The Best Leadership Trait: Emotional Intelligence

I want you to take a minute and think about some of the individuals that you have worked for or with, in any business, group, or community setting.  Did they inspire you?  Did they motivate you?  Did they make you want to be a better person and create a sense of unity and teamwork?  Now that you have that person in mind, what behavior did they display that made you feel inspired, motivated, and create a sense of teamwork?  Did you feel that they listened to you and understood you and showed empathy toward you?  If so, that person was showing a high level of emotional intelligence

So, what exactly is emotional intelligence?  Back in the 90’s, emotional intelligence was being discussed in psychologist circles as a social behavior.  From those discussions and further research, it was defined as “the ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups.” [i]  So in other words, you understand your own emotions and can empathize and understand other’s emotions.  It also means that you can compromise your needs in a complex social situation for the betterment of the team, goal, or task at hand.

What does, “being in tune with emotions,” have to do with leadership?  To answer that question, you must answer the question, what is a leader’s job?  People, people, people!  It does not matter what organization to which you belong; if there are people and you are a leader, your job is the people.  Emotions connect us as people.  They are a very important part of how we learn, reason, and change.  Understanding emotions or having emotional intelligence is how you as a leader can inspire and motivate individuals to be their best.[ii]  It is necessary to develop the relationships needed to run a high functioning organization.  Many researchers believe there is a clear link between emotional intelligence and leadership because leaders are able to “direct and energize people.”[iii]  Doesn’t that sound amazing!?  The ability to energize people to be a positive influence in the world!  We all know we could use more of that.

When we say workplace, there is no difference between the civilian and military workplace.  The military workplace could significantly benefit from understanding these principles given the critical nature of the military’s mission.  Utilizing emotional intelligence in our workplace will further enhance the military’s biggest resource:  people.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what emotional intelligence is, what does it look like in the workplace?  Here are six basic examples. 

First, a person or leader with emotional intelligence have the talent to read the emotions of others.  This means, as a leader, you must get to know the people you are working with because everyone displays emotions differently.  By knowing your people, you can read and understand their emotions and have a true heartbeat of the team.  For example, Bill is normally boisterous and outgoing but after being given a certain task you notice he has quieted down a lot.  Your emotional intelligence tells you to talk to him.  You find out he is stressing over the task he was given and is falling behind.  You are able to have some teammates rally around him and help him out and get the task back on schedule.  Someone without emotional intelligence would probably reprimand Bill and not get him the help he needs.  But by knowing your people and reading their emotions you were able to help a teammate out when they were struggling. 

Second, a person with emotional intelligence can adjust to different situations and build relationships with just about anyone.  They have adaptability and are personable.  These are good traits to have as a leader because everyone is different on a team and you need to be able to work with everyone and bring out the best in everyone.  For example, there might be someone on the team that doesn’t get along well with others or just has a hard time in a social setting.  By being personable and adjusting to their personality, you can bring out the good traits in them and put them in a position that they can succeed on the team.

Third, a person with emotional intelligence has the uncanny ability to spot and address the elephant in the room.  In other words, “Read the room, Bill!” (for you, Life of the Party fans out there)  The individual can see what is really going on in a situation and is able to tactfully address the situation and help facilitate the team in coming to a solution.

Fourth, a person with emotional intelligence does a good job acknowledging people’s feelings when communicating difficult news.  This is where the leader shows empathy and connects with the individual on an emotional level to help them through what they are dealing with.  I have seen good examples of this at times in the workplace where the leader showed empathy and emotion as they talked about a difficult subject or circumstance for the team.  I have also seen bad examples where the “leader” shows little to no emotion.  They read a slide about difficult news and literally said, “Ok, next.”  Then went on to the next subject like nothing happened.  You could feel the awkwardness and unsettled feeling in the room.  There was no emotional intelligence there.

Fifth, a person with emotional intelligence has personal knowledge of people to better understand their perspectives and work well with them.  This goes back to knowing your people.  There is much more to people then just the 9 to 5 job.  Get to know them.  Find out what makes them who they are.  I think a lot of people feel that the “water cooler” talk is a waste of time at work but that is when you learn about who you are working with and the best way to associate and work with them.  You learn their perspective on things and what they bring to the table.

Last, but certainly not least, a person with emotional intelligence can absorb the non-technical, human side of meetings and become a student of people and their feelings.  This is where a leader should know their people and how they are going to react with certain news or tasks given to the team.  If something is off with the team after a meeting the leader should be able to read that and bring it up to the team.

These are just a few basic examples of emotional intelligence that you might see from a leader in the workplace or that you can implement yourself as you lead a team.  But remember, at the end of the day, leadership is about people and connecting with people on an emotional level so that you can help them become the best they can be.  As military leaders at all levels, this is your job:  the people.


[i] Saffa Shaaban, “The impact of emotional intelligence on effective leadership in the military production factories (MPF) in Egypt.” Journal of Business and Retail Management Research, July 2018, 230.

[ii] Ibid., 232.

[iii] Ibid., 232.

Camo aka Lorin Jeppsen has spent over 14 years in Active Duty and National Guard in the United States Air Force.