Emotional intelligence (EI) has been a hot topic in business, personal development, relationships and the media for at least the past decade. While some see it as a touchy-feely or overly personal approach to leadership, many experts believe that it pays dividends in terms of productivity, performance, turnover, motivation and ultimately success.

EI is the ability to recognise and manage one’s own emotions, especially in response to challenging or stressful situations. Another key part of EI, is the ability to recognise and respond sensitively and appropriately to the emotions of those around you. Many experts including Akers & Porter (2020) agree that there are five key elements of EI to be aware of:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to recognise one’s own emotions, triggers and responses.
  2. Self-regulation: The ability to control one’s own emotions using healthy strategies. 
  3. Motivation: The drive to work consistently towards a goal and entice others to do so.  
  4. Empathy: The ability to see things from a perspective other than your own.
  5. Social skills: The ability to communicate, delegate and resolve conflict.

But what does it mean to be an emotionally intelligent leader and why is it important? As a leader, you will undoubtedly be faced with challenging and stressful situations. How you deal with those situations will affect your mental health (and those around you), your own and others’ motivation, productivity and engagement and ultimately your success at whatever it is that you are engaged in.

Emotionally intelligent leaders have a catalogue of strategies for effectively dealing with stressful situations and therefore do not take their stress out on their co-workers and employees. They also recognise when those around them are not coping so well and know how to respond tactfully, providing support and guidance where necessary. The outcome of this kind of leadership is a workplace where employees are more likely to be happy, trust their leaders and feel supported and therefore, are motivated to work toward a common goal.

In this article, we will examine each of the five aspects of EI. When looking at self-awareness, we will examine the different leadership styles that leaders may adopt before moving on to emotional regulation. We will also examine how leaders can essentially ‘hack’ their own and others’ motivation and why it is important for leaders to be able to empathise with those around them. Finally, we will look at social skills and in particular, the essential leadership skill of conflict management.


Self-awareness is paramount to EI and emotional regulation. Self-awareness is the understanding of our own thoughts and emotions. It also includes an understanding of how these thoughts and emotions influence our behaviours and those around us. As a leader, an important aspect of self-awareness is the ability to be aware of your own leadership style and traits. Therefore, to begin, this article will provide a brief overview from Val and Kemp (2012) in relation to some common theories and views on leadership approaches:

Autocratic/Authoritarian: Relies on the idea of the ‘one leader to rule them all’ often times using coercion, arbitrariness, and command. An authoritarian leader essentially makes all the decisions and gives orders that their subordinates need to follow. At times, some autocratic leaders may be willing to consider ideas from others, but the decision lies solely with them. 

Democratic/Participative: The use of power here is based on respecting the ideas and opinions of others and can often be described as a ‘true use of power’ rather than coercive use of power. Democratic leaders will consult with a variety of people in the group, considering their ideas, group discussions and seeking consensus before making decisions. 

Laissez-faire: Often called ‘free-reign’ leadership, this style is rooted in independence and complete freedom. Essentially, the leader here steps away from a traditional ‘leading’ position and hands responsibility back to the employees. Here, the leader hands most of the responsibility to the group including decision making. 

Each of these leadership styles has its own advantages and disadvantages and individual leaders will often display different aspects of each style, in different scenarios. Think about a leader you have particularly liked or disliked…. what leadership traits did they display? Also, think about a time when you have taken on the role of a leader…. what style did your leadership methods reflect and why? Leaders do not always ‘stick’ to one particular method and the style they choose are likely to be reflective of the circumstances which present at the time.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Emotional regulation (ER), in its simplest form, is the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. How you deal with challenging situations and your ability to appropriately regulate your emotions during these times will directly impact your own mental health, the mental health of others as well as the overall outcome of the situation. Described as “the processes by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express these emotions (Gross, 1998, p. 275), ER is closely linked in with self-awareness. Self-awareness involves the act of being in tune with how we are feeling as well as understanding what is causing an emotion. ER then takes it a step further and looks at how, and when, we should display those emotions.

In the past, research conducted on emotions often looked at the idea of suppressing emotions in the workplace, rather than regulating these emotions. The suppression of emotions is rarely healthy and can often result in negative outcomes, lack of true connection and health concerns in both physical and psychological health (Salovey, 2001 & Grandey, 2000). If applied correctly, ER can actually help with stress reduction, better health and increased confidence (Salovey, 2001). ER can also be seen as the ability to confidently identify emotions, see how they relate to the situation at hand as well as assist with the selection of the best approach in relation to expressing them.

As discussed by Salovey (2001) the challenge of ER lies in knowing the answer to the questions ‘do I suppress my emotions or express them?’, and ‘what is the best way to express my emotion in order to reach my goal?’. To answer this question, Salters-Pedneaul (2019) describe the Process Model for Emotional Regulation; a model which asserts that our emotions are caused by four individual factors. This is known as the SAAR sequence: Situation, Attention, Appraisal and Response.

This model also implies that we are able to regulate our emotions by influencing or controlling the emotions we feel, accordingly. It is proposed that this can be achieved by avoiding stressful or hurtful situations where possible, focusing our attention on something else as well as changing the way we think about, approach or respond to situations. 


Motivation is the ‘drive’ that helps us reach our goals. It is a complex and much studied phenomenon and is closely linked to our needs, wants, survival or wellbeing. As Souders (2020) explains “the essence of motivation is energised and persistent goal-directed behaviour. When we are motivated, we move and take action.” As leaders, we are responsible for not only our own motivation but also the motivation of others and having a deeper understanding of how motivation works. By having this depth of understanding, it assists us to improve our own motivation and that of those around us.

As previously mentioned, motivation is a much-studied phenomenon. The following model from Souders (2020) aims to describe how antecedent conditions effect our motivation or motive status which then leads to goal directed behaviour or actions, eventually resulting in a change in outcomes.

As you can also see from this model, our motivation or motive status is further influenced by our own needs, thoughts and emotions. These can occur in isolation but more often, they occur in some form of combination. As Souders explains, our basic physiological needs drive us, our thoughts direct us and our emotions give us energy to pursue them. When this is combined with external motivating factors such as consequences or rewards this increases engagements and goal directed behaviour. 

What can emotionally intelligent leaders take away from this? It is important for leaders to understand that motivation is a complex interplay of internal and external factors sometimes called intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. For example, someone may take a job in order to buy a house, put food on the table and have a steady source of income. However, once they are comfortable in that job, the reward of money (extrinsic factors) may often no longer be enough. As humans, we then seek intrinsic rewards such as growth, challenge and/or recognition. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that in order to motivate employees they need to provide them with both forms of reward, with the ultimate aim of achieving long term, energised and engaged, goal directed behaviour.


Another important part of being an emotionally intelligent leader is recognising when others are not coping as well as they could be and then responding tactfully whilst providing support and guidance where necessary. This involves being aware of others’ feelings and emotions and being able to empathise with them.

Empathy is defined as the ability to sense the emotions that other people are feeling, combined with the ability to imagine or understand what someone else may be thinking, feeling or going through. A biologically rooted ability in all humans, empathy can help us to build successful relations by increasing mutual understanding, seeing different perspectives, needs and intentions of others (Berkley, 2020).

Kellett, Humphrey & Sleeth (2002) describe two approaches to leadership – an emotional approach using empathy and a hands-on approach which involves solving complex tasks. The authors conclude that empathy is an important part of leadership and that those who can connect with others are more likely to have relationships that are beneficial to their leadership.

A common mistake among leaders is to confuse empathy and sympathy. Sympathy relates to the sharing of feelings of sorrow, pity or compassion with others without truly understanding or knowing what it is like to be in another’s shoes. Empathy on the other hand, requires a person to connect with something within themselves to really understand, or even begin to imagine, how it may feel to be in that position. Empathy works by drawing on your own past feelings, experiences or emotions in order to relate to another person, whereas sympathy simply involves feeling bad or sorry for another person, without necessarily understanding or knowing how they are feeling.

Are you feeling a little confused by this all? If so, that is ok! There is still a lot of debate about the differences and definitions of these terms. Brené Brown, a leading researcher in empathy describes the difference beautifully in her animated short video “RSA Short: Empathy”. Brown describes empathy as a skill that can be strengthened with practice and states that “empathy fuels connection, and sympathy drives disconnection” (2020).

Social Skills and Conflict Resolution

Social skills can be seen as a broad term to describe a set of skills that a person possesses which allows them to appropriately handle emotions in a relationship, whist accurately reading social situations, interacting smoothly and using such skills to persuade lead and negotiate (Cha, Cichy & Kim, 2008). However, in terms of EI, Goleman’s (1995) explanations of social skills can be summarised into the following points:

  1. Effective leadership and being a catalyst for change
  2. Building bonds and rapport
  3. Teamwork and collaboration
  4. Persuasion and influence
  5. Developing others/motivation
  6. Communication skills and conflict management

While all of these aspects are equally important, as this article is brief, we will focus in on the final element, conflict management, as we believe that it is a critical aspect of emotionally intelligent leadership.

Conflict is unavoidable, and although many people may find it uncomfortable, it serves a purpose. Conflict is a normal part of everyday life and, if handled correctly, can lead to growth, better relationships and improved outcomes for all. In an organisation, we can see different types of conflict including clashing personalities, competing priorities, managerial changes and cultural changes. This does not mean that conflict is bad or good, conflict simply is.

The outcome of conflict can also be influenced by your mindset. As you may already know, our mindset is a set of beliefs which reflect our own personal characteristics and whether they can change. ‘Mindset’ often refers to characteristics such as intelligence, but it also applies to our views on conflict. People with a growth mindset believe that conflict can be overcome with effort and persistence while those with a fixed mindset believe that conflict or disagreements can never truly be resolved.

The doyen of growth mindset, Carol Dweck, conducted research into one of the world’s most entrenched conflict situations, conflict within the Middle East. Her conclusions reflect that a growth mindset advances conflict resolution, reduces aggression and can even foster improved cross-race relationships between entrenched enemies (Dweck, 2012). As leaders therefore, such research leans toward the substantial benefits of adopting a growth mindset in relation to addressing conflict within ourselves as well as those around us.

A few conflict management tips

The following are some essential questions you should ask yourself before going into a conflict situation. As a manager, you may also be called upon to resolve others’ conflict, in which case you should work through this list with both parties and help them come to a mutually agreeable outcome:

  1. Identify the central issue that you are trying to resolve and why the issue arose
  2. Understand how you and others respond to conflict
  3. Identify your ideal outcome
  4. Identify your bottom line (what you are willing to settle for)
  5. Know your non-negotiables and what you are NOT willing to give up or compromise on

In this article, we aimed to further open your eyes to some of the many benefits of EI (whether you believe yourself to be a leader or not). We have discussed self-awareness and self-regulation, and we also examined the importance of empathy in leadership and cleared up some common misconceptions in relation to this topic. We then touched on how to improve motivation in both yourself as well as in others, as a leader, and finally we discussed the essential leadership skill of conflict resolution. If this article has piqued your interest and you wish to further your learning in this area, consider undertaking some additional readings on Emotionally Intelligent Leadership.


  1. Akers, M. & Porter, G. (2020) What is Emotional Intelligence (EQ)? Retrieved from: Website.
  2. Berkeley. (2020). What is Empathy? Retrieved from: Website.
  3. Cha, J. Cichy, R. & Kim, S. (2008). The Contribution of Emotional Intelligence to Social Skills and Stress Management Skills Among Automated Foodservice Industry Executives. Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality & Tourism, 8(1), 15-31. DOI: 10.1080/15332840802274411. 
  4. Dweck C. S. (2012). Mindsets and human nature: promoting change in the Middle East, the schoolyard, the racial divide, and willpower. The American psychologist, 67(8), 614–622. DOI.
  5. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Batman Books. 
  6. Grandey, A. (2000). Emotion regulation in the workplace: a new way to conceptualize emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5(1), 95–110.
  7. Gross, J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271–299. DOI.
  8. Kellett, J., Humphrey, R. & Sleeth, R. (2002). Empathy and complex task performance: Two routes to leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, (13(5), 523-544. 
  9. Salovey, P. (2001). Applied emotional intelligence: Regulating emotions to become healthy, wealthy, and wise. In J. Ciarrochi, J. P. Forgas, & J. D. Mayer (Eds.), Emotional intelligence in everyday life: A scientific inquiry (pp. 168–184). Philadelphia: Psychology Press. 
  10. Salters-Pedneault, K. (2020). How Emotion Regulation Skills Promote Stability. Retrieved from: Website
  11. Souders, B. (2020). What is Motivation? A Psychologist Explains. Retrieved from: Website.
  12. Val, C. & Kemp, J. (2012). Leadership Styles. Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Education, 24(3), 28-31. 
  13. Brown, B. (2013). Brené Brown on Empathy (video). Retrieved from: Website