Emotional Intelligence in Leadership: What It Looks Like and Why It Matters

Whether you’re sussing out your boss at a new job or looking to build up leadership skills yourself, there’s one quality you should be focused on more than any other:

Emotional intelligence. 

This is the skill that separates the bad bosses from the great ones. Leaders who possess emotional intelligence are easier to work for, they often are the best mentors, and they won’t throw you under the bus when the going gets tough. 

On the other hand, leaders who lack emotional intelligence are at best incompetent and at worst malicious and cruel. 

But what is emotional intelligence? And how does it manifest itself in leadership? Let’s break all that down, with examples to make it crystal clear. 


What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to manage their own emotions and empathize with those around them, allowing them to strengthen relationships and grow as an individual. 

You may hear emotional intelligence referred to as “EQ,” or “emotional quotient.” That phrase, which came into the lexicon in the early 1990s, is a reflection of IQ, which stands for intellectual quotient. 

Both EQ and emotional intelligence mean the same thing, and they were given a deeper definition by psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman, who came up with the 5 components of emotional intelligence. 


The 5 components of emotional intelligence

The core components of emotional intelligence (infographic): empathy, social skills, self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation


Empathy is a person’s ability to feel compassion for other people and their emotions. It may sound similar to sympathy, but there’s a key difference: With sympathy, there is an element of pity; when you sympathize with someone, you feel bad for them, but also feel relief that you aren’t in their place. Empathy, on the other hand, isn’t about pitying someone, but about understanding them. 

The vast majority of people naturally feel some compassion, but leaders with high emotional intelligence will have empathy in abundance. And they won’t lose that empathy even if they’re dealing with someone who is on a much lower rung of the corporate ladder.

Example: Overworked and Underpaid

A manager has recently received multiple complaints from employees on the sales team that they are working too many overtime hours and not being compensated appropriately. 

If this manager is lacking in emotional intelligence, they might dismiss these complaints as invalid. He’ll think, “They’re just whining because they want to be promoted for no reason.” 

A boss with high emotional intelligence, on the other hand, will hear these complaints and put herself in the employees’ shoes. She’ll understand what it feels like to have little free time because of work commitments, and empathize with the stress that comes with living paycheck to paycheck. She’ll understand that if her employees are happier and more satisfied at work, they’ll be better workers and stay with the company longer; but more than that, she’ll know that raising their pay and reducing their hours is the right thing to do.


Social skills

An emotionally intelligent leader doesn’t have to be the life of the party or an extreme extrovert. But they do need to know how to interact with their staff and colleagues in a natural, open, and respectful way. 

Social skills give good bosses the ability to have challenging conversations, build relationships with others at the company, and grow their network.

Example: The Uber Ride

You and your boss are headed to a meeting on the other side of town, and you have a 30-minute Uber ride together to get there. 

If that concept fills you with a feeling of dread, there’s a good chance your boss hasn’t developed the social skills necessary to be an emotionally intelligent leader.

However, if you have an emotionally intelligent boss, they’ll have the ability to maintain conversation during the ride. They won’t ignore you or force you to do all the work to keep the conversation going, and they won’t talk down to you as if you aren’t worth their time. 

Instead, you’ll either have a pleasant and easy conversation as you ride, or you’ll both come to the agreement (perhaps silently) that you’d both like this time to be quiet and mentally prepare for the meeting. 

Either way, if you constantly feel awkward when having conversations with your boss, and other employees say they feel the same, chances are you’re dealing with a boss who is lower on the EQ scale.



Self-awareness refers to one’s ability to examine and understand their own emotions, behaviors, and motivations—and most importantly, learn and grow from this awareness. 

This skill takes time and effort to learn, and it’s something that can continue to be developed over a lifetime. But it’s virtually impossible to be a good leader if you don’t have enough self-awareness.

Example: The Goodbye Party

You recently learned that your challenging boss has put in their notice and will be leaving the company soon. You try not to act overjoyed, even though this manager has been a problem from the start. Over the next few days, you and your colleagues discuss in private how relieved you are that the boss is moving on. 

On your boss’s last day, the company throws a party to send off the boss. At one point, the manager gets up to make a speech, and talks about how he feels close kinship with all of his employees. As he rattles on about the close friends he’s made at the job, the whole company is rolling their eyes. 

A self-aware boss would never end up in this position, because they would have been self-aware enough to know they were causing fractures in the office. They would have sought to understand what it was about themselves that made them unpalatable and worked to adjust their behavior accordingly.



Managers who demonstrate high emotional intelligence will have good control over their emotions. This doesn’t mean that they hide or suppress their emotions—quite the opposite. They are in touch with how they feel, and don’t lash out or behave inappropriately because of how they’re feeling.

Example: The Bad Meeting

Your manager recently went to the corporate office to meet with the board and discuss the future of the company. As soon as they get back to your office, you know it didn’t go well.

The moment she walks in, your boss slams the door to her office without so much as a hello to everyone. For the rest of the day, she’s in a foul mood, snapping at anyone who gets within range. 

A boss who allows one bad meeting to affect their behavior and emotions is not high on the emotionally intelligent scale. A boss with high EQ would have a healthy way of dealing with the negative feelings that came off the back of the bad meeting, such as taking a few moments to cool off after the meeting or venting to another member of management in private.



Unlike the other items that make up the 5 components of emotional intelligence, this one is specifically related to work. People with high EQ will have a source of motivation for their job that goes beyond simply earning money or gaining notoriety. 

Of course, it’s completely fine to mostly work at a job because you want to be paid. But when you advance up the ranks and become a leader, you’ll be more effective if you are motivated by something else: for example, making the office a better place, helping others succeed, or growing and evolving as an individual.

Example: The Team Player

You are working late one night to finish up a project that’s due tomorrow. You watch your colleagues leave one by one. When your manager comes out, they ask what you are working on, and then offer to stay another hour to help you finish it up faster. 

You know your boss has no stake in this project personally. It won’t affect their job or reputation if it’s not done on time. But they stay to help because they want their entire team to succeed, they want the company to succeed, and they want you to leave and go home at an appropriate hour. That’s motivation that demonstrates high emotional intelligence.


5 ways to build emotional intelligence and become a better leader

If you’re trying to figure out how to move up at your company into a leadership position, then working on your emotional intelligence can help you climb the ladder. 

Below, you’ll find 5 methods for raising your EQ, along with resources to guide you along the way. 


1. Start listening to your colleagues and put yourself in their shoes 

As we’ve discussed, empathy is key to building emotional intelligence and being a successful leader. The best way to build empathy is to work on your listening skills—specifically, you need to learn how to put an end to passive listening and focus on active listening. 

When you’re passively listening, you’re thinking mostly about what you want to say next. You don’t give your conversation partner your full attention, and as a result, they don’t feel as though you really listened to them. This fosters negative relationships, and people will be far less likely to come to you in the future (which is not good if you want to rise into a leadership position). 

Instead, learn how to actively listen. When someone is talking to you, put away distractions, listen intently to what they’re saying, and don’t interrupt or turn the conversation to yourself until the right time. 



2. Spend time reflecting on yourself and your motivations

A good leader is self-aware, and true self-awareness takes work. You need to be able to sit with your thoughts and explore what motivates you in life, even if it feels uncomfortable. 

Reflection can be a solitary thing; you might carve out time every morning to do Yoga, take a walk, or sit with a cup of coffee and journal. Any method works just fine, as long as it gives you peaceful time to reflect on how you’re feeling and what you want. 

You can also self-reflect with others. This is what therapy is for—professionals can help you explore your inner thoughts, desires, and fears to become a more self-aware being. You can also share your feelings with friends to get feedback. Just be sure you’re still weighing your own thoughts and opinions against what you hear from others. 



3. Don’t shy away from social engagements inside and outside of work

There’s no getting around it: If you want to be a leader in the workplace, you need strong interpersonal skills. Knowing how to talk comfortably with people, especially around difficult topics, will be a huge help on your journey up the ladder. 

The social skills necessary to be a leader aren’t the same ones that may have mattered in college. You don’t need to be a party animal or a socialite. But you do need to know how to communicate effectively, how to hold a conversation, and how to be genuine and kind. 



4. Be supportive, even if it’s not in your job description

Leaders who possess emotional intelligence will help others without being asked. They don’t help because they expect something in return—they help because they are motivated by their empathy for their colleagues. 

When the opportunity arises to lend support to one of your colleagues, take it if you have the capacity. Don’t sacrifice your own mental health by overworking to help others, but when you have the time and ability, lend a hand. 



5. Start treating your emotional health like your physical health

Building up your emotional intelligence is going to help you get ahead, but it takes a lot of work. If you aren’t caring for your mental and physical health as you do this, you won’t achieve this goal. 

Emotional intelligence in leadership requires a person who can be empathetic, and an active listener who is social, friendly, and motivated. You have to make room in your heart and mind for all these things by practicing self-care. 

Self-care can look like lots of things, from doing absolutely nothing but what you enjoy, to attending regular therapy sessions, to working out a few times a week. It all depends on what your mind and body need. 



The world needs more emotionally intelligent leaders—people who are not afraid to be honest about themselves and show empathy to others. These are the leaders who have the most success, and anyone can join their ranks with dedication and patience.