Published: Nov. 29, 2023

Emotional leadership is a strength, not a weakness.

A hand places wooden blocks that spell out EI

Emotion and business are not mutually exclusive. Just the opposite, really.

It can be the difference between being an impulsive and reactionary leader or one that is cool and collected.

Emotional Intelligence (EI) creates a strong foundation for other important leadership qualities like decision making, time management and teamwork, so it makes sense that corporate leadership is prioritizing training and development for soft skills like EI that become the difference-makers in people who effectively lead complex and successful business teams across global and matrixed organizations.

Just as organizations are seeking leaders with high EI and the ability to make sound decisions based on empathy, communication and self-awareness, employees also are seeking organizations with strong, supportive cultures.

Salma Shukri, associate teaching professor at the Leeds School of Business, teaches the emotional intelligence module in the Executive Leadership Program. She covers why emotional intelligence matters, especially in today’s business world where teams are spread across the globe and working in hybrid and remote environments.

Shukri breaks down EI into two layers:

  • Personal Competence: how well you understand yourself and regulate and control your responses and behaviors to the circumstances that trigger you.
  • Relational Competence: your level of social awareness and your ability to adapt your communication to each individual or circumstance.

EI helps manage how you present yourself and how others perceive you, and it helps you understand how to respond to others in appropriate ways.

“If you’re in control of your emotions you make better, more informed decisions,” Shukri said. “Strong emotional intelligence helps with your executive presence and equips you to become a better team player in addition to a leader. It helps with tailoring your communications to be better received, and it also helps with cross-cultural interactions to navigate uncertainty while maintaining an open mind.”

The case for EI

Shukri said the pandemic is a good case study to understand why EI is so salient right now. Virtual environments and dispersed teams can lead to communication and organizational gaps. Emails can become ripe for misunderstanding, and the frequency and format of check-ins can impact employee satisfaction.

Remote environments also present challenges that require managers to be more involved in their employee’s mental wellbeing and monitoring for potential burnout. “It’s about having check-ins and being intentional about connecting with as many people as possible. It’s important to make time for employees to see each other as unique and valuable individuals. One should ask for feedback more frequently about what’s working, make small talk to connect on a personal level, create collaborative spaces to combat feelings of isolation, listen to one another, and remind people they are part of the team.”

She also notes a Verizon study that surveyed 1,700 senior business leaders and found that, before COVID-19, less than 20% of respondents said Emotional Quotient, another term for EI, would be an important skill for the future. But since the lockdown, EQ increased in significance for 69% of respondents.

Be a more emotionally intelligent leader

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ is an EI expert and says there are five core principles to improve emotional intelligence, and of these principles, motivation is the most important attribute. An individual must have intrinsic motivation and a self-improvement mentality to become more emotionally intelligent across the other principles.

Five Core EI Principles

  1. Self-awareness: knowing your emotions and their effect on other people
  2. Self-regulation: managing your emotions
  3. Motivation: defined as “a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status”
  4. Empathy: recognizing and understanding other people’s emotions and treating people accordingly
  5. Social skills: proficiency in managing your relationships and building networks

“Everything was shaken and disrupted,” Shukri said. “With the uncertainty during the pandemic, emotions became more salient and harder to ignore in a business context. What we learned from that circumstance is that it’s more important than ever before to manage yourself, seek the support of others, and to also support others as fellow humans.”

Shukri also notes that the 2013 Google study still rings true today – soft skills like EI outweigh hard skills when it comes to top-performing employees and their potential for promotions.

EI in challenging environments

One way EI issues tend to surface is as a challenge in situations where there is a higher likelihood of misunderstanding. Shukri explains how crucial EI is in cross-cultural interactions due to the differences in values, experiences, expectations and norms. These differences can elicit emotional responses such as frustration due to feelings of incompetence or a perceived lack of control. Emotional intelligence helps individuals handle uncertainty with composure while remaining open to different cultural norms through learning and perspective-taking.

“Humans find comfort when there is familiarity and predictability,” Shukri said. “Intercultural and cross-cultural business presents differences outside of our expected norms, and unpredictability can result in negative emotions. Anyone who is training employees to be global leaders is in one way or another training them in emotional intelligence.”

“By following the principles of emotional intelligence, a person can build referent power, and referent power has a direct effect on building psychological safety and loyalty in a team. It can increase employee retention and satisfaction, and help in influencing the people on your team.”

Business leaders can—and to remain competitive, should—build their EI competencies and find the internal motivation to do it. If you’re interested in building up your soft skills to lead through influence and thoughtfulness, consider the one-week immersive executive leadership experience, taught by Leeds faculty including Salma Shukri in May 2024. You can learn more or register here.