Emotional Intelligence of Great Leaders

Learn the emotional intelligence of great leaders
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The idea of emotional intelligence (EI) has popped up quite a bit recently, with entrepreneurial experts extolling its virtues – the ability to understand and manage the emotions of yourself and others – as vital to growing as an entrepreneur.

Emotional intelligence aids in negotiation and collaboration, networking and communication; all important components of building your brand. Without EI, the process is difficult if not impossible.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

As stated, the basic definition of emotional intelligence is having both an understanding of and ability to manage your emotions, as well as the emotions of other people.

Like regular intelligence, there are varying degrees of EI. Those functioning at the highest levels not only understand their emotions, both what they feel and what those feelings mean, but also understand how these feelings affect others.

According to psychologists, leaders demonstrating emotional intelligence have the following qualities:

  • They are empathetic
  • They are motivated
  • They have self-awareness
  • They are self-regulated
  • They have good social skills

If you want to increase your emotional intelligence, these are the areas to work on.


Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some people conflate empathy with sympathy. They aren’t the same thing. In Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch says it best: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathetic leaders have greater success developing their teams. They offer constructive criticism, meaning feedback designed to improve the person’s performance, not just knock it down. They recognize, and challenge, unfair behaviors and practices.

Take the time to consider someone else’s point of view and try to understand it, even if you don’t agree with it.

Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, you can build empathy skills. Start by paying attention to body language, both yours and other people’s. Reading someone’s body language lets you move past his words to discover how he really feels.

Finally, pay attention to nonverbal cues about what your people feel. This can be a tone of voice, body language, a fleeting look of disappointment before your admin agrees to work late yet again. When you recognize one of these cues, address it.

For example, if you routinely expect your admin to work late, let her know that you appreciate her hard work and willingness to put in the extra time to ensure the project’s a success. Most people feel more motivated when they have a deeper understanding of the why, so let her know why this project is important and how her work affects the organization. If you can, offer her comp time or a similar reward to make up for it.


Find your inner motivation, the same self-motivation that helps you reach other professional goals. Remind yourself why you love your job and your leadership role. Write down all the reasons you pursued this role to begin with (in the journal we talk about in the next section). If you’re unhappy with your position, this can help you understand why.

Look for something good in every situation, even failures. Motivated leaders feel optimistic despite challenges, and you can find something positive from every situation, even if it doesn’t feel obvious. It may be the simple fact that you increased your knowledge and experience, or your ability to learn a lesson and apply it to the next endeavor.


People with self-awareness understand their feelings, as well as how their actions and emotions affect others. Leaders looking to improve this skill need a deep understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. There are practices you can take advantage of to accomplish this.

First, start keeping a journal. Even if you only spend a few minutes each day filling it with your thoughts, journaling helps improve self-awareness. Reading through it later reveals patterns in behavior and thoughts.

Second, take the time to examine your emotions as you feel them. This means that, when you feel angry, you don’t lash out at the person or situation that made you angry. Instead, take a moment to examine the feeling, as well as what inspired it. This helps you learn what your emotions are trying to tell you.

Finally, you must learn humility. This might be a challenge for many entrepreneurs and leaders, due to the ego required to seek these roles. However, recognizing that you are no more important than anyone else in your organization is a key component of developing self-awareness.


Self-regulation takes understanding what your emotions are trying to tell you to the next level. Leaders skilled in self-regulation make more measured decisions, show greater integrity in sticking with their values, do not generalize and stereotype others, and are generally better at maintaining self-control.

Improve this skill by holding yourself accountable when things go wrong. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes, even you. When you do, admit it. Take responsibility and accept the consequences. Many people feel that strength means never apologizing or admitting you’re wrong. The truth is that it takes a strong person to admit to begin wrong, and your employees respect you more when you’re able to do so.

Next, practice calming exercises. Compare it to going to the gym to work on your abs, but here you’re working on your ability to avoid responding in anger. Developing ways to calm yourself better prepares you for those times when you’re tempted to lash out. Deep breathing exercises are a great way to do this. You can also record your negative emotions in your journal, or just write them on a piece of paper and then tear it up. When you’re calm, you can address the situation in a more effective way.

Finally, have a clear understanding of your values. Consider developing your own personal code of ethics, deciding which items are most important, and leave no room for compromise. Doing this makes moral and ethical decisions natural.

Social Skills

If you’ve made it to a leadership role, you probably already have decent social skills. However, emotional intelligence requires social skills beyond good networking chops.

EI leaders find diplomatic resolutions to conflict and manage change well, and lead by example. Emotional intelligence social skills means being an excellent communicator, whether you’re hearing good news or bad, plus having the ability to rally your team behind a new initiative.

Improve your social skills by first improving your communication skills. This article on Psychology Today is an amazing resource for growing your communication skills, which leads naturally to improving your social skills overall.

The Key Takeaways

Improving those five emotional intelligence skills takes a bit of practice, but you’re an entrepreneur and a leader; you aren’t afraid of a little hard work. This is especially true if that effort leads to a more successful company and a stronger team.

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