Understanding the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders

Businesswoman taking notes while sitting in office.

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There have been two occasions throughout my professional career when I have cried at work. 

The first was when I was living interstate and my mother called me in the office to tell me that our 14-year-old pet dog had been put down. Although I was ashamed to cry in front of my colleagues, I also felt they would understand (which, of course, they all did). 

The second situation caught me more off guard and whilst I have shared this story before, I still think it’s appropriate to re-tell in a slightly different context here. 

I’d been to see a client for what I thought would be a fairly regular meeting. As soon as I arrived, I could sense that Mark was in a pretty foul mood, and within two minutes of us sitting down in his office, he sat back, folded his arms, looked me in the eye and said, “Paul, you’re as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.” 

I just stared at him blankly, because in my mind all I could think was that motorbikes don’t have ashtrays! 

“I don’t want to have anything to do with you, or [company I was working for at the time], and you can go back and tell your boss that the partnership we’ve had until now has just been severed … because of you”. 

He then stood up, walked to the door of his office, opened it, and just waited for me to walk out without saying another word. 

I could have taken a cab back to the office, but I decided to walk instead. I felt immobilized and just needed some fresh air. How would I explain to my manager that I had just lost a considerably large account? 

I had to walk past her office to get to my desk. Her door was open (damn it!) and when she saw me she said, “You’ve been gone a while. I take it all went well with Mark?” 

I couldn’t speak. I felt even more immobilized than when I’d left Mark’s office. And I just burst into tears. 

She asked me to come into her office and she shut the door. Then she waited very patiently for me to compose myself and just listened while I told her what happened. 

Then she picked up the phone. And called him. Yes … she called Mark! 

It’s been nearly 25 years since that afternoon, but I will always remember the way she calmly told him that he clearly lacked Emotional Intelligence and that even if he changed his mind, there is no way that we would ever agree to work with him again. She didn’t get angry; she didn’t raise her voice; she didn’t get defensive. And then she put the phone down. 

It was the first time I’d ever heard the term “Emotional Intelligence”, but it was many years later that I also realised that it had been the first time I’d actually seen it displayed by a leader. 

There are many aspects to leadership that link back to Emotional Intelligence (EQ or EI).

Whilst we’ve alluded to some of them before in previous articles, we’ll be creating a series of posts that will shine the spotlight on a few of the individual five core competencies underpinning Emotional Intelligence – Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Empathy, Social Skills, and Motivation. 

In this post, we wanted to set the scene from a high level if you will, as a precursor to the upcoming deep dives. 

The gurus in the field of Emotional Intelligence describe it as the ability to perceive your own emotions as well as the emotions of others; to understand the signals that emotions send, while at the same time being able to manage your own and others’ emotions. 

We’ll certainly cover more in future posts, but as part of this introductory piece, here’s a brief overview of the core competencies. 

  • Self-awareness is about knowing your emotions, strengths, weaknesses and values, and their impact on others. For example, if you know you become stressed by deadlines, you plan to get your work completed well in advance rather than leaving it to the last minute. 
  • Self-regulation is about being able to control or redirect impulses and disruptive emotions. As a leader, if your team is falling behind budget or isn’t performing well, rather than showing your anger or frustration, you consider possible reasons for the drop in performance and explore solutions. 
  • Empathy is about taking into consideration the feelings of others which also plays a huge role in developing others. It’s also about not simply understanding their needs, but respecting them, and the ability to listen deeply without casting judgment. 
  • Social skills (when it comes to leadership) refers to the ability to manage relationships to move people in desired directions, to be able to impact and influence, and to be able to coordinate a disparate group of individuals into a team to achieve common goals. 
  • Motivation is all about taking pride in and feeling passionate about seeking new challenges, bouncing back and demonstrating optimism in the face of failure, and the relentless pursuit of learning and professional development. 

Let’s go back to my earlier story where I first heard about Emotional Intelligence and later realised I had first witnessed a leader demonstrating it. 

When my boss spoke to the client who had called me useless, in telling him that he lacked Emotional Intelligence, she was basically alluding to the fact that he didn’t appreciate the impact his emotions had on me; that he lacked the ability to control his emotions; that my feelings clearly didn’t matter to him; that he didn’t respect me; and that he lacked social skills. In other words, he was lacking in every applicable competency. 

But more importantly, what I realised years later, was that by calling him as soon as I had told her what had taken place, she was perfectly aware of the impact her actions would have on my self-belief and confidence and, in doing so, she was undoubtedly demonstrating empathetic leadership at its best.

She had treated me with respect and had listened to me without casting any judgment. 

As a leader, when have you displayed Emotional Intelligence by being present, mindful, and encouraging others to be vulnerable, and to be comfortable expressing their feelings and frustrations … just as my manager did for me a quarter of a century ago? Or when have you witnessed Emotional Intelligence in action? Perhaps when a leader was able to read between the lines, understand your ‘unspoken word’ and therefore appreciate what was really going on with you. 

We look forward to sharing more on this important topic in future posts. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders build a deeper understanding of Emotional Intelligence. 

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