Why Emotional Intelligence is the Key to Great Leadership

Written by Watershed CI

April 25, 2019

At some point in our lives we’ve all encountered a seemingly natural born leader with the innate ability to inspire, motivate, and change our way of thinking. Look back at some of the more difficult issues you’ve encountered in your career, who did you go to for help and advice, or who helped smooth things over when you had to deal with a problematic team member? Are this leader and this person the same individual, or do they share similar qualities?

Undoubtedly this person or these individuals were intelligent, insightful, and qualified to be in their role(s)—but what exceptional traits or abilities did they have that resonated with you or your team to create such an impact?

People Skills

Regardless of an individual’s unique background, training, or chosen career path their emotional intelligence is the discerning factor that sets them apart from others in their field, as far as leadership ability and potential.

Though the term was first mentioned in 1990, in two scholarly articles[i]by professors of psychology John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, Mayer later went on to more conclusively define emotional intelligence (EI):

From a scientific (rather than a popular) standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions. [ii]

It’s that insight into emotions, into the signals we unconsciously both send and receive, and its link to business that has become a new hot topic in regards to leadership; although this link has been researched and written about by highly regarded academics for years.

Why EI Matters

One of those academics, Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman has been the driving force in connecting not only EI and the business world, but highlighting it’s vastly underrated importance. In his 1998 Harvard Business Review article[iii]Goleman stated:

The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still wont make a great leader.

He then lays out the five main components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks

If you were to mentally recall the leader or individual(s) you were thinking of at the beginning of this article, which of these components could you most easily assign to them? Are they attributes you would like to see in a leader, or can identify in your current leadership or yourself?

The Impact

The impact of an emotionally intelligent person, that individual or individuals you can so easily recall, whether they were a teacher, a boss, or a co-worker, is readily seen on a personal level.

When these individuals are placed in a leadership position their ability to tap into their emotional intelligence is that common link that helps drive the performance of those they’re leading. Is there a situation where you can envision an emotionally intelligent leader could have a positive impact on your team, or is this a skill set you could tap into to benefit your organization?


[i]Mayer, J. D., DiPaolo, M. T., & Salovey, P. (1990). Perceiving affective content in ambiguous visual stimuli: A component of emotional intelligence. Journal of Personality Assessment, 54, 772-781.
Salovey, P. & Mayer, J.D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
[ii]Mayer, J.D. “Leading By Feel” Harvard Business Review, January 2004 Issue: https://hbr.org/2004/01/leading-by-feel
[iii]Goleman, D. (2004)“What Makes a Leader” Harvard Business Review, January 2004 Issue: https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader


For more information on identifying leadership potential and leadership development, please contact one of our WCI experts.