What Is Emotional Intelligence in Leadership?

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What is emotional intelligence in leadership? What four skills make up emotional intelligence?

In their book, Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee explain that emotionally intelligent leaders have four specific skills. This differs slightly from the five skills Daniel Goleman lays out in his previous book, Emotional Intelligence.

Here are the skills and microskills necessary to be an emotionally intelligent leader and a comparison to Goleman’s previous work.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

What is emotional intelligence in leadership? The authors define emotional intelligence (EI) as the ability to understand and manage our own emotions while also being able to understand and influence the emotions of others. 

Emotional intelligence is composed of four main skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Each of these skills contains a set of microskills—specific competencies that give people the ability to successfully execute the skill:

  1. Self-awareness is the ability to understand your own emotions—what caused them and how they might impact other people. The microskills you need to excel at self-awareness are: understanding your emotions, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and having self-confidence.  
  2. Self-management means that you’re able to manage and rationalize your emotions—that you know when it is and isn’t appropriate to express them and how to do so effectively. The microskills you need to excel at self-management are emotional control, adaptability in the face of ambiguity and challenges, high personal standards, personal motivation, and optimism.
  3. Social awareness is the ability to understand the emotions of other people and consider why they might be feeling a certain way. The microskills you need to excel at social awareness are: being empathetic, being able to read the politics, social networks, and power relationships of a group, and being able to foster an emotional climate.
  4. Relationship management is the ability to use your understanding of other people to manage your relationship with them—to be supportive when necessary, assertive when necessary, sympathetic when necessary, and so on. The microskills you need to excel at relationship management are the ability to inspire others, the ability to help people reach their goals and cultivate their abilities, the ability to spot the need for changes, the ability to resolve conflict, and the ability to bring people together as a team.
Updating the Emotional Intelligence Skill Inventory

The four skills outlined here indicate a progression of first getting a handle on your own self and then getting a handle on your relationships with others: To master EI, you’d start with self-examination, then move to self-control, and then repeat the process by looking outward. The terms correspond to this framework—switching between “awareness” and “management,” first applying it to yourself and then to other people. In this way, the authors indicate that EI is a progressive skill that starts by looking inward and ends by looking outward.  

In Daniel Goleman’s earlier book, Emotional Intelligence, he defines emotional intelligence as consisting of five main skills rather than four and doesn’t include the comprehensive list of microskills that he discusses in Primal Leadership. 

Emotional Intelligence asserts that the five main skills of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. 

Self-awareness is defined almost identically in both Emotional Intelligence and Primal Leadership; however, the former notes that one of the keys to being self-aware is having an emotional vocabulary—knowing that the emotion “love” could be caused by feelings of acceptance or trust, or that the emotion “shame” could be due to guilt or humiliation. This emotional vocabulary helps you understand why you’re feeling certain emotions.

Self-regulation is what Goleman calls self-management in Primal Leadership, but in Emotional Intelligence, Goleman adds that we should take particular care to manage our anger, anxiety, and sadness. If we don’t manage these emotions, they’re more likely to become common occurrences and negatively impact other parts of our lives. 

In Emotional Intelligence, Goleman defines motivation as being able to control your impulses, being hopeful, and being able to achieve a high state of focus while working toward goals. While Emotional Intelligence lists motivation as one of its main skills, Primal Leadership includes it, along with the associated skills of impulse control and hopefulness, as microskills of self-management.

Empathy is also only a microskill of social awareness in Primal Leadership, however, in Emotional Intelligence, Goleman lists it as one of the five major EI skills. He defines empathy as the fundamental skill that allows us to understand others along with their wants and needs. He notes that empathy is especially important in “caring professions” like sales, management, and teaching—an argument he discusses in depth in Primal Leadership.

Social skill is the final main EI skill in Emotional Intelligence and is virtually the same as relationship management in Primal Leadership. In Emotional Intelligence, he breaks social skills down into four abilities: organizing groups, negotiating solutions, personal connection, and social analysis. These abilities closely align with the relationship management microskills of bringing people together as a team and resolving conflict, and the social awareness microskills of fostering an emotional climate and being able to read the politics, social networks, and power relationships of a group, respectively.

The authors explain that most good leaders possess at least six total microskills and have at least one microskill of each of the four main skills. However, if you lack one of the four main skills, meaning you have no microskills in that area, your leadership may be ineffective and lead to poor group performance.

What Is Emotional Intelligence in Leadership?

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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