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Emotional Intelligence: The Differentiating Factor in Leadership Performance

Emotional Intelligence: The Differentiating Factor in Leadership Performance

Profile-photoby Elaine Morris

What distinguishes an average leader from a great one?  IQ and technical skills are very important, but merely threshold – a high IQ is not enough.  We have all witnessed some very intelligent people who walk blindly through work tasks and interactions with others, stumbling along a path of reason without sensitivity.  Marshall Goldsmith, in his book, MOJO, makes this point in his distinction between “smart and effective.”  The smartest people often get in the habit of proving to others how much they know and why their opinions are the right ones. Once young leaders start to move up to higher levels, they quickly find out that this approach will only get resistance and alienation from others.  An effective leader uses his or her smarts to connect, collaborate and proactively influence the thinking and actions of others.  The skills it takes to do this with grace and style, have to do with the topic of this article, emotional intelligence.

Over 30 years of research conducted by Dr. David McClelland (Harvard psychologist and professor), Dr. Reuven BarOn (Israeli Psychologist), Daniel Goleman (researcher and best selling  author), Dr. John Townsend (leadership psychologist, author, Leadership Beyond Reason: How Great Leaders Succeed by Harnessing the Power of Their Values, Feelings, and Intuition”), Dr. Henry Cloud (psychologist, author, Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality) and a host of other respected thought leaders, has provided significant evidence that the differentiating factor for superior leadership and performance is emotional intelligence.

What is EQ?  Internally, it is the capacity for recognizing our own feelings, motivating ourselves and managing our emotions.  Externally, it’s the capacity to understand and motivate others while conducting ourselves well.


  • Understanding Yourself
  • Managing Yourself
  • Understanding Others
  • Managing Others

“Emotional Intelligence impacts your ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.” (Dr. Reuven BarOn)

Daniel Goleman captured detailed documentation of the core research findings in Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998) and Primal Leadership, The Hidden Driver of Great Performance (2001), which confirmed the following about leadership and success:

  • EQ is the differentiating factor in overall success
  • 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is linked to EQ
  • EQ is two times as important as IQ and technical expertise combined
  • EQ is four times as important in terms of overall success
  • In a study of more than 2,000 managers from 12 large organizations, 81% of the competencies that distinguished outstanding managers were related to emotional intelligence.

The Five Skills of EQ: The following are five skills that enable the top performing leaders to maximize their own and others’ performance.

Self Awareness – having a deep understanding of your emotions, how they affect you, what impact they have on others and how they affect your performance.  For example, knowing that giving a presentation to peers stresses you out, you might rehearse with a trusted colleague, hire a speaking coach, or go to a Toastmasters group.  In addition, you might do some journaling to visualize yourself giving a presentation and explore your strong emotions and where they come from.

Self Expression – openly expressing one’s feelings verbally and non-verbally.  This includes having a healthy level of assertiveness, which is the ability to communicate feelings, beliefs and thoughts openly, and defend personal rights and values in a socially acceptable and non-offensive manner. It includes the ability to engage in healthy conflict and the practice of setting boundaries and saying “no” when needed.

Interpersonal Relationships – refers to the skill of developing and maintaining mutually satisfying relationships that are characterized by trust and compassion.  It includes the ability to be empathic when others are expressing their feelings or holding a calm presence when others have strong emotions.  A person with maturity in this skill articulates understanding of another’s perspective, is willing to apologize when called for, and consistently behaves in a way that respects other’s feelings.

Decision Making – the ability to be objective by seeing things as they really are and to seek out others’ input into a problem or challenge.  This capacity involves recognizing when emotions or personal bias can cause one to be less objective. In solving problems, it is finding solutions where emotions are involved and the ability to understand how emotions impact decision-making. When one’s own emotions are triggered, it is the ability to resist or delay an impulse, drive or temptation to act rashly.

Stress Tolerance – involves coping with difficult situations and believing that one can manage or influence situations in a positive manner.  It is adapting emotions, thoughts and behaviors to unfamiliar, unpredictable and dynamic circumstances or ideas.  It is an outlook that is hopeful and resilient, despite occasional setbacks. It is behaviors that seek to maintain balance physically, mentally and emotionally.

The Bottom-Line: Performance

“The higher the rank of a person considered to be a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities showed up as the reason for his or her effectiveness. When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.” Daniel Goleman, What Makes a Leader, HBR, 1998.

Highly effective leaders are always seeking new ways to increase their capacity.  The good news is that EQ is not set in stone.  It can be improved through increasing self awareness, getting support from a coach or mentor and by focusing on one improvement area over a period of time.  The journey can be fun and enlivening and the results worth all the effort.  I will close with one of my favorite quotes:

“We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong –  the amount of work is the same.” – Carlos Castenada

For information on taking the  EQ assessment, please contact Elaine.

Elaine Morris | Executive Coach
Elaine Morris
Elaine Morris is the founder of Sea Change Inc., a consulting firm based in Dallas, Texas. Elaine brings over 25 years of experience as an executive coach and consultant to top level leaders.

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