The 5 Ways to Spot an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

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Research has shown us that more than 90 percent of top leadership performers have a high amount of emotional intelligence, or EI.

The higher up the ladder that leaders are, the more people they impact and their EI becomes increasingly important. The person at the top sets the atmosphere that permeates the organization, including the emotional temperature.

Not only does a leader with low emotional intelligence have a negative impact on employee morale, it directly impacts staff retention. We know that the biggest reason that people give for leaving an organization is the relationship with those above them.

Here are five ways to spot an emotionally intelligent leader:

1. Non defensive and open

Insecure leaders that demonstrate low EI become defensive and take it personally whenever they encounter anything that appears to them as criticism and a challenge to their authority.

A secure leader with a healthy dose of emotional intelligence strives to listen, understand and find out what is behind behaviors and actions of those they are responsible for managing. They listen before they respond and if they don’t understand something ask open ended questions that are meant to gather more information.

As opposed to leaders with low emotional intelligence, they don’t make it about them, but look for ways to make the situation better for everyone involved.

2. Aware of their own emotions

Leaders who are oblivious to their own emotions and how they are impacted by them have no awareness of how their words and actions affect others. This can have a very devastating effect on staff morale and lower productivity.

Highly emotionally intelligent leaders are aware of strong emotions and avoid speaking out of anger and frustration. If they feel the urge to give in to strong emotions in their interactions with others, they give themselves a time out, waiting until their emotions have leveled off and they have had a chance to think about the situation.

3. Adept at picking up on the emotional state of others

A skilled and empathetic leader that is aware of other’s emotions is able to use that awareness to develop stronger relationships with those they manage. Even if delivering bad news, they are able to cushion the impact by simply letting the receiver know that they are aware of how they might be feeling.

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Leaders with high EI are able to put themselves in place of the person receiving criticism or negative feedback, allowing them to give it in a way that might be more beneficial and less destructive.

4. Available for those reporting to them

Good leaders make themselves available to those reporting to them both physically and emotionally. They are responsive to the fact that there will be times that those reporting to them will be having difficulties outside of work that will impact them.

Death of family members, friends, relationship breakdowns and all sorts of life crisis will affect virtually everyone at work at times. Emotionally open and secure leaders understand are there for support during these times.

5. Able to check their ego and allow others to shine

While possessing self-confidence, high EI leaders do not have a need to demonstrate their own importance or value.

They chose their words carefully and speak and act out of concern for their staff, and the health of the organization. They do not have the need to have their ego massaged and are not looking for ways to take credit for the work of others.

Understanding that people work better when they feel appreciated, they are always looking for ways to show give positive feedback and rewards for a job well done. Secure in their own abilities, they are not threatened by those under them and actively seek to help them work to the best of their capabilities and rise up the organization.

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert and internationally published author of THE OTHER KIND OF SMART, Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success published by the American Management Association of New York. He has an extensive background in career development and social work, and is certified to administer the Bar-On EQI, the first scientifically valid test for emotional intelligence that has been approved by the American Psychological Association.


38 Comments on “The 5 Ways to Spot an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

  1. Thanks for this article–I wish more people would talk about EI and its affect on everyone on staff. Sensitivity and empathy are, to my mind, even more important than IQ in a leader.

    1. You hit it on the head, Carol. A leader without empathy, understanding and EI is just a manager. It takes little skill to use positional power and order people around, but use EI and empathy to have people follow you, that’s another thing altogether.

      1. Mark, point taken, but I disagree; if leadership is social influence (which I believe it is), then it’s quite possible to be an amazing leader and simultaneously be–crudely put– a jerk. Ask those who worked with Steve Jobs. I also think it takes great skill to “order people around” and get them to do things that lead to amazing results. having served in the Army, I can say with confidence that not just anyone can order people around and get results. For me the key is striking a balance: the art of ordering people around without ordering them around.

    2. Carol, you are so right. Problem is, empathy and sensitivity are often mistook for weakness, not just on the part of direct reports, but also on the part of leader colleagues. Hence, to be bold, influential, execution-oriented AND empathic and sensitive requires balance.,.. and a lot of training and experience. Many companies are evidently under the impression that people in leadership position should naturally have these skills. They don’t. Leadership training is critical. very specific, focused leadership training that teaches the balancing act: how to influence AND be likable. That is the promised land of leadership IMO.

  2. Research apparently doesn’t always fit reality, as the most common complaint from my clients is bosses who are bad delegators, micro-managers, yellers, moody…things that are pretty far from having EI. Is it that people test well for EI and then can’t act it out in real life? Are career coaches only getting people who have bad bosses?

    1. Ha. It’s so true; one can give all the right answers on paper, but if “EI” is not in their heart, it certainly won’t be AUTHENTICALLY present in their interactions. Authentic being the keyword for me.

      “EI” is, for me, a matter of the heart. For me, it’s about LOVE, believe it or not. I think if you truly have people’s best interest in your HEART, you essentially care for their well being, you see your position as one of influence to contribute your gifts to their advancement, “EI” comes out in everything you do. If anyone has delusions about teaching “EI” to a leader whose sole goal is $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ and material achievement, I wish you luck with that

  3. Which research is showing high level of EI in top management and from which year? I believe it is other way around: the higher on the ladder the lower is EQ of our leaders (research sample in a book Topgrading – Dr. Smart). According to his research only 25% of bosses worldwide has required level of EI.

  4. That’s odd! I have never come across someone with high EI being promoted, in fact, the opposite…

    1. depends on your definition of “EI.” If it means the ability to emote at work, you are 100% correct. Emoting is frowned upon. The more you emote, the less stable you are perceived.

  5. I don’t think it’s helpful when HR Pros belittle, as several commenters are here, senior management. If we want our profession to be part of the senior team, insulting those who are is not effective.

    I know plenty of senior execs with high EI and plenty of HR Pros with low EI. Every profession and position has those who are excellent, those who are mediocre, and those who are terrible. HR Pros, of all people, should know this.

    1. Rich, you are right that there are plenty of senior leaders who have high EI. In fact, I’ve always been impressed by many colonels in the US Army. For some reason, many I’ve met have high EI. And I’ve also been a leader with (I hope) EI.

      I’m not sure I agree that it’s insulting to say there are senior leaders with little EI. The reality is that there are plenty who don’t – as there are at all levels of organizations. EI isn’t taught, or traditionally much valued, so it isn’t a surprise when people don’t have it.

      Perhaps it’s an insult if the person thinks they have high EI and really don’t. I worked for someone like that. Statements of truth, however, are not insulting. Those of us with some EI do want to know how to reach these people and help them see what their impact is on their teams without being insulting – because it’s not helpful for people to get defensive and shut down.

      Sometimes, too, people don’t care whether they have EI or not. I’ve known people who are proud of their ability to make decisions without caring very much about people’s feelings. “It’s only business, not personal” is the phrase I think I’ve heard a thousand times. So saying they don’t have EI may actually be heard as praise in some way.

      Finally, without seeing the research this article is based on, it’s hard to know what was tested, and defined as EI. All I can do is talk about my own experience, which admittedly is limited.

      One other point inherent in this whole discussion is the heavy toll of politics at the top, especially pressure from various stakeholders, to make decisions that may not put EI first. So a leader may have high EI and still be disrespected because of the business decisions s/he makes. How those decisions are communicated is a way to show EI. And then legal and confidentiality concerns may interfere.

  6. We know how important employee engagement is on organizational performance. Engagement impacts everything from productivity to profitability, and the single most important relationship to employee engagement is the employee/supervisor relationship – at every level. Why we don’t make EI more of a core competency for management is really hard to understand. Understand the balance sheet is important, but the internal health of an organization has much more to do with the way the people involved work together than the financial controls. I understand we can’t hold hands and sing Kumbuya all day, but we have to deal with the human relationships – customers and employees first. Well – at least that’s how I see it, anyway. Once those relationships are healthy, the financial issues are usually easier to sort out. That’s been the case in my professional experience, anyway.

  7. What do you do when you work for someone who doesn’t want to set a structured work environment and complains that you are mot doing what they need. If you use your initiate and suggest an idea they say they have been doing it their way for x number of years? Is working for a married couple who own a small business where both work in the office a good idea?

    1. “What do you do when you work for someone who doesn’t want to set a
      structured work environment and complains that you are mot doing what
      they need. If you use your initiate and suggest an idea they say they
      have been doing it their way for x number of years?”

      Very common problem in small offices. My wife has worked for many such people. Can be frustrating. Many are very complacent and averse to change. Then again, it’s a problem in larger orgs too, esp. with those who have a lot of tenure. Do some research on Change Leadership, you might learn some great techniques for influencing change without being perceived as a gadfly/disrupter/etc.

      ” Is working for a married couple who own a small business where both work in the office a good idea?”

      That can be very challenging. My wife was in that situation a few times and she always felt like she was in the middle. She vowed not to work for a husband/wife team again. She hasn’t looked back. Your mileage may vary

      1. I think it’s a great discussion. But I hope we don’t get stuck with whether it’s valued or not. The really important part of this article is how to develop these qualities in everyone – not just leaders – so the whole work environment can be richer, more productive and more welcoming of new ideas.

  8. One conflict of leadership is that Western culture values leaders who are bold, decisive, and take charge. Emotionally intelligent leaders tend to think about situations and their consequences before acting, make decisions that consider the emotions of others, and let others “take charge” so that they can develop. Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the two types of leaders are in conflict. Emotionally intelligent leaders have a tendency not to lead from the front because they are helping other leaders to develop. It can be easy to overlook someone who is quietly leading instead of constantly reminding everyone how capable he or she is.

    1. Completely agree. This comment is spot on. My mantra has been always “focus on doing great work, and help others succeed.” That approach doesn’t always work in some environments. So my goal has become to try to change the environment or seek environments out that are conducive to it or support it. Not always apparent in today’s free market.

    2. One of the most important traits of a leader is to ensure he/she develops a strong succession who can take charge.

  9. “Emotional intelligence” … is an oxymoron, isn’t it? There is so much buzz about “emotional intelligence” like it is some new concept. All it means is the ability to empathize and express compassion– which a great number of people evidently are unable to do. The supporting items listed above have more to do with leadership:

    Non defensive and open – means: self control
    Aware of their own emotions – means: self aware
    Adept at picking up on the emotional state of others – means: empathic
    Available for those reporting to them – means: accessible, approachable
    Able to check their ego – means: humility

    As you can see, these are age old leadership maxims. Not sure why we are giving them new names other than to sell books and stuff, but hey, as long as leaders are getting the message, I’m not going to get hung up on semantics

  10. Having emotional intelligence does not mean that you are emotional. It means that your are emotionally mature. It means that you can be count on to keep your cool in high pressure situations and make logical decisions. People trust leaders who are emotionally stable. If one can’t control their own emotions they certainly should not be tasked to lead others.

  11. Very poignant and important points!. Today’s workplace needs to focus more on choosing leaders with high EQ to model and support a healthy working environment and mentor those looking to become leaders themselves!

  12. Case in point and could not help nodding in agreement -The second Parargraph of point #2 – Aware of their own emotions and know how to control them. Had a recent experience where a very senior executive level Director in the presence of his immediate reports picks up the phone to yell at somebody a few levels down the food chain about a decision that that he thinks is unilateral. When you see such incidences coming from top down then you begin to question your approach to staying focused on the larger vision of the organization and wonder how this kind of leadership going to accomplish that vision.

  13. I’m a big believer in the Servant Leader model as it is fully intertwined with high emotional intelligence delivered in the form of ensuring a team succeeds by enabling the success of its members. Here is a summary quote that captures this approach. “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types…The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

  14. Great post, thank you. Being aware of one’s emotions and tapping in others is such a valuable gift for a leader.

  15. I’ve been giving workshops about Emotional Intelligence in the workplace for several years now and love doing it. Developing the core competencies of EI helps make the workday more productive with less drama and gets those negative reels you play over and over in your head about being disresepted to disappear because you were able to recalibrate in the moment. Using your emotional intelligence skills of role revershal and finding points of agreement are real game changers.

  16. Judy Boozer is entirely correct in terms of the ‘old school’ type of leadership : bold decisive, top-down, familiar if sometimes stultifying, it often gets higher praise from the administration and sometimes from the workers themselves. I am not entirely convinced that this is a Western culture phenomena, all hierarchies exhibit this sort of behavior.

    In fact, the most effective management combines the two: decisive, with an ability to read the emotional winds.

  17. Judy, great call, the EI leader will (rarely) recieve credit for the success of the org where a politically intelligent (shall we call them PI) can make failure look like success. It may seem like a massive contradiction, but maybe EI leaders need to model PI behaviour for the grater good? Oddly enough, a high functioning EI should recognise this and be both adept and comfortable to manage the political space too? After all it is only another set of filters and awareness to apply to achieving an outcome, isn’t it?

  18. I think people complicate too much about leadership.

    There’s a reality: Not everybody is builded to get the best out of themselves or other people.

    There are employees that will even get upset or resign if you push them to be at their best because they are not only comfortable at their position but also are good at what they do & are ok staying the same.

    I feel the best talent an emotionally intelligent leader can have is to able to detect who in the team wants more and who doesn’t and accept it, and of course from that place take the decision to fire or keep who ever is up to complete the company goals.

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