The Role of Emotional Intelligence In Modern Organizations– An Ingredient or Byproduct of Great Leadership?

Georges Lteif

Georges Lteif

Software Engineer

Last Updated on December 26, 2022.
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7 min read


1. Overview

Emotional Intelligence (EI), sometimes also called the Emotional Quotient (EQ), was popularized by psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence in 1995.

The challenge of leadership and the influence of Emotional Intelligence (EI)
The challenge of leadership and the influence of Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Goleman also wrote an article in 1998 for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on the topic, titled What Makes a Leader? HBR considered the work influential enough to include it in their latest bookHBR at 100 – The Most Influential and Innovative Articles from the Harvard Business Review’s First Century.

This article is a short critique of HBR’s What Makes a Leader, in which we go over the foundational elements of Emotional Intelligence. We will also highlight the gaps in the original story and how you can fill them.


2. What Is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

2.1 Introduction

Emotional Intelligence (EI or EQ) represents our ability to handle our emotions in the best possible way, so they do not interfere with our work, performance, or relationships within our social group.

Dr Goleman Emotional Intelligence are empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness, motivation, and social skills.
According to Dr Goleman, the five pillars of Emotional Intelligence are empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness, motivation, and social skills.

Goleman lists five personal attributes of leaders with high EI:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Empathy
  • Social Skills
  • Motivation

We briefly describe each in the following sections.

2.2 Self-Awareness

Self-awareness measures how well we understand the influence of our emotions on how we think and act. Are we cognizant of our weaknesses, cognitive biases, and inaptitudes?

Self-aware people often reflect on their experiences and try to learn from them, an effort-intensive, time-consuming, and, therefore, expensive System 2 exercise (see the brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow)—a point we shall come back to later.

This deliberate and rational activity requires that we take the role of an objective observer and extricate ourselves from our subjective experiences.

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2.3 Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is our ability to hold back on our impulses and emotional actions and suspend judgement until we have better data.


[…] People who are in control of their feelings and impulses — that is, people who are reasonable — are able to create an environment of trust and fairness. In such an environment, politics and infighting are sharply reduced and productivity is high.
What Makes a Leader? — Daniel Goleman

People with high self-regulation are perceived as reasonable, creating a trusting environment where peers are comfortable interacting with them because their emotions and actions are predictable.

Self-regulation comes at the cost of appearing unenthusiastic and cold and therefore lacking in charisma. This duality (or tradeoff) is another point we shall return to later.

2.4 Empathy

Empathetic people are better at understanding and sharing the emotions of other people.

Empathy recognizes the need for leaders to make human connections with their teams and the organization.

During the industrial age, empathy was not preponderant; leaders tried to maximize productivity by encouraging hard work.

In today’s age, this assumption has been invalidated, and the pressure to retain talent and get people to be comfortable enough to create and innovate requires that their opinions are valued and voices heard, especially when decisions affecting their work are being made.

2.5 Social Skills

Socially skilful people are great at building networks both within their teams and across the organisation, networks they can tap into to drive complex decisions or overcome challenging times.

Employees with excellent social skills attach great importance to talking to people and building rapport. They might be criticised for spending inordinate amounts of time on what others might consider non-productive work.

Leaders who value social skills understand that teams (and not individuals) drive success.

2.6 Motivation

Motivation in this context refers to a firm internal desire to achieve. Motivated leaders take pride in their work, are constantly looking for continuous improvement opportunities, and are seldom satisfied with the status quo.


3. Emotional Intelligence — What Is Missing?

3.1 Disclaimer

In the following few sections, we will list what we believe to be fundamental gaps in how Emotional Intelligence (EI) has been presented in relation to leadership in HBR’s article What Makes a Leader?


Leadership has been studied in far greater detail than organizational culture, leading to a frustrating diffusion of concepts and ideas of what leadership is really all about, whether one is born or made as a leader, whether one can train people to be leaders, and what characteristics successful leaders possess.

These gaps by no means diminish the intrinsic value of Emotional Intelligence and its influence on outstanding leadership.

However, articulating these gaps will assist the reader in better understanding leadership challenges, social group dynamics, and how Emotional Intelligence can partially (alas!) provide the necessary skills to solve those challenges.

Let’s have a look at the most prominent gaps.

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3.2 Duality and Free Lunches

Goleman’s article presents the five pillars of Emotional Intelligence (EI) as attributes that can be increased indefinitely.

Moreover, Goleman’s theory implies that higher levels of empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and social skills are always better. There are hints to the contrary, but they are too faint to be noticed.

Unfortunately, empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and social skills automatically imply a tradeoff with other (equally desirable) attributes.

Self-aware people can also be turbulent, indecisive, and sometimes experience anxiety
Self-aware people can also be turbulent, indecisive, and sometimes experience anxiety.

For example, self-aware people are generally also turbulent and sometimes indecisive. Highly self-regulated managers appear cold, aloof, and uncharismatic. Highly motivated individuals may also be quickly frustrated and are prone to becoming cynical. People who socialize more may be less proficient technically.

Balancing the costs and benefits is at the heart of leadership and is what makes it challenging in the first place.

3.3 Recipes and Why They Never Work

Recipes are context-specific solutions; they work best if all ingredients are available and all members of the dining party have the same culinary tastes.

This constraint may not necessarily apply in modern organizations where ever-changing dynamics, multi-cultural teams, and conflicting priorities carry the day.

In the previous section, we have shown that Emotional Intelligence, as presented in HBR’s article, comes at a hefty price, and extraordinary leadership must be able to tune it up and down depending on the present situation.

Finally, we can easily associate attributes like altruism, assertiveness, and rationality with outstanding leadership. How these attributes interact (and conflict) with Emotional Intelligence (EI) and whether the latter can be expanded to include them is a legitimate and unanswered question.

3.4 Survivorship Bias

In his best-seller Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb describes a phenomenon called Survivorship Bias, where people tend to observe and “learn” from winning teams only, ignoring failures.

Survivorship Bias exists because it is far easier to examine information readily available than that which has perished.

What are the consequences of this narrowing down of our sample size to a select few? If the original cohort that started were massive, we would likely think they did something radically different and, therefore, have relevant skills (rather than great luck) worth copying.

In the introduction to his article, Goleman describes how he derived his views on Emotional Intelligence by observing successful managers still holding senior positions in their organizations. Had he waited long enough, would that same group still be around? We can’t say for sure.

But there is a further twist to the story, and it has to do with decision-making under uncertainty.

Unlike a toolsmith who has been fashioning metal objects for decades, maybe generations, a CEO is under immense pressure to make irreversible decisions under (sometimes) extreme uncertainty conditions. What are the odds that they would get it right five times in a row?

Emotional Intelligence will come in handy with every interaction, meeting, or assignment, but it might prove useless against Fortuna.

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3.5 Maturity — A Simpler Yet More Powerful Explanation

Below is a direct quote from What Makes a Leader?


One thing is certain: Emotional Intelligence increases with age. There is an old-fashioned word for the phenomenon: maturity.
What Makes a Leader? — Daniel Goleman

It is excellent to articulate a complex idea like maturity by breaking it down into its fundamental constituents (such as the five personal attributes of EI).

Still, maturity can mean much more than that; perhaps the reductionist approach strips off many of its essential connotations.

Maturity certainly comes with age as past experiences shape and deepen our understanding of organisational behaviour, human nature, social groups, and business concepts. We learn from our own mistakes, and those lessons tend to stick.

The unavoidability of this learning journey is another reason recipes cannot work, as they expect us to utilise tools we have yet to acquire. While prior education can be invaluable, it must be combined with practice for maximum effectiveness.

3.6 Leadership — Processes Over Profiles and Mindsets

Another potential issue with how Emotional Intelligence (EI) is presented as the maker of great leaders is the scarcity of leaders who match the “profile” and have the right “mindset”.

Processes over mindsets and profiles to overcome the shortage of leadership skills.
Processes over mindsets and profiles to overcome the shortage of leadership skills.

Running a business requires varying degrees of leadership at almost every level. Naturally, the higher the organisational ladder someone is, the more consequential their decisions will be.

However, the evolution of an organisation depends as much on the mundane interactions with clients and other stakeholders, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day, and the strategic leadership choices.

An organisation must therefore be able to perform despite the variance in its managers’ leadership skills. Mature and sophisticated processes are required to govern interactions among team members and ensure Operational Excellence.

3.7 Emotional Intelligence and System 2

In his seminal book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman proposes the following model to explain human reasoning faculties. In his view, our brains function in two modes, which he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 and System 2 thinking, heuristics vs expert judgment
System 1 and System 2 thinking, heuristics vs expert judgment.

System 1 uses acquired and inherited heuristics to perform intuitive judgments. It is fast, efficient, accurate most of the time, and runs on auto-pilot. When System 1 is engaged in providing complex answers, we get errors and inaccuracies, collectively known as cognitive biases.

On the other hand, System 2 is responsible for rational thoughts, is slow, inefficient, and uses complex reasoning methods to find answers. System 2 must be deliberately engaged and often invites us to stop doing other things while it’s working. For example, you might pause your casual stroll with a friend if the debate becomes intense.

Self-awareness and self-regulation, vital to Emotional Intelligence (EI), require reflection and rigid control and can primarily be considered expensive and slow System 2 activities, and, therefore, difficult to apply all the time.

Through training and education, leaders might be trained such that these activities become second nature and can be run on auto-pilot. How practical it is to get junior and senior leaders in the organisation to such levels of emotional mastery is an open question.

We are emotional creatures most of the time, and constant heightened self-awareness and self-regulation might inhibit openness, information sharing, and creativity.

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4. Conclusion

Leadership requires the management of two conflicting forces. On the one hand, the desire for productivity and achievement; on the other, the team’s happiness and well-being.

Balancing these two forces makes leadership challenging in the first place, and no recipe is guaranteed to address that.


[…] teams are bubbling cauldrons of emotions. They are often charged with reaching a consensus — which is hard enough with two people and much more difficult as the numbers increase. Even in groups with as few as four or five members, alliances form, and clashing agendas get set.
What Makes a Leader? — Daniel Goleman

Maturity (a more complete and less restrained alternative to Emotional Intelligence) and intimate knowledge of critical areas (such as business economics, cultural anthropology, group dynamics, organisational behaviour, business management, and complexity science) are essential for success.

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  • Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations

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