Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

This guest blog by Andy Smith is about emotional intelligence and how it relates to leadership.

Many people still think that emotions just get in the way of rational decision-making, and that they have no value in the modern workplace. It’s true that if someone isn’t managing their emotions, and they’re erupting with anger all the time they are at work, that could be disruptive to work with. And at the same time, we need emotions to operate at all.

For example, scientists have found that emotions are not the enemy of reason, as was traditionally supposed. Quite the reverse – neuropsychologists have studied people who have suffered the kind of brain damage where the connection is broken between the areas of the brain that process emotions and the thinking parts of the brain. The intellect still works fine, but these unfortunate people become completely incapable of making any kind of decision: when to make the next appointment with the brain specialist, whether or not to wear a tie, what to choose from the menu, they just can’t do it – because without emotion, nothing matters to them. They can compare the pros and cons of each choice, but they don’t get that feeling that tells them when to stop going down the list and just choose one or the other.

In his book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, the bestselling author Daniel Goleman tells the story of one guy that this happened to – let’s call him Elliott – who was a successful businessman. Within a short time of suffering brain damage as a result of tumour removal, his business had collapsed, his marriage had broken up, and he was living in a bedsit – all because he couldn’t make any decisions without his emotions to help him, despite his intellect being unaffected. So you actually need emotion for your reason to work at all.

Another reason that emotions help in leadership, as well as in every other area of your life, is that they give you information about how other people are feeling, which is helpful for guessing what they might do next, how they might react when you tell them something, when they are ready to follow you, or when you should either shut up or find a different way of getting your message across. If you didn’t have that ability, you would constantly be putting your foot in it, saying the wrong thing, and be thought of as very hard to work with or for.

Emotions also give us information about things in our environment that our conscious mind might have missed. You know when everything looks good on paper but you have a niggling feeling that you’ve missed something? If you’re smart, you’ll recognise that that feeling is trying to tell you something, and you’ll take another look to see what you’ve missed.

I want to distinguish here between these “signal emotions” which give you information about what’s going on around you and which are quite fleeting – once you’ve noticed them, there’s no need for them to hang around – and “mood”, which is more persistent and can stick around for days or weeks. Mood is the baseline, and the signal emotions give you fleeting variations from that baseline. Positive psychologists like Barbara Frederickson have found that people are more productive, creative and resilient when their underlying mood is positive.

Finally, emotions are what motivate us. We’re not like robots, working at a constant rate all day. We can achieve far more when we are feeling motivated – either towards somewhere that we want to get to, or away from somewhere that we want to escape from. Effective leaders can evoke motivating emotions in the people who follow them; if a leader can’t do that, they’re at the mercy of events, and if people happen to be feeling down that day, not much will get done. Leaders, just as much as people who work for themselves, need effective ways of motivating themselves if they are going to achieve anything.

So emotions are important because they help us to make decisions, they give us information about how other people are feeling and how they’re going to act, and they are essential for motivation.

In the last twenty years or so, researchers have been looking into something that’s always been intuitively apparent: that IQ or intellectual ability on its own doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to be successful, in life or in business. There are plenty of extremely bright people doing dead-end jobs with no money and no close relationships.

Clearly, you need something else as well: the ability to know what you are feeling and what’s important to you, the ability to notice what other people are feeling, the ability to manage your own emotional state, and knowing how to handle and inspire emotions in others. Researchers such as John Mayer and Peter Salovey and Reuven Bar-on found that this set of abilities, which they called emotional intelligence, met all the academic criteria for being defined as a proper intelligence, and made a big difference to the results that people can achieve and consequently how successful they are.

Daniel Goleman, who has done more than anyone else to bring the idea of emotional intelligence into the mainstream, has a neat four-quadrant model of emotional intelligence. It has ‘self’ and ‘other’ on one axis, and ‘awareness’ and ‘actions’ on the other. So the four quadrants are Self-Awareness (understanding your own emotions), Relationship Awareness or empathy (being aware of other people’s emotions), emotional Self-Management, and being able to inspire and handle emotions in others, which he calls Relationship Management.

Goleman’s four-quadrant model of emotional intelligence

Goleman’s four-quadrant model of emotional intelligence


Self-Awareness is the foundation stone of emotional intelligence. To be able to lead wisely, you need to be aware of your own emotions. If you are not in touch with your own emotions, you will not be able to manage them or to recognise emotions accurately in others. In turn, without these competencies, you will not be good at managing relationships.

Yet many people, maybe most people, aren’t that self-aware. Our education system puts a lot of emphasis on facts and logic, not so much on tuning into your emotions. Most industrially developed cultures don’t encourage you to pay attention to your emotions, especially in a business context. So it’s not surprising that tuning into your emotions and what they are telling you, and noticing the impact that your emotions have on the people around you, is a skill that many people have to work at developing.

Emotions and feelings are words that are used pretty much interchangeably, because emotions show up as feelings in our bodies. But because there are so many demands on our attention, and because we spend a lot of time reviewing the past or imagining the future rather than being fully in the present moment, we sometimes don’t notice those feelings. So our emotions are still motivating us, causing us to act in certain ways, and affecting how well our physiological systems regulate themselves, without use being aware of it.

The quick self-awareness exercise that follows is designed to check exactly what physiological and mental signs of your emotions you are experiencing right now. If you’re driving or operating heavy machinery, you need to stop before you do this exercise, as you need your full attention.

Embodied Self-Awareness Exercise

This exercise is based on the fact that emotions show up as physical feelings in your body, as well as possibly internal dialogue or mental images. For example, if I was getting angry at something, which is usually a valuable signal that someone is trying to violate my personal boundaries, sometimes the first sign I get is that I feel my fists beginning to clench slightly.

The exercise that we’re about to do involves closing your eyes and so you definitely shouldn’t do it while you are driving or operating heavy machinery, or anywhere that you can’t just switch your attention away from the outside world and within yourself.

Note: clearly you won’t be able to read it with your eyes closed, so you can either get another person with a soothing voice to talk you through the exercise, or download episode 25 of the Practical NLP podcast and skip to the start of the exercise at 8m25s:


Ready? OK. What’s going on inside you at this very moment? Just get comfortable and close your eyes for a few seconds so you can focus your undivided attention. Whatever physical sensations you notice, you can ask them – if you choose – what they are trying to tell you, and leave some space for the answer to come back.

First of all focus on your face. Notice if you feel any tightness or tension – in your cheeks, in your jaw, or in your forehead. How do your eyes feel? Are they still and relaxed, or frowning, or are your eyelids fluttering? Notice any tension in your scalp.

Now become aware of your neck. Notice how that feels. And your shoulders, and across the base of your neck. Allow your attention to move down your arms to your hands. What sensations do you feel in your forearms, in your hands, and in your fingers? And if anything you feel were to be a valuable message, what is it trying to tell you?

Now move your attention down to your chest and your back. Notice how your ribs and your back muscles feel. Notice your heartbeat. And notice your breathing – is it slow and relaxed, quick and shallow, or just regular? Notice any changes and decide whether they are significant for you.

And move your focus down to around the stomach area. How does that feel?  And what’s that telling you?

And – let your attention move down to your hips, and your legs. Notice any tension or movement anywhere along the way. And finally focus on your feet, and notice what you can feel in the soles of your feet… and in your toes.

And any sensations you’ve noticed through that process, especially sensations that you weren’t aware of before, you can ask that part of the body what is it trying to tell you?

And you may have noticed that the sensations, or any tensions or involuntary movements, may have changed or quietened down as you’ve been focusing on them for a little while.

Finally, notice if you are saying anything to yourself or any mental images that come to mind. And you can let those thoughts and feelings come… and go… observing them and realising that you are not just whatever thoughts and emotions you happen to be experiencing at the time… and if “you” were just the sum total of your thoughts and emotions, then who is the “you” that’s observing them? And whatever you think you are, you’re “all ways” more than that.

So make sure you are back to normal everyday consciousness, with your eyes open, feeling relaxed and refreshed, and bringing back everything you’ve learned so that it’s there for you anytime in the future when you might need it.

Most people who do that exercise find that they feel more relaxed than before. “Attention is itself curative”, as Fritz Perls said. And if you found any sensations increased, maybe because you weren’t paying attention to them previously, it’s worth asking  yourself what they are trying to tell you.

Andy Smith is an Emotional Intelligence coach, Appreciative Inquiry facilitator, and NLP trainer who works worldwide. His blog, with lots of free tips, information and downloads, is at http://coachingleaders.co.uk