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Using Emotional Intelligence to be a better leader

Ever since Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence in 1995, there has been a wide-ranging debate among Leadership Development professionals about:

  • What exactly does Emotional Intelligence (EQ) mean in practical terms for leaders?
  • Does developing EQ in leaders improve their performance as leaders?
  • How can Leadership Development professionals build emotional literacy in the leaders they support?

These questions have profound implications for trainers, Executive Coaches, Organisational Psychologists, Recruiters and Senior Leaders. Here’s some quick guidance and practical advice that will help leaders to improve in this vital area.

When the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ first came into use, it seemed to me that most people who used it meant “the ability to recognise your own emotional state and/or that of others”.

Which is important, right? Everybody could benefit from understanding themselves and others better. This understanding could help in:

  • Conflict situations
  • Team building
  • Stress and resilience
  • Learning and development
  • Leadership
  • ….and more

Consequently, I’ve spent a lot of my time as a Coach helping my clients to become more aware of their own emotional state and/or the emotional state of others.

I’ve sought to build people’s ability to:

  • Observe themselves and others
  • Accept fluctuating emotions as normal for everybody
  • Enquire sensitively about the emotions of the people they serve or lead
  • Give and openly receive constructive feedback about feelings

In short: I’ve tried to make better, more human leaders out of my clients.

However, being aware is not enough. Leaders have to put that awareness to genuine constructive use by learning to moderate or regulate emotional fluctuations – in themselves and/or others.

Put another way, EQ means not being hijacked by our feelings.

It’s been shown in studies of successful sports teams. If a particular passage of play is not going as planned, team members in winning teams tend to articulate their emotional state and to respond accordingly. Or they might ask a colleague about their emotional state and encourage her/him to take the appropriate corrective action.

The same skills can be deployed in business settings. For example, If a successful leader who likes to feel in control of herself is thrust into a situation of ambiguity, she will recognise her discomfort with uncertainty and actively regulate it.

In addition to self-monitoring, successful leaders are also acutely aware of the emotional state of team members and take the trouble to address issues that hold the team back such as confidence, anxiety, trust, anger, conflict, ambiguity, confusion… even optimism and single-mindedness which if misplaced can be devastating to a team’s performance.

Regulating emotions means in practice looking rationally at feelings and consciously refusing to allow a negative response to drive behaviour. For example, when something goes wrong at work, disappointment or even despair might follow. Some people (come on, we’ve all done it) might retreat within themselves. Resilience comes from noticing that consequence and replacing it with say goal setting or problem solving.

So: EQ might appear a complex or even mystical component of leadership. But it’s utility is not that complicated. Many successful leaders have learned self-awareness and awareness of others and how to make a reasoned, constructive choice to respond to these feelings – they don’t allow themselves to be hijacked.



David Wilkinson:

Campo, M., Sanchez, X., Ferrand, C., Rosnet, E., Friesen, A., & Lane, A. M. (2016). Interpersonal emotion regulation in team sport: Mechanisms and reasons to regulate teammates’ emotions examined. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-16.


#DanielGoleman: Emotional Intelligence. (Bantam Books 1995).

Martin Garrity

Martin is a trainer, coach and L&D Manager with over 25 years experience helping leaders at all levels to learn.  Martin’s clients have included The NHS, Cancer Research UK, Shell, Royal Bank of Scotland, Oracle UK, Novartis, Barings, Wiley Publishing, The Ministry of Defence, The Home Office, TRW and NCR.

Working with groups has long been a passion for Martin.  His style relies on a flipchart more than PowerPoint with lots of interaction, questions, argument and exploration – and the occasional shaft of humour.

Martin’s other love is working 121 with leaders.  He’s covered change leadership, career development, stress/burnout, working relationships, dealing with bullying, breaking bad news and assertiveness.  His clients particularly value his succinct summarising, calm demeanour and incisive

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