Leadership in the modern world demands more than just technical expertise and traditional management skills. A successful leader must also possess a high degree of emotional intelligence (often abbreviated EQ for “emotional quotient”) to navigate complex social and professional landscapes effectively.

Emotional intelligence is a crucial aspect of a leadership style that includes self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. In this article, we will explore the significance of emotional intelligence for leaders, its key components, real-life examples of successful leaders who exhibit high EQ, research findings supporting the benefits of EQ, and practical strategies for leaders on how to improve their emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the capability to recognize, understand, manage, and effectively use emotions, both one's own emotions and those of others. Considered an essential international business skill, emotional intelligence is a multifaceted concept, with four key components:

  • Self-awareness: This involves recognizing and understanding your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and values. Self-aware leaders are in touch with their feelings and can accurately assess their impact on others.
  • Self-regulation: Leaders with strong self-regulation can manage their emotions and control impulsive behaviors. They remain calm under pressure and make thoughtful decisions.
  • Empathy: Empathetic leaders can understand and appreciate the emotions of those around them. They are skilled at recognizing and responding to the needs and concerns of their team members.
  • Social skills: Leaders with strong social skills excel in communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution. They create an inclusive and supportive work environment.

The significance of emotional intelligence in leadership

Emotional intelligence is a cornerstone of effective leadership. Leaders who possess high EQ are better equipped to build and maintain strong, productive teams, communicate effectively, and navigate the complexities of organizational dynamics. Here are some of the ways emotional intelligence benefits leaders:

Enhanced decision-making

Leaders with high self-awareness can recognize their own biases and emotional reactions, allowing them to make more objective and rational decisions. They are less likely to be swayed by personal feelings or external pressures.

The ability to regulate one's emotions is paramount in decision-making. Leaders who can control impulsive reactions are more likely to make thoughtful and well-considered choices, even in high-pressure situations.

Understanding the emotions and perspectives of others can aid in decision-making. Empathetic leaders consider the impact of their decisions on their team members and stakeholders, leading to more inclusive and ethical choices.

Improved relationships

Leaders who exhibit empathy create an environment of trust and psychological safety. Team members feel heard and understood, which fosters a sense of belonging and loyalty.

Leaders with strong social skills also excel in communication, team building, and conflict resolution. They can navigate diverse personalities and perspectives, fostering positive relationships within the team.

Conflict resolution

An empathetic leader can mediate conflicts more effectively by understanding the underlying emotions and concerns of those involved. This enables them to address root causes rather than just surface issues.

Leaders displaying strong social skills can also facilitate open and constructive communication between conflicting parties. They create an atmosphere where people feel safe expressing their concerns, which is essential for conflict resolution.


Knowing one's strengths and weaknesses is key to adaptability. Leaders who are self-aware can identify areas where they need to improve and adjust their leadership style accordingly.

Leaders who can manage their emotions and reactions effectively are better equipped to handle change and uncertainty without creating unnecessary panic or resistance within their teams.

Real-life examples of EQ in leadership

To better understand the practical application of emotional intelligence in leadership, let's look at some real-life examples:

Warren Buffett

Often referred to as the “Oracle of Omaha,” Buffett is one of the most successful investors in the world and the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. His leadership is characterized by exceptional self-regulation, which has played a significant role in his success.

Buffett is known for his ability to remain calm and composed, even during turbulent financial markets. This self-regulation is a vital component of his leadership style. It allows him to make thoughtful, long-term investment decisions rather than reacting emotionally to market fluctuations. This quality reassures his investors and has contributed to the ongoing success of Berkshire Hathaway.

Nelson Mandela

The former President of South Africa, Mandela, was celebrated for his extraordinary empathy and his pivotal role in ending apartheid peacefully.

Mandela's capacity for empathy was showcased through his willingness to understand and forgive his oppressors. He recognized the importance of reconciliation and unity to heal the deeply divided country of South Africa. His ability to empathize with those who had wronged him and his people played a pivotal role in the peaceful transition to majority rule.

Steve Jobs

The co-founder of Apple, Jobs, was known for his self-awareness and self-regulation, which played a significant role in his success as a leader and innovator.

Jobs had a deep understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, especially his penchant for perfectionism. He used this self-awareness to drive innovation at Apple. He demanded excellence not only from his team but also from himself, pushing the boundaries of what technology could achieve.

These leaders' stories illustrate how emotional intelligence can be harnessed to achieve success, whether in finance, social change, or technology. It highlights that emotional intelligence is a crucial component of effective leadership, transcending industries and contexts.

Research findings on the benefits of emotional intelligence

Research supports the notion that emotional intelligence is a vital component of leadership success. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that leaders with high emotional intelligence are more likely to create a positive work climate and achieve better business results. Other key findings include:

  • Leaders with high emotional intelligence tend to inspire and engage their teams, leading to higher productivity and job satisfaction.
  • Emotional intelligence is linked to effective communication and conflict resolution, reducing workplace stress.
  • Organizations with emotionally intelligent leaders tend to have lower turnover rates and higher employee retention.

Practical strategies for developing emotional intelligence

Leaders who seek strategies for improving emotional intelligence can employ a variety of methods, either through self-development at home or with professional training for emotional intelligence:

  • Self-assessment: Begin with self-awareness by regularly reflecting on your emotions, triggers, and reactions. Journaling can be a helpful tool for this.
  • Active listening: Practice empathetic listening by genuinely paying attention to others, seeking to understand their perspectives, and asking open-ended questions.
  • Meditation and mindfulness: These practices can improve self-regulation by helping you manage stress, increase self-awareness, and stay composed under pressure.
  • Feedback: Encourage honest feedback from colleagues, mentors, or coaches to gain insights into your strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Empathy exercises: Engage in empathy-building activities, such as volunteering, engaging in cross-cultural experiences, or actively seeking diverse perspectives.
  • Training: Consider professional development programs or coaching to further enhance your emotional intelligence skills.

Build your leadership skills at Thunderbird

Emotional intelligence is an indispensable asset for leaders in today's complex and rapidly evolving business world. Leaders who cultivate self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills are better equipped to make informed decisions, build strong relationships, and create a harmonious and productive work environment.

Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University understands the importance of strong leadership by offering top degrees, including the Master of Global Management, Master of Leadership and Management: Global Creative Industries, and the online Master of Leadership and Management. Furthermore, the Executive Master of Global Management offers a flexible way for full-time working professionals to obtain a graduate degree in only one year.

Learn about additional opportunities to further your leadership education with Thunderbird’s executive education programs.

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