The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Organizational Leadership

What makes for a successful leader? This is a question that is constantly asked, but does not have a definitive answer. Someone in corporate America may suggest that being business savvy makes for an excellent leader (Kouzes & Posner, 1995). While the research points at many different possibilities, there is one area where researchers have not accomplished much, which is crucial to any leadership position, and that is emotional intelligence.

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Research has regarded Emotional Intelligence as an essential element for any leader. Goleman (1998) has stated that, “the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way; they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence (p 94). Others have said that, “By now, most executives have accepted that emotional intelligence is as critical as IQ to an individual’s effectiveness” (Druskat & Wolff, 2001, p.81). So, what is Emotional Intelligence? Various schools of thought explain the meaning of emotional intelligence. Reviewing the scholarly work regarding emotional intelligence in educational leadership will help in establishing its applicability, and the areas that need further research, to enhance knowledge transfer in learning institutions. This paper is a literature review on emotional intelligence and its connection to leadership in education. It seeks to identify the knowledge gap that exists in the understanding of emotional intelligence, which will lead to further research in this field.

Search Strategies

The key phrases for locating journals and academic papers regarding Emotional Intelligence in ERIC and EBSCOHOST include; journals/books/articles on Emotional Intelligence, implications of Emotional Intelligence on leadership, theories on Emotional Intelligence, models and components of Emotional Intelligence.

Origins of the Concept of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence, originally referred to as social intelligence, was first discussed in the 1920s by E. L. Thorndike (1920). Thorndike (1920) theorized that social intelligence was a person’s ability to manage people; to make wise decisions when dealing with human relations. From there, the definition began to expand. Salovey and Mayer (1990 p 56) coined the term “emotional intelligence” and initially defined emotional intelligence in the following manner:

“A form of intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ beliefs and emotions to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Salovey and Mayer 1990 p 56).

Salovey and Mayer (1990) later amended the definition of emotional intelligence to its current description:

In the 1990s, Mayer defined emotional intelligence as “the capacity to reason with emotion in four areas: to perceive emotion, to integrate it into thought, to understand it and to manage it” (Mayer, 1999 p 86)

While many worked to define Emotional Intelligence, the concept was not widely accepted, until 1995 when Goleman (1995) published what came to be a best selling book: Emotional Intelligence. In this book, he defined Emotional Intelligence as a combination of skills, traits, and good behavior. No longer was IQ valued as the most important trait of an effective leader; rather, Goleman’s (1995) research focused on emotional intelligence being most powerful, and being a better indicator of the success of a leader. With these definitions, one is able to relate emotional intelligence with various leadership roles.



Research on Emotional Intelligence and its Relationship to Effective Leadership

Many scholars have written much about emotional intelligence. Their different viewpoints indicate the significance of emotional intelligence in leadership, especially in the workplace as well as in the community (Singh, 2008). Emotional intelligence is one of the leadership qualities that are major determinants of managerial success in organizations. Fullan (2001) has asserted that it involves understanding the attitudes of the subordinates in matters regarding daily operations in the workplace, which largely affects the accomplishment of organizational goals. Leaders who have low levels of emotional intelligence may not understand the best approach to handle their subordinates who think differently and possess varying attitudes regarding their activities in the workplace. Emotional intelligence is significant in discerning the people who are bound to be successful and those who are not (Hipp et al. 2008). More over, Kouzes and Posner (1995) point out that it is possible for leaders with a high-level of emotional intelligence to identify the actions that facilitate success. It determines the capacity of a manager to analyze and understand the contemplation of employees (Rosete & Ciarrochi, 2005). This is one of the competences in leaders, which helps in the enhancement of satisfaction amongst subordinates.

Palmer (2003) has observed that there is a relationship between uncompetitive leadership and emotional intelligence. According to him, leadership traits should not only comprise perception or the leader’s awareness regarding the day-to-day operations. Rather, they should be inclusive of other important aspects such as the ability to recognize personal believes and attitudes and those of others regarding workplace issues. Leaders make a mistake in conceptualizing their roles. Fullan (2001) has observed that leadership has been mistaken for conventional managerial functions, meaning that leadership is the same as management. However, the two are different regarding the manner in which they deal with the subordinates in an organization.

According to Louis and Marks (1998), the emotional intelligence (EQ) of leaders matters more than their intelligence quotient (IQ). A deficiency in one of them is a major drawback in leadership, but EQ needs to be emphasized. In leadership, technical skills assist the leader to understand concepts and guide subordinates to accomplish tasks. The success of leaders is mainly dependent on their on their social and emotional aptitude, even more than their cognitive propensity (Kouzes & Posner, 1995). In order for leaders to promote high commitment among subordinates, they need to possess the capability of interacting freely with them, understand them, help them to solve workplace as well as personal problems, and be an approachable person. Levine & Marcus (2007) argue that over-sensitiveness in leadership signifies reduced levels of emotional intelligence, which is likely to make others shun from engaging in any dealings with the leader. This indicates the likelihood of the occurrence of a communication breakdown in an organization, which can be a major shortcoming in leadership.

Hipp et al. (2008) have viewed management and leadership in a different perspective from the conventional standpoint. A distinction exists between a leader and a manager. Although a manager can be a leader, a leader must not necessarily be a manager. Management is a leader’s role, and requires skills in regard to the tasks assigned to him/her. In other words, a leader needs to possess skills in a particular field to be an effective manager in it. However, if the management aspect is not considered, skills do not matter in order for a person to be an effective leader. Singh (2008) has observed that it is the proactive aspect that defines leadership while, on the other hand, management has little concern about the social aspects of the relationship with the subordinates. However, to accomplish employee satisfaction, it is important to understand them and also ensure that their needs are met. Without emotional intelligence, the management will be unable to maintain satisfaction amongst the workforce (Levine & Marcus, 2007).

Understanding other people and ensuring that they have the freedom to express their feelings is important in maintaining competence in an organization. Incompetence in an organization arises when people can not share information due to differences arising from the inability to understand each other. Emotional intelligence helps people to maintain close relationships that are vital in establishing strong teams in the workplace (Creighton, 2005). Teams whereby people share common values and objectives are likely to excel than when people work individually. However, there must be strong leadership behind every successful team (Louis & Marks, 1998). Since people have different ways of thinking as well as capabilities of handling emotions, a leader who is able to understand the thoughts of each can help in offering direction regarding workplace relationships. Such a person with a high-level of emotional intelligence serves as the pillar for the success of the team. He/she is able to help the people to accomplish a shared vision as well as empowering them to take advantage of the available opportunities, especially for the purpose of career and personal development.

Organizations need to understand the level of emotional intelligence of people who are set for leadership positions. Creighton (2005) observes that it is a strong tool to determine the capacity of a leader to maintain high-performance in order for the organization to achieve its objectives. Assessment can be through interviews before engaging a person in a leadership position, or through an organization’s regular performance appraisals.

Emotional intelligence is a significant factor determining the manner in which leaders respond to occurrences as well as their capability to inspire others to accomplish objectives. It depends on attitudes and thoughts of the leader, whether or not a group of people is likely to follow or believe that they will succeed after acting according to particular instructions (Kouzes & Posner, 1995). In essence, emotional intelligence helps leaders to confirm their credence. This is because they are capable of understanding other people and putting across their arguments in an understandable way for all the subordinates. More-over, such a leader is capable of adapting fast, evaluating other people’s ideas and implementing the ones that are likely to promote the integrity of the organization. According to Emihovish and Battaglia (2000) the leader offers a substantial reason regarding the objection to particular ideas, making sure not to hurt the emotions of others. People are usually enthusiastic about their original idea, which makes it necessary to carefully approach their rejection. Emotional intelligence helps leaders to maintain harmony and vigor amongst their subordinates indicating acceptance of new ideas. People are left with the belief that their own ideas were good, and that they may be of use in the process when need arises. Singh (2008) has asserted that satisfaction accompanies acceptance. When people realize that their contribution has been accepted, they develop a sense of belonging to the system, which improves their performance.

Emotional Intelligence and Educational Leadership

Educational institutions are among the avenues whereby human interactions are usually high. The performance of learners usually depends on the capability of the leaders to interact and exchange ideas. Competent leadership requires the understanding the emotions of colleagues in the educational system (Emihovish & Battaglia, 2000). Interpersonal skills in are important in relating with other people and they are also dependent upon emotional intelligence (Hipp et al. 2008). However, to accomplish in leadership, a person needs to be competent in interpersonal management (Palmer, 2003). In other words, this is competence that helps a person to manage his emotions as well as those of others. In an educational environment, instructors face many challenges regarding passing knowledge to learners. The level of understanding amongst the learners is different, which possess immense challenges to the educationists, especially due to the fact that performance appraisals largely focus on the ability of the instructor to pass skills to the learners (Corrigan, 2000), which means that a low understanding capability amongst students may create a bad impression regarding the teacher.

A leader in an educational institution needs to be an understanding person in regard to the predicaments that instructors face when dealing with students (Louis & Marks, 1998). On the other hand, the teacher needs to be understanding in regard to the thoughts of students. This relationship is becomes strong due to the level of emotional intelligence, which according to Wall (2008), is core to the success of education. It enhances collaboration amongst teachers and the head of an educational institution. It helps in creating an atmosphere of understanding and the willingness to assist each other (Hipp et al. 2008). In an ideal situation, a leader needs to be supportive to the subordinates in all activities of the educational system. Levine and Marcus (2007) have observed that the learning environment largely depends on the leader. The leader is seen as the person in charge of creating a favorable environment whereby the learners and the instructors can engage in constructive interactions in order for knowledge transfer to be accomplished (Senge, 1990).

Assessment of Emotional Intelligence

Emihovish and Battaglia (2000) have suggested that educational leaders can effectively assess their competence through their level of emotional intelligence, which they need to incorporate in the process of performance appraisal. Leadership in educational institutions is not only about management. Corrigan (2000) has stated that even though management of resources are important in enhancing performance, strong leadership is important to maintain harmonious relations as well as ensure that each person appreciates the thoughts of others. It enhances teamwork that is significant for the success of any institution (Singh, 2008). Effective teamwork means that people are able to collaborate and exchange ideas and knowledge. This is an indication of the significance of emotional intelligence in the enhancement of leadership potential. Emotional intelligence is important in the maintenance of discipline, especially when trying to establish why students behave in a particular manner, or why the teachers cannot establish a relationship with students (Wall, 2008). Through understanding the thoughts of teachers and students, a leader can help in fostering a close relationship between them, which is important in maintaining high commitment among the staff as well as good performance in students.

Summary and Conclusion

Emotional intelligence is significant in maintaining strong leadership, and is a strong performance assessment tool, especially when an organization needs to engage people in leadership positions. Competence in leadership translates to high-levels of emotional intelligence (Jamali et al. 2008). It helps in distinguishing leaders from managers. A competent leader is proactive in regard to his/her relationship with staff while a manager has less concern about emotions. However, managers can be strong leaders if they possess a high-level of emotional intelligence. It helps in promoting high commitment among staff as well as teamwork that is significant for the success of an organization. It determines the reaction of leaders in regard to occurrences, enabling them to find solutions to issues that may arise unexpectedly. High-level of emotional intelligence in leaders is significant in the maintenance of enthusiasm in the workplace.

In education, emotional intelligence in leaders helps in maintaining a favorable learning environment as well as creation of harmonious relations between staff and the students. More over, it promotes understanding among leaders, which is important in assisting the staff to foster a strong relationship with the students. It promotes the desired interactions in the learning environment, which is important in maintaining high commitment in staff and good performance amongst students. Educational leaders can assess their competence through analyzing their emotional intelligence. In general it is important for leaders in educational institutions to possess a high-level of emotional intelligence. Through further research regarding the implications of emotional intelligence in education, leaders will learn to maintain competence and high commitment amongst staff and also foster strong relationships between them and the students. There are more areas that need further research regarding Emotional Intelligence, which include; the implication of Emotional Intelligence amongst employees on their performance in the workplace as well as the impact of the Emotional Intelligence of the subordinates on the success of leadership.


Corrigan, D. (2000). “The changing roles of schools and higher education institutions with  Respect to community-based interagency collaboration and inter-professional partnerships”. Peabody Journal of Education Vol. 75(3) pp 176-195.

Creighton, T. (2005) Leading from below the surface: A non-traditional approach to school Leadership. Thousands Oaks, CA: Corwin Press,

Druskat, V.U., & Wolff, S.B. (2001) Building the emotional intelligence of groups. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 79(3) pp 80-90.

Emihovish, C., & Battaglia, C. (2000). Creating cultures for collaborative inquiry: New Challenges for school leaders. International Journal of Leadership in Education, Vol. 3(3) pp 225-238.

Fullan, M. (2001) Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Wall B. (2008). Working Relationships Using Emotional Intelligence to Enhance your Efectiveness with Others, USA: Davies Black Publishing.


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