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There’s no single recipe for leadership success. In fact, a good executive coaching approach should be based on the notion that every organization and leader has their own unique strengths, weaknesses and needs.

That said, there are a few leadership qualities that rise above the rest and can make or break a leader’s success. The ability to connect with employees and make them feel seen and heard is quickly rising in importance, especially since the pandemic, the rise of virtual or hybrid teams and other big changes in the workforce.

Emotional intelligence in leadership is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Here’s how to spot this skill in action and how to develop it in your own leaders.

What is emotional intelligence in leadership?

Emotional intelligence in leadership refers to a leader’s ability to connect with their employees on a personal level, making them feel cared for, included and respected in their roles. It doesn’t mean you have to spend time together outside of work; it does mean you have to show interest in the whole person and not just the specific tasks they perform at work.

In practice, high emotional intelligence at the leadership level empowers employees to thrive in their roles, making them feel comfortable coming to work, sharing new ideas, and motivated to achieve their professional (and personal) goals.

Leaders that are high in emotional intelligence have a sincere curiosity in their team members’ lives and well-being, and they care about accommodating employees’ lives and putting them in the best position to succeed.

These types of leaders also know how to read a room. They have an intuitive ability to learn about the people they’re working with, and they know how to adjust their behavior depending on the demeanor, personality and temperament of others. Oftentimes, especially for the most effective leader, this makes those around them feel comfortable and at ease, which can help facilitate stronger working relationships.

The importance of emotional intelligence in leadership

Emotional intelligence is at the heart of effective and successful executive leadership. It drives the formation of strong relationships, empowering organizations to achieve their goals and realize their mission.

Here are some of the top benefits of emotional intelligence in leadership:

  • Boost engagement: People leave managers, not companies. One of the key benefits of emotional intelligence in leadership is that leaders are approachable and care about their team members holistically. That high level of connection makes employees feel more engaged, which reduces attrition.
  • Improve collaboration: Emotionally intelligent leaders are good at creating a sense of trust, accountability and enjoyment among teams, helping to make employees more collaborative and more willing to share tasks, responsibilities and, importantly, successes.
  • Promotes innovation: Workplace cultures that are created and led by emotionally intelligent leaders are more open, meaning team members aren’t afraid to take creative risks and propose ideas without fear of judgment or criticism. This creates a culture of innovation that helps the best ideas come to the surface.
  • Resolve conflicts: These types of leaders know that a healthy level of conflict is a good thing. They also have strong conflict resolution skills, so they’re able to encourage debate and deliberation without letting it escalate into unhealthy differences between team members.

Emotional intelligence in leadership can have a positive, trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Many team members — especially those newer to an organization — will seek to emulate their leaders to better enmesh themselves into the organizational culture. That’s especially true of the popular, effective leader. Teams don’t just benefit from the emotional intelligence of their leaders — it tends to rub off on others, helping a strong sense of empathy and mutual care spread throughout the team.

New business environments demand empathy

There have been a number of important developments over the previous few years that have made emotional intelligence in leadership critical to success. For example, the increased emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives has created a demand for leaders that can create workplaces that are welcoming of people from diverse identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Leaders with high emotional intelligence naturally prioritize an equitable and inclusive culture.

Organizations are also grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to hybrid/remote work models that it generated. It’s more important than ever that leaders are able to create highly engaged workplaces with enough insight into employees’ unique needs to overcome little face-to-face interaction and long geographic distances.

Key competencies of emotionally intelligent leaders

Here are some of the common leadership qualities that emotionally intelligent leaders tend to share:

  • Humility: Empathetic leaders know what they don’t know, and they aren’t afraid to admit that. They understand that it takes the full team to accomplish the goals of the organization, so they aren’t afraid to lean on others for help, support and guidance. A leader who demonstrates humility creates an atmosphere where all members of the team feel involved and valued, which can bring out the best in everyone.
  • Listening: Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t have to constantly be the center of attention. In fact, they often choose to take a back seat, allowing ideas from other team members to flow freely. These leaders know the importance of making employees feel heard and respected, and that means listening to them when they raise an issue, propose an idea or offer feedback.
  • Curiosity: These types of leaders understand there’s no one way of doing things, and they have an unceasing curiosity for learning new methods, techniques and strategies to motivate their teams and point people toward their goals. Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t get locked into one approach — they’re constantly curious about learning new ways to improve.
  • Optimism: It’s a fact of life: Sometimes things just aren’t going your way. When that happens, the only thing you can do is bring a positive attitude and stay optimistic. Empathetic leaders embody optimism; they know that there are always good lessons to be learned and a light at the end of the tunnel. They make sure everyone on their team has enough support to feel confident that hard times will pass.
  • Stability: In a similar vein, empathetic leaders are calm, cool and collected when the going gets tough. Team members never have to worry which version of their leader they are getting based on the day, circumstance or client. Emotionally intelligent leaders bring the same attitude, approach and steady hand to every situation.
  • Accountability: Mistakes happen, and when they do emotionally intelligent leaders are quick to take responsibility. By doing so, they encourage team members to act with courage, take calculated risks and assume responsibility themselves. There is no “blame game” going on in an accountable culture led by an emotionally intelligent leader. Instead there is a culture of trust and honesty. Mistakes are transformed into learning opportunities.
  • Sense of humor: They may not all be the next Rodney Dangerfield, but emotionally intelligent leaders are easy to get along with and know how to add some light-heartedness to the workday. Their sense of humor helps create an enjoyable, fun-loving work atmosphere, making team members feel happy, engaged and connected when they come to work. Not only does this boost employee engagement, but it also makes employees feel safe enough to be themselves on the job.

The possible shortcomings of emotional intelligence in leadership

As with any trait, characteristic or leadership style, there are possible shortcomings to consider when it comes to emotional intelligence in leadership. Taken to the extreme, emotionally intelligent people can become so invested in other people’s problems that they make them their own. That is, they become enmeshed in others’ emotions and are distracted from fulfilling the other crucial functions of their job.

It’s also possible for empathetic leaders to be taken advantage of. These types of leaders tend to be good natured and quicker to believe in the sincerity of other people’s plights. An individual with dishonest intentions might recognize this as an opportunity to gain unfair favor or advantage from the leader.

At The Bailey Group, we coach our clients to become compassionate witnesses to the discomfort of others, instead of making others’ challenges their own. That means learning to be empathetic without becoming emotionally invested, enabling them to keep a healthy distance while still offering sufficient emotional support.

Developing emotional intelligence in leadership

Our team of psychologists, business leaders and executive coaching experts at The Bailey Group is committed to working with leaders across all industries to develop their emotional intelligence and make them more impactful and effective leaders. This is how we do it:

Our approach

When we engage clients, our first priority is to help them gain a greater sense of emotional awareness. Many leaders aren’t even aware that there is an emotional disconnect between them and their team members, so it’s critical that they learn how to self-assess their own behaviors, traits and actions. That helps us better pinpoint where improvements can be made and gives them the basic tools to take an active part in their development.

We do this by conducting assessments, asking probing questions and getting to the root of why individual leaders behave the way that they do. From there, we work with clients to build concrete development goals, holding regular check-ins with their leader to gauge progress and providing supplemental learning materials to assist in their ongoing development.

We work to build the foundations of emotional intelligence, including:

  • Emotional awareness: Clients get better at examining their own behavior from the perspective of others.
  • Emotional processing: Clients learn to process difficult emotions in a constructive, productive way.
  • Patience: Clients become better able to pause, take a step back and approach every difficult situation with calm and clarity.

We aren’t one-and-done executive coaches. We work with leaders throughout their development journey and provide consistent feedback to ensure long-term progress toward their goals. In our view, one of the marks of success is that our clients are able to approach situations on their own and ask, “What would my coach do/say?” And then act confidently, leading with emotional intelligence.

Check out our blog for more leadership insights, and reach out to our team to schedule a free consultation.

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