more effective ones,
  • Read, be sensitive to, and influence other people’s emotions, and exhibit resilience in the face of stress.

Why EI is important for organizations:

A growing body of research shows that organizations perform much better, with significantly enhanced bottom-line results when EI competence among managers and employees improves.

More specifically–

  • Human capital (EI-related) skills such as assertiveness, empathy, problem-solving, flexibility, impulse control, and self-actualization are critical for ROI and leveraging opportunity in today’s business environment of constant, rapid change.
  • EI organizational audits and individual assessments have revealed the social and emotional skills required for success in particular positions.
  • EI skills are crucial for leaders who establish models for effective business behavior for employees. Yet, even for employees in solitary settings, how well they perform relates strongly to EI-related qualities of independence, problem-solving, and self-actualization.
  • Organizations that institute EI-related screening and professional development have lower employee turnover and more productive teams with better collective decision-making.
  • Higher EI levels also correlate with enhanced customer service and reduced stress, burnout, and accidents.
  • Organizations perform better whose employees develop social networks characterized by higher trust and empathic communication levels, which relate directly to EI competence.
  • A deficit of EI-related open communications and reality-testing skills has been implicated in the failure of many organizations.


“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did, but will never
forget how you made them feel.”
Maya Angelou

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Dali Lama

Empathy is part of human nature

We humans are social animals who naturally respond to the emotions of others–as perceived in their gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. This is evident with a baby who cries when hearing another infant cry. As adults, we often suppress and lose much of that capacity out of fear of our vulnerability.

Fortunately, as with all other aspects of emotional intelligence, research confirms that enhancing our self-awareness (and receiving emotional intelligence training and coaching) can help us regain what was lost and, in fact, requisite to happiness and success in life.

Human existence is not, and cannot be, mere survival of the fittest. Without our innate capacity to perceive and resonate with the happiness and suffering of others, it would be impossible to build healthy relationships and viable communities. When we provide support for others in need, we feel good. Volunteers report significantly higher overall wellness and happiness levels after spending time working to help those in need. The survival of our species depends on expanding our capacity for that nurturing reciprocity.

Empathy isn’t sympathy

When we feel empathy for another person, we get a sense of how it feels to occupy their world with its strengths, limitations, fears, hopes, and capacity for kindness. People need to feel that others understand and respect their challenges. They count on their leaders and mentors to discern and support their potential for growth and empowerment. Empathic understanding can also alert us to people who cannot be trusted and should be avoided. –We never get it 100% right, but with experience, our accuracy improves.

Having Sympathy for others is altogether different. It is a more superficial, limited acknowledgment of another person’s suffering—often coming from a place of felt superiority and an underlying lack of interest in dealing with that person’s situation. Recipients of Sympathy are aware of this. Patients, for example, report experiencing Sympathy from their health care providers as “being motivated by pity, ego, and obligation, leading either to an avoidant or over-reactive response on the part of their doctors and other health care providers.” (source)

The three forms of empathy

Psychologists describe three forms of empathy—emotional, compassionate, and cognitive, which may or may not overlap source.

Emotional empathy is feeling the emotions of another; compassionate empathy involves feeling the emotions of another, combined with taking action to help them. Cognitive empathy, by contrast, is taking the perspective of another with less focus on their feelings.

Cognitive empathy is needed when emotional empathy is low. This is because people all too often fail to appreciate the impact of racial, ethnic, religious, and physical differences. Though we fairly quickly affiliate with those like us—i.e., those of ‘our tribe’—we now live in a global society that demands cognitive empathy to strengthen our national and international bonds. This is requisite for us to have any chance of dealing with the growing existential threats to our planet.

Depending on the situation, cognitive empathy alone may or may not be helpful. On the downside, it can result in others feeling a lack of emotional support. That said, exercising cognitive empathy is imperative for those in helping professions who often are burned out from the stress of continually helping others. This is supported by studies, for example, demonstrating that empathy declines during medical training (source). Hence, emotional empathy requires boundaries to avoid overwhelm.

Business leaders need compassionate empathy

To be successful, leaders need to exercise compassionate empathy, i.e., to take action to provide for the differing needs of those who rely on them. People follow others based on sensing they’re understood, supported emotionally, and helped to realize more of their potential.

In line with self-awareness, we also need to develop compassionate empathy towards ourselves. A person can’t move forward from defeat without having faith in their ability to recover and move forward. Otherwise, self-blame will result in a downward spiral of negativity and self-contempt.


Why is self-awareness be so essential?

“My friend…care for your psyche…know thyself,
for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to
care for ourselves””

“Without self-knowledge, without understanding the
working and functions of his machine, man
cannot be free, he cannot govern himself,
and he will always remain a slave.”
G.I. Gurdjieff

All in-depth emotional intelligence (EI) analyses and assessment tools place a strong emphasis on self-awareness and empathy. Both are vital to personal and social well-being. There are compelling reasons for becoming more self-aware. Self-aware leaders have better relationships, both at work and at home. And there’s the tremendous additional benefit of the greater objectivity and inner peace that comes from developing this EI skill.

Know yourself

Emotional self-awareness includes knowing your emotional strengths, weaknesses, and personal characteristics. The better you understand yourself, the greater your scope of control both over yourself and others. If you don’t ‘see it,’ you can’t manage it. Few things can be as disorientating as being caught off-guard by one’s own damaging reaction to a situation.

Though you may not control how you feel, the greater your self-awareness, the easier it is to take a pause and determine how to act (or not act) upon those feelings. For example, awareness of having a quick temper can help inhibit overreaction and dysfunctional behavior (as with coping mechanisms like projection, denial, rationalization, and avoidance) (source)

. Simply saying to yourself, “I’m feeling angry now,” can help you back off from overreacting That said, developing self-control is one of life’s continual challenges for everyone. Developing self-awareness allows you to recognize and differentiate between your feelings and know what caused them (The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, Stein, and Book}. If you are aware of your emotions, you have more bandwidth to focus on others you are dealing with.

Developing a more realistic self-concept

To be successful, leaders need to exercise compassionate empathy, i.e., to take action to provide for the differing needs of those who rely on them. People follow others based on sensing they’re understood, supported emotionally, and helped to realize more of their potential.

In line with self-awareness, we also need to develop compassionate empathy towards ourselves. A person can’t move forward from defeat without having faith in their ability to recover and move forward. Otherwise, self-blame will result in a downward spiral of negativity and self-contempt.

When you know what you are feeling and why you also better understand how others see you. Are you conscious of those things that trigger your emotional states? Are you aware of the thoughts (underlying assumptions) that precede your emotional reaction? How realistic are they?

One straightforward method for challenging unfounded negative assumptions is to write out a list of your limiting beliefs on the left side of a sheet of paper with, in each case, insight or action you can take to resolve the issue on the right column.

For example—

“At this rate, I won’t meet my deadline.” → exercise breaks I’ll be more productive.”
“But I feel too tired to exercise → “OK, but exercise will give me energy and forward momentum.”

More importantly, what about the beliefs that define your self-concept? Do you have a clear sense of your underlying values—i.e., your prime motivators? –If you haven’t considered these issues for a long time—it’s helpful to inventory your values, strengths, and weaknesses—using the same self-dialogue process described above. This process is based on insights from cognitive behavioral therapy source. The payoff for bringing these things to light can be invaluable.

Case in point–some of the things you believe to be your weaknesses may not be at all–because they originated from what others told you (who either didn’t know you well enough to pass judgment or didn’t have your best interests at heart). And, if you’re like most folks, you no doubt took some of your early failures way too seriously, resulting in your self-labeling as a ‘loser’ at x or y.

Self-awareness predicts success

Many folks are afraid to introspect about such things, not sure they can handle what they discover. But when you identify your fundamental, persistent weaknesses, it’s an advantage because it allows you to ‘reframe’ them as opportunities for growth, as well as gain greater clarity on who to align with to complement your shortfalls. With a more accurate sense of your strengths and limitations, you can project more authentic self-confidence. Also, with clarity about your values and a sense of purpose, you can be more decisive when you set a course of action, speaking more persuasively about your goals.

Research confirms that self-awareness correlates strongly with success in personal life and business. In a study by the Korn Ferry Institute, it was found that “people with strong emotional self-awareness typically demonstrate ten or more of the 12 competencies that predict success as leaders and as team members.” At the same time, those low in emotional self-awareness are “less likely to be high-performing, to meet business their business goals, and save on turnover costs. (Furthermore), among leaders with multiple strengths in emotional self-awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time.” (source)

Finally, when we have enough inner strength to be receptive to insights we gain from introspection and others about where we can improve (with discernment, of course, whether valid or not)—we then establish credibility and trust with those we rely on.