Does leadership need Emotional Intelligence?

Over the past 30 years there’s been a growth in competency models which sought to understand the theory behind competencies that drove superior work performance to develop managerial practice[1]. Gallwey says that each of us has the potential to improve our performance but our own negative thoughts, beliefs or habits stops us[2]. Goleman’s framework of Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the leading model for the development of superior management and leadership[1].

Goleman[3] defined EI as:

“the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and others”.

Inside Out and Emotional Health[4]:

Richard Pascal[5] once argued that:

‘It is easier to act your way into a better way of thinking than to think your way into a better way of acting’.

In other words it is easier to change behavior and therefore change the taken for granted assumptions, than try to change assumptions as a way of changing behavior. Our sense of self is tied largely to the way we express ourselves, our feelings and attitudes; going beyond basic thoughts and ideas[2]. So why use EI? Well research indicates that the level of emotional intelligence can determine up to 85% of leadership success[6].

Some of our best leaders and moments in history have been driven by EI. For example when Martin Luther King Jr. presented his dream he chose to deliver his message through stirring the heart of his audience. He had the ability to recognize, understand and manage emotions to a level that enabled him to create a spark of emotion that led his audience to take action. Since Goleman’s first publication on the subject of EI, it has snowballed into being advertised by leaders, educators and policy makers as the solution to solving social problems. They argued that promoting EI among leaders will lead to a more companionate workplace and community[7]. But does it? You can’t have the good without the bad!


EI is defined in terms of 5 social competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and social skill[3]. But inherently how can emotions be measured? It can’t. Self-report questionnaires are open to faking, they judge knowledge not ability. Intelligence and the correct personality characteristics like high extraversion, openness, and low neuroticism make a good leader.

However recent research highlights the dark side of EI, when people perfect their emotional skills they become better at hiding their true emotions. As a result they become better at manipulating others; if you are good enough at hiding your true self, what is to stop you from manipulating others to act in your best interests? Obviously people don’t always use EI for immoral ends, typically it is a tool for goal accomplishment. But it is becoming evident that there is a fine line between motivation and manipulation, so walking the fine line will be no easy task for anyone. The corporate psychopath can display many of the competencies Goleman described and still act unethically. Empathy for example can be used to influence and engage others to corrupt and engage in unethical practices[1]. Grant argues that when trying to implement it in the workplace we need to consider the values that comes as a result of it, and where it will be useful[6]. So what does it mean for HR?

In Jennifer George’s article she emphasizes the connection between emotional ability and leadership behavior, identifying 5 essential elements. She explained that leaders with high EI are better at achieving these outcomes[8]:

  • Developing collective goals and objectives;
  • Instilling in others a sense of appreciation and importance of work;
  • Generating and maintaining confidence, enthusiasm, cooperation, optimism, trust;
  • Encouraging flexibility in decision making and change;
  • Establishing and maintaining meaningful identity for the organization

Quick, Little and Nelson[9] highlight the link between employee well-being and the recognition and management of emotionally healthy workplaces. Furthermore Gardner and Stough[10] found that EI correlated highly with components of transformational leadership (and presumably charismatic leadership too[11]), in particular how leaders observe and respond to employees and how this in turn makes employees feel at work.

Essentially HR employees are ‘people’s people’ that seek to have a positive influence on employee’s lives in the workplace whilst maintaining a commercial relationship. So HR must excel at both soft and hard interpersonal aspects of EI. HR is under increased pressure to be smarter, more analytical, efficient, strategic and innovative. This can have a toll on the confidence of the function as a whole so if leaders with high EI can boost morale, then yes we need emotional intelligence[12].

Shown below are some of the CIPD’s recommended ways of developing EI into the workplace[13]:



[1] Segon, M., & Booth, C. (2015). Virtue: The Missing Ethics Element in Emotional Intelligence. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(4), 789 – 802.

[2] Sparrow, T., & Knight, A. (2006). Applied EI the importance of attitudes in developing emotional intelligence. Chichester: Jossey-Bass .

[3] Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. London: Bloomsbury.

[4] Mind, T. C. (2016, March 4). Inside Out and Emotional Health. Retrieved from YouTube:

[5] Johnson, G., Whittington, R., & Scholes, K. (2011). Strategy in action. In G. Johnson, R. Whittington, & K. Scholes, Exploring strategy: text and cases (9th ed., pp. 501 – 550). Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

[6] Jacobs, S. (2010, September 24). Emotional intelligence centre stage. Retrieved from Chartered Institute of Personnel Development:

[7]  Grant, A. (2014, January 2). The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

[8] George, J. (2000). Emotions and leadership: The role of emotional intelligence. Human Relations, 53(8), 1027-1055.

[9] Quick, J., Little, L., & Nelson, D. (2009). Positive Emotions, Attitudes and Health. In S. Cartwright, & C. L. Cooper, The Oxford Handbook of Organizational Well-Being (pp. 214 – 235). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[10] Gardner, L., & Stough, C. (2002). Examining the relationship between leadership and emotional intelligence in senior level managers. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 23(2), 68 – 78.

[11] Antonakisa, J., Ashkanasyb, N. M., & Dasborough, M. T. (2009). Does leadership need emotional intelligence? The Leadership Quarterly, 20(2), 247 – 261.

[12] Arnstein, V. (2015, June 12). HR’s emotional intelligence levels ‘going backwards’. Retrieved from People Management:

[13] CIPD. (2008, May 1). How to… develop emotional intelligence. Retrieved from Chartered Institute of Personnel Development:


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