What is the Role of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership?

Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to identify and manage one’s emotions and the emotions of others. 

Daniel Goleman, the psychologist who helped popularize EI, identifies its five elements: self-awareness (including awareness of one’s biases), self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. The more leaders can manage each of these areas, the higher their emotional intelligence. 

While there is widespread consensus on the scientific validity of EI and general consensus it can be learned and strengthened, some researchers still argue it is an inborn characteristic. Brandon Hall Group research shows a split among employers on the importance of EI in leadership compared to management competencies.

Which is More Important for a Leader to Possess? 

It’s a scientific fact that emotions precede thought. When emotions run high, they change the way our brains function, diminishing cognitive abilities, decision-making powers and even interpersonal skills. Understanding and managing our emotions (and the emotions of others) helps us be more successful in our personal and professional lives. 

Goleman’s research shows that when comparing top performers with average performers, 90% of the difference is attributable to emotional intelligence. So, while leaders must have management and business competencies, they must be built on a foundation of emotional intelligence. 

Most organizations do think development of emotional intelligence is important going forward — it ranks as the most important leader behavior needing development over the next one to two years, according to Brandon Hall Group research. But there is a disconnect between that and the investment employers plan to make: EI ranks 17th among 20 leadership-development priorities in our HCM Outlook 2021 Study

There is evidence that reluctance to invest in EI is borne more of ignorance than outright opposition. About 67% of organizations not training on EI said they are not familiar enough with it or don’t know how to measure it. At the same time, recognizing unconscious bias, which is part of emotional intelligence, ranks as the number-one leadership development investment priority. 

More than 40% of organizations do not believe their current leaders, as a group, have the competencies and emotional intelligence to successfully drive their business goals over the next two years. More than half of these organizations say their leaders are ineffective because they do not sufficiently focus on foundational leadership skills, including emotional intelligence. 

  • What type of leaders do we need to make our organization successful in the future of work? 
  • How do we give leaders and prospective leaders the foundational skills to excel? 
  • Should investment in developing emotional intelligence in leaders be a higher priority than it currently is? 

We strongly believe that emotional intelligence is a critical foundational leadership competency. Collaborative, inclusive leadership is the future and emotional intelligence is essential for inclusive leadership. 

In Brandon Hall Group’s latest leadership-development research, self-awareness of biases and acting to minimize them were seen as the biggest weaknesses of leaders — by a two-to-one margin. 

We are working in an era of severe and ongoing disruption that requires resilient, creative, compassionate leaders who can tolerate ambiguity and continuous change. In addition, leaders are collaborating with new generations of workers who embrace diversity and inclusion, and aren’t afraid to leave their jobs if they don’t feel valued or see a lack of opportunities for development and advancement. 

Developing emotional intelligence is a prerequisite to success. It does not ensure success, but not having well-developed EI significantly impedes leader performance. For years, employers have failed to develop the leaders they need. Most employers we talk to understand the importance of improving leadership development. It starts with a commitment to developing emotional intelligence in leaders, from front-line managers to the C-Suite.

Brandon Hall Group Strategy Briefs answer the critical questions learning, talent, HR and business leaders must address to manage their human capital. To tackle these critical questions in more detail, we built tools, frameworks, research summaries and business builders based on up-to-date research and case studies for you to implement best and next Human Capital Management (HCM) practices. To gain access to these valuable resources, contact [email protected].

Leading minds in HCM choose Brandon Hall Group to help them build future-proof employee-development plans for the new era. For more than 27 years, we have empowered, recognized and certified excellence in organizations around the world, influencing the development of over 10,000,000 associates and executives.

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Mike Cooke



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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.