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The role of emotional intelligence in effective leadership

The role of emotional intelligence in effective leadership

As greater energy and focus is given to emotional wellbeing in the workplace, the role of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is beginning to emerge as a fundamental cornerstone of effective leadership practice.

Unlike traditional leadership skills and qualities that focus on results and strategy, EQ centres on the ability to manage one's own emotions and use them to understand and positively influence the emotions of others. Being aware of how your emotions can and will affect your decision making and your behaviour, as well as understanding and empathising with the emotional responses of your team, can mean the difference between high performance excellence and complete failure.

Understanding emotional intelligence in leadership

At its core, emotional intelligence involves self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social adeptness. In the workplace, these components translate into a leader's ability to connect with their team, understand their motivations, and navigate some of the complex interpersonal dynamics that will always arise when human beings come together to work on a task or a challenge.

A leader with high EQ can create an environment of mutual trust, respect and understanding, crucial components of effective team management. Emotionally intelligent leaders are adept at handling conflicts, inspiring and motivating their team and the individuals within it, as well as continuously developing and driving a culture of positive reinforcement. All of these factors are hugely important, but their impact is especially felt during periods of crisis, or in the midst of particularly challenging situations. These are the moments where a leader's emotional intelligence can mean the difference between escalating a problem beyond saving and successfully navigating through it. 

Satya Nadella’s emotionally intelligent approach to Microsoft’s leadership, particularly during the COVID crisis, is probably cited most often in this context. Under his guidance, Microsoft saw a complete revitalisation of its culture and, more fundamentally, its business strategy. His deeply empathetic leadership style, with a focus on creating in his workforce a growth mindset through pioneering initiatives and empowering projects, continues to inspire and engage teams throughout the organisation.

Balancing emotional intelligence with business acumen

Whilst progressive and hugely beneficial to wellbeing, it’s not enough to simply empathise with the teams and individuals that make up an organisation. To drive high performance at every level, emotional intelligence must be paired with a keen and well-developed business sense to be truly effective. Leaders need to cultivate not only an understanding of their team's emotional needs but also continuously demonstrate business acumen with a clear vision and strategic thinking that drives profitability and efficiency. This balance is not always easy to achieve.

High levels of empathy must be tempered with the ability to make and communicate difficult decisions that are not always going to be popular. The balancing act requires leaders to be adept at conflict resolution, negotiation, and influencing without gouging morale too deeply, or sacrificing core business objectives too profoundly. Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, was a master at striking the right balance between making tough decisions whilst simultaneously raising her team up. She was known for engaging directly with Senior Managers on key decisions, pulling whole teams into high-level meetings to ensure that everyone understood her thought process and agreed on the best course of action for the company. This is high-level emotional intelligence. Her ability to balance empathy with business acumen and decisive decision-making led the company through major transitions and periods of immense upheaval, all while improving employee welfare, and engagement, as well as PepsiCo’s core objectives.

Developing emotional intelligence

Leaders can develop and enhance their emotional intelligence in a variety of ways, but it starts with self-reflection and an awareness of one’s emotional responses and triggers. ‘Why did I respond in that way?’, ‘How and why did they make me feel like that?’,What could I have done differently?’ are questions that every leader should ask themselves after any major business interaction. Wherever possible, leaders should seek feedback from the members of their teams and leverage post-project retrospectives to gain valuable insights critical for self-improvement. Be open to learning: training programs and workshops focused on EQ development can be enormously beneficial.

Emotionally intelligent leadership also involves recognising and nurturing these skills and qualities in others. By developing an environment where emotional intelligence is valued and seen to be openly developed, leaders will naturally create a more dynamic, adaptable, and ultimately successful organisation. One where open communication and feedback is prioritised to achieve high-performance results. Emotionally intelligent leadership should no longer be seen as a rarity in organisations - a supplementary skill, or a nice-to-have quality that one is born with and cannot have developed. It should be seen as an absolute necessity and the cornerstone of effective business practice.

Employees demand it, and the increasing complexities of modern business practices require it above all else. At its core, it’s about understanding and balancing the human elements of leadership with the strategic and operational demands of running a successful organisation. The ability to empathise, understand, and effectively interact with members of your team and your organisation means the difference between a good leader and a great one. Leaders who prioritise their emotional intelligence and mastery of this balance will not only lead more cohesive and motivated teams, but also drive their organisations towards long-term profitability, efficiency and ultimately, success.

At Acumen, we are dedicated to equipping leaders with practical tools to tackle real-life challenges. Our comprehensive range of training and development programs, including customised interventions and off-the-shelf courses, helps organisations foster a culture of respect and empower their employees. To learn more about our programs and how they can benefit your organisation, please contact Simon at



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