What does emotional intelligence look like in a leader?

As a leader, no doubt you want to inspire others and have an impact on your organisation, community, or field of expertise. Perhaps you already do. But if this is still an aspiration, or work in progress, emotional intelligence is a set of skills you can learn that will help take you from unaware to aware, and make you a more mindful leader who really has an impact in the world. 

Emotional intelligence tells us a lot about the “how” of mindful leadership. It’s a practical way to find and work at your growing edge so you can navigate the waters of your own and other people’s emotions in the workplace, and start practising more emotionally intelligent behaviours.

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far”  

-Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman hit the nail on the head when he said “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far”. (Goleman, 1995). For most of us, this principle holds true.

Not that long ago, feelings were not even welcome at work. While this outdated view is long gone from the leadership discourse, especially for mindful leaders, sadly, it persists in some workplaces. In fact, research is now confirming that emotional intelligence improves leadership effectiveness (Rosete & Ciarrochi, 2005) and it is the key factor that distinguishes the ordinary from the extraordinary leaders (Boyatzis, 1982).

It’s important to be clear about what we mean by emotional intelligence. Some approaches see emotional intelligence as an ability you either have or don’t have as it’s closely related to your personality and character traits. I see emotional intelligence as being distinct from personality (the totality of characteristics that make an individual unique) and traits (the characteristics that contribute to that personality).

Both of these concepts suggest we are fairly fixed, with little room to grow.  This can be a depressing thought if you already know emotional intelligence is not your strong suit, or if you’ve received feedback about this which has come as an urgent wake up call.

When I went in search of a model of emotional intelligence to help develop mindful leaders, Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence was a good place to start as it is a competency-based conception of emotional intelligence.  Competencies are simply skills and behaviours that can be identified, measured and improved.

My own conception of emotional intelligence draws on the work of Goleman but is closer to the model developed by Genos International.  I like the Genos definition of emotional intelligence:

“Emotional intelligence (EI) involves a set of skills that help us perceive, understand, express, reason with, and manage emotions, both within ourselves and others. We can apply these skills to help us become more conscious of our own and others’ feelings, and more conscious of the influence emotions are having on our decisions, behaviour, and performance.”

Genos International Pty Ltd

Know Thyself

If emotional intelligence is a set of competencies and behaviours that can be learnt and developed, it’s important to develop them through conscious practice. Take heart – all leaders or aspiring leaders can have confidence they can improve their emotional intelligence (and so be more mindful leaders) by learning about, and practising, emotional intelligence. It just takes a mindset that is open and willing to grow.

The foundation for emotional intelligence is self-awareness. To understand more about just how revolutionary awareness is, see Awareness is Revolutionary in the Growing Edge Blog.

Self-awareness begins with knowing yourself, particularly knowing what you are feeling and why. Visitors to the temple of Apollo in Delphi were urged to “Know Thyself”, sage advice that is as relevant today as it was 2,700 years ago.

In her recent book, Insight (2017), which I recommend to anyone interested in their personal and professional growth, Tasha Eurich makes the very useful distinction between internal and external self-awareness.

“Internal self-awareness has to do with seeing yourself clearly. It’s an inward understanding of your values, passions, aspirations, ideal environment, patterns, reactions, and impact on others.”

(Eurich, 2017, p.8)

What you will actually see in a leader with this type of self-awareness is a person who is very authentic. They make choices that are consistent with who they really are and, often, this will enable them to have happier and more satisfying lives. The converse is also true. Leaders who are less internally aware of themselves don’t know what they feel and need. What you will see is a leader who is not very authentic, with the accompanying unhappiness and dissatisfaction showing up in their professional or personal lives.

By contrast, leaders who are externally self-aware know how other people see them:

“External self-awareness is about understanding yourself from the outside in – that is, knowing how other people see you.”

(Eurich, 2017, p.8)

Leaders with this type of self-awareness can accurately see themselves from others’ perspectives, so you will see a leader who has strong and trusting relationships with others.  This is a great asset when it comes to building relationships both inside and outside work. But if a leader is less aware of how others see them, this can undermine their capacity to build strong and trusting relationships, which will seriously impact on leadership effectiveness.

It’s true that opposites attract. My life partner and I are polar opposites when it comes to internal and external self-awareness. I have spent many years doing mediation retreats and “working on myself” and this has helped me to be quite aware of myself with all my strengths and weaknesses. It’s true that others see me as very authentic. But I am less aware of how others actually see and experience me. My partner is sometimes bothered by the forthrightness with which I interact with others. When I am being unapologetically myself, I guess he worries that people might not like me if, in the process, I am not aware of how they see me and the impact I have on them.

By contrast, he is very aware of how others see him and, as a result, he has deep and long-standing relationships with a very wide circle of people who know and trust him. But I worry, at times, that he tends to override what he actually wants or what he really needs to say. In the process, he can fail to take care of his own needs, or to find the fulfilment that comes from being true to yourself.  He appreciates my reminders about the importance of self-care, or the occasional gentle nudge when I ask “but what about you?”

From this learning, it’s clear that both internal and external self-awareness are essential for developing self-awareness, and to finding fulfilment in our personal and professional lives.

Emotional Intelligence Assessment

When I did my certification training with Genos, I undertook the 180° assessment process and received feedback on my work as a leader. When I received the results, the feedback was both illuminating and sobering. I appreciated receiving the feedback that I am authentic as leader. Much less complimentary was the feedback that I could be more sensitive to others’ feelings in the way I communicate decisions that impact on them. This was my urgent wake up call; the sobering feedback that made me pause and take stock about how I could be more emotionally intelligent as a leader.

While coming to terms with the feedback that I was not as emotionally intelligent as I thought I was, I came across Tash Eurich’s research into awareness (2017) which found that 85% of people assessed themselves as being self-aware, but only 15% of people actually were. It was good to know I was not alone!

Eurich notes that people experience us differently sometimes than we experience ourselves and it’s up to us to get that data so we can figure out what to do about it.  This is where emotional intelligence assessment really helps.

“People experience us differently sometimes than we experience ourselves and it’s up to us to get that data so we can figure out what to do about it.”

Tasha Eurich

The 180° assessment gave me feedback on some very specific workplace behaviours. This was the data I had been needing to clearly see what was getting in the way of my own leadership, and to set a plan to improve. 

Navigating the waters of emotions

Emotional intelligence assessment can help leaders navigate the waters of emotions which are inevitable – and also useful – in leadership and in teams. The waters are sometimes smooth and sometimes choppy. When you take the helm, steer with awareness of your own and others’ emotions, collaborate with the people who are travelling with you, and maintain awareness of where your colleagues are going. Steer purposefully, appreciate the skills others bring to the journey, inspire those who wish to follow, and enjoy the ride!

It is an essential part of the process – indeed it is an emotionally intelligent behaviour – to be able to take and respond to feedback. While self-assessment of your emotional intelligence has been shown to be of limited value because we don’t always see ourselves clearly, getting feedback from others in a 360° assessment can be exceptionally helpful. The process gives us the data we need to make a plan for specific actions and activities that will help us develop our emotionally intelligent competencies and behaviours.

What can you see in an emotionally intelligent leader and what can you do to cultivate it?

Here are the five core competencies I teach in my Transformational Coaching Program, together with ten related competencies and ten examples of visible behaviours you can put into practice to be more emotionally intelligent (there are many more).

Competency:   Knowing how you feel and why
Behaviour:       Ask for feedback on your behaviour and respond effectively to feedback when you receive it from others

Competency:   Understanding how others see you
Behaviour:       Adjust your behaviour to align with others’ expectations of you as a lead

Competency:   Controlling your emotions and impulses
Behaviour:       Keep your cool when you feel under pressure in a work meeting

Competency:   Showing up with integrity
Behaviour:       Apologise when you fail or when you’re not at your best

Awareness of others
Competency:   Seeing others’ feelings and perspectives
Behaviour:       Notice when some-one needs support and provide the support they need

Competency:   Appreciating and respecting others
Behaviour:       Say thank you to team members for their hard work and achievements

Relating to Others
Competency:   Collaborating towards shared goals
Behaviour:       Help people understand their purpose and contribution to the organisation

Competency:   Inspiring and influencing others
Behaviour:       Create a positive work environment where people want to belong

Emotional reasoning
Competency:   Considering emotions in decision-making
Behaviour:        Be sensitive to others’ feelings when making and communicating decisions

Competency:   Making ethical decisions
Behaviour:       Be honest and clear about your decision with the people who will be impacted

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is certified by Genos International to undertake Genos emotional intelligence assessments. Maria offers Genos emotional intelligence assessment as part of her Transformational Coaching Program. To find out more, contact Maria.


Boyatzis, R. E. (1982). The competent manager: A model for effective performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Eurich, T. (2017). Insight: why we’re not as self-aware as we think, and how seeing ourselves clearly helps us succeed at work and in life. New York: Crown Business.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Rosete, D. and Ciarrochi, J. (2005), “Emotional intelligence and its relationship to workplace performance outcomes of leadership effectiveness”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 26 No. 5, pp. 388-399. 

© Maria Brett, 2021