Leadership skills are, in many contexts—the workplace, schools and classrooms, politics, volunteer organizations, and even within families—fairly recognizable. People who take initiative, who have a vision, and who can strategize, plan, and accomplish goals to achieve their vision are considered good leaders. They display those skills when working in a team setting and, hopefully, their team members are appreciative of those skills.

But what about other kinds of skills that make up a good leader? Not just professional skills—you may be highly trained and proficient in your field—but skills that contribute to your ability to work well with others and to lead your team to success?

That’s where emotional intelligence comes in, which, as we’ve defined in the first part of this series, as “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.”

Think about a great manager that you’ve had in the past. You likely felt comfortable going to that person with your questions, concerns, and needs, and they were likely receptive to you and worked to address them and make sure that you felt supported. And if (or when) you both had disagreements, they were likely respectful and productive exchanges.

That kind of dynamic between employee and manager is similar to what we encourage couples to create in their own relationships—keeping a positive perspective, validating each other’s positions despite disagreement, and being intentionally respectful, even during difficult times. It’s a dynamic that works. It helps everyone involved feel supported and valued.

And let’s be honest: teamwork, especially when attempting to achieve difficult, long-term, and even lofty goals, can lead to intense emotions, such as (if things aren’t going well) frustration, anger, worry, or disappointment, or (if things are going well) excitement, anticipation, enthusiasm, and shared celebration. For example, look at the vivid displays of emotion from players on cohesive sports teams. They celebrate each other when things go well. They lift each other up when things don’t. Emotions, even on the field, play a huge role in working with others to succeed.

Yet all of those emotions, even the good ones, can lead to immense stress under challenging circumstances at work. And understanding and managing both your and others’ emotions in that team setting, just like in a relationship, is an important trait of all good leaders.

Emotional intelligence is necessary for good leadership

Daniel Goleman, an authority on emotional intelligence in the workplace, notes that “[n]o matter what leaders set out to do—whether it’s creating a strategy or mobilizing teams to action—their success depends on how they do it. Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in this primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should.”

Many of us have likely been in this situation before. Think back on, maybe, the job you had in high school with a manager that had a negative attitude. They might have had excellent skills in their role, but how they did the job and communicated to their employees was a problem. Think about how you and your coworkers may have felt around that manager—undervalued, disrespected, and not driven to accomplish team goals.

In that kind of workplace, it’s easier to simply keep your head down, do the minimum, and get that paycheck at the end of the week. And when employees feel that way, they won’t necessarily be happy in their roles, productivity will likely decline, and work will stall. It will be more challenging for that team to do what needs to be done.

The same, according to our own research, applies to romantic relationships. A negative outlook can result in poor outcomes, like resentment, disconnection, and even separation or divorce. When negative sentiment override kicks in, it’s hard to change course back toward a positive perspective.

On the flip side, appreciation, respect, and enthusiasm, coupled with emotional support and validation, can be contagious. Positivity begets positivity. Because emotions are strongly correlated with performance and productivity, teams whose members feel emotionally supported and appreciated through their challenges and successes will likely be happier and more productive. They will want to celebrate their successes, so they will work harder and more effectively together to be successful.

This dynamic applies to many job settings—wherever there’s a leader. That could be the sous chef in a restaurant kitchen, a head nurse in an emergency room, a foreman on a factory floor, a chief executive in a boardroom, or a high school teacher in a classroom. Effective emotional understanding and management will help team members cohere and be more productive and feel more valued and understood.

Emotional intelligence helps leaders to adapt

Leaders also need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances in their workplaces, or in their own roles and those of their team members. President Xi of China told attendees at a job fair that emotional intelligence will enable an individual to be more adaptable in society, which makes sense. Being aware of, understanding, and managing your emotions and of those around you should help you to navigate through an ever-changing world, and even to become a successful leader in it.

According to the Harvard Business Review, emotional intelligence is a key leadership skill—and for a leader to truly be effective, they must be masterful at managing their relationships in a positive way. Being a leader of a group of people is to have a very important relationship with those people. In the HBR, Goleman writes:

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. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. 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 won’t make a great leader.

This isn’t to say that emotional intelligence is enough to get you to that leadership position in your job—you will still need the professional knowledge and experience—but it means that if you take a leadership role and have a higher degree of emotional intelligence, you will likely be more effective and more successful. Because emotions are always in flux, adaptability is key to being an outstanding leader.

Great leaders dramatically improve their teams and organizations

When it comes to the workplace, and especially business, the bottom line is crucial and managers and executives are often held responsible for successes and failures. Researchers Dr. Jack Zenger and Dr. Joseph Folkman, co-founders of the leadership development and training firm Zenger Folkman, gathered over 100,000 direct reports from employees about their leaders from hundreds of different organizations and found nine key traits the most successful leaders possess. Here are a few that are most related to emotional intelligence:

  • They work to inspire and motivate those around them
  • They focus on collaboration between team members, which creates synergy and a better experience for employees
  • They “walk the talk,” or act with integrity and honesty with every team member
  • They build trust, which stems from consistently acting with integrity and honesty
  • They develop and support others, and they always celebrate the successes of their employees and encourage them to learn more and develop their skills
  • They always build relationships, which communicates that each team member is valued, and that their concerns are important and will be addressed.

There is a steady rise in employee satisfaction with the development of a great leader—poor leaders’ employees have poor job satisfaction, and great leaders’ employees are much more committed and happy with their work. Zenger and Folkman even came up with 38 different ways in which leaders can “harness” the power of emotion, which makes an emotional impact on their employees and helps them connect emotionally with others, hence making them a more effective leader.

Some of those methods include focusing on opportunities and possibilities instead of problems, celebrating successful events, being curious about individual employees’ career aspirations and helping them to achieve them, and, just like we suggest in the 5:1 ratio for couples in conflict, accompanying every piece of negative feedback with five positive statements.

Even more interesting is that when you have a truly great leader, they can double a company’s profits. That’s right—double the profits! Most of us would think that emotional intelligence may not have to do much with a company’s bottom line, but when you have a great leader who possesses and utilizes effective emotional intelligence, your organization as a whole—ranging from employee satisfaction and engagement to revenue and profits—will greatly benefit.


This is part two of a four-part series on Emotional Intelligence. Part one is here, and parts three and four are forthcoming.


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Emotional Intelligence Is Key to Successful Leadership

A graduate of the Syracuse University MFA program in Creative Writing, Christopher Dollard is a former professor of literature and writing and an accomplished poet and essayist. Check out more of his work on his website here.