Emotionally intelligent leader

The Key Skills You Should Be Building to Become an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

When I sit in group coaching sessions with school leaders and ask them to describe the characteristics of a great leader, they rarely bring up knowledge of curriculum or administration. Instead, more often than not, they share that trustworthiness, kindness, a calm attitude, or the ability to empathise are some of the qualities that make someone a great leader.

The leaders who have insight into their feelings, an understanding of the emotions of others, and the ability to manage emotional or stressful situations with ease are the ones who stand out or are at the forefront. 

When we consider what makes them effective and strong leaders – it often boils down to their emotional intelligence and people skills.

In times like now, where we’re still constantly readjusting to life in a pandemic, it’s more important than ever that leaders develop and use their emotional intelligence skills to approach their staff with empathy and care. 

This article will cover:

  • What emotional intelligence is
  • Why it’s essential for leaders to have emotional intelligence
  • The six key skills of an emotionally intelligent leader and strategies to improve on each of these skills

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is your ability to identify and manage your own emotions and react appropriately to the emotions of those around you. When you have a high degree of emotional intelligence, it means that you are in tune with your feelings, can identify what your emotions mean, and are aware of how emotions can influence situations or other people.

A higher level of emotional intelligence allows you to manage your stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, navigate challenges and defuse conflict swiftly. These skills help you build stronger relationships, succeed at work, and achieve career and personal goals consistently.

According to Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist, there are five key elements to emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation.
  3. Motivation.
  4. Empathy.
  5. Social skills.

We will explore each of these elements later in this article.

So why does emotional intelligence matter as a leader?

Emotional intelligence can help support you in your personal and professional life. The research shows that emotionally intelligent people have:

  • Increased work performance – more conscientious, diligent, and hardworking
  • Better cognitive ability 
  • Improved general self-efficacy – the confidence and ability to cope with the demands of a stressful job (essential for teaching)
  • Better health outcomes 
  • Improved mental health outcomes
  • Better relationships and communication styles

Furthermore, a leader who has emotional intelligence can:

  • Communicate their vision clearly 
  • Inspire and motivate the staff they lead
  • Respond appropriately to stressful situations and guide others to do the same
  • Manage their own emotions and the emotions of their employees (to an extent).
  • Guide their teams through times of crisis and complex change

The COVID-19 pandemic has manifested as a multifaceted crisis that calls for exceptional leadership and staff look to their leaders to guide them back to a sense of normality. (Kwatubana & Molaodi, 2020). This means, there’s no better time for leaders to work on developing their emotional intelligence skills so they lead more effectively while better supporting staff during this time of complex change

Skills of an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

Key skill 1: Self-management/regulation

Emotionally intelligent leaders have control over impulsive feelings and behaviours and manage their emotions and stressors in healthy ways that align with their values. As a result, they rarely verbally attack others, lose their temper, make rushed or emotional decisions, blame others, or “explode” when navigating a challenging time at work. Additionally, they’re good at adapting to changing circumstances and making mindful and constructive decisions about their behaviour. According to Goleman, a good self-managing leader is flexible and able to take personal accountability and expect the same of others.

Ways to develop your self-regulation skills:

  • Know your values – Spend some time examining what is most important to you so that your values can help guide you whenever you face a challenging situation or decision.
  • Hold yourself accountable – Take responsibility for your mistakes and wrongdoings and avoid blaming others when things go wrong. When you make a mistake, be ready to face the consequences.
  • Practice staying calm – The next time you’re in a challenging situation, practice taking a deep breath before you react. Notice your emotions and choose your reactions wisely.
  • Get your feelings out on paper – Try expressing any overwhelming or negative emotions on paper (and not showing them to anyone!). Writing down what you feel helps you challenge your reactions and feelings to ensure that they’re fair.
  • Work to reframe challenges as opportunities in disguise – Work to see “failures” as learning experiences.

Key skill 2: Self-awareness

Self-aware leaders recognise what they feel and how their emotions and actions can affect the people around them. When you’re in a leadership position, being self-aware also means having a clear picture and level of acceptance of your strengths and weaknesses. A good leader should extend this same understanding and awareness to those they work alongside or lead. With an awareness of yourself and others comes perspective. Perspective is a very useful trait as a leader. Putting yourself in the shoes of others can mitigate potential conflict and lead to deeper emotional connections with others as they feel heard, considered, and valued.

Ways to build more self-awareness:

  • Keep a journal – Journaling about your day or the emotions you experienced throughout helps improve self-awareness. Writing down your thoughts for a few minutes a day and seeing them in front of you can provide clarity you hadn’t had before. 
  • Take a pause – When you experience intense emotions, pause and consider why those emotions may arise. Pausing to take a breath helps you gain control over the situation instead of being reactive.
  • Get outside and walk – Walking has been shown to improve mindfulness and self-awareness. Plus, a little vitamin D never goes astray!
  • Mindfulness — reconnect to yourself and learn to sit comfortably with your emotions. You can learn to get comfortable with your emotions by practicing mindful activities, psychology, and/or coaching.
  • Explore your early life – Much of who you are now is the result of the experiences you had in your early life. This includes how you learned to manage feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, and joy. The way you manage these feelings in adulthood depends on the consistency and quality of your early life experiences. Therefore, it may be beneficial to identify these early experiences and how they influence you in the present.

Key Skill 3: Motivation

Self-motivated leaders are committed to working toward their goals, and they hold themselves and their work to high standards. 

When working with others, a motivated leader leads their team with intention. They readily offer support and guidance to push through challenging times and achieve high standards of work consistently. Those with skills in motivating themselves are aware of effective strategies to keep their teams on track. 

Ways to promote more motivation:

  • Re-examine your why – It helps to dream big and focus on what you want in life and why you do what you do. It’s easy to forget what you love about your life and career. Revisiting your passion for work and leadership regularly keeps you motivated.
  • Find optimism – Even in the face of a challenge or failure, try to find one good thing about the situation. It can be small or even an important lesson learned.
  • Celebrate each one of your wins – I always encourage my clients to celebrate what’s “awesome” over what’s “awful.”
  • Break it down – Break down your to-do list into bite-size chunks and work with an accountability partner or coach to ensure you get things done. Habit trackers can also be a helpful tool here as you track your progress visually.

Key skill 4: Empathy

A leader with empathy is able to step into the shoes of another person and understand their feelings and perspectives—empathy ties into having an awareness of self and others. An empathetic leader uses their broader perspective to guide their actions and reactions to people and situations. Having empathy is vital to managing a successful team or organisation, especially when teachers, staff, and students are returning to in-person learning after a very trying time in isolation. Empathy helps develop people, challenge others who are acting unfairly, give constructive feedback, and listen with an open mind.

Ways to encourage more empathy:

  • Put yourself in someone else’s position – Take the time to look at situations from other people’s perspectives. 
  • Pay attention to body language – Learning to read body language can help you to determine how someone truly feels and respond appropriately.
  • Watch out for and respond to feelings – Listen for verbal cues from others that indicate their feelings. Then, respond by addressing those feelings positively and constructively.

Key Skill 5: Social Skills and Awareness

Social awareness enables leaders to recognise and interpret the primarily nonverbal cues others use to communicate their feelings with you. These subtle cues let you know how others feel under the surface, how their emotional state changes from one moment to another, and what’s truly important to them. Leaders who have good social skills are great communicators and good at managing change and resolving conflicts diplomatically. They don’t sit back and make everyone else do the work: instead, they set an example with their own behaviour.

Strategies to improve social awareness:

  • Make time to journal – Reflect on how you behaved during interactions with others and note anything that might have bothered you or triggered an emotion.
  • Learn conflict resolution – Leaders and good professionals must know how to resolve conflicts between their team members and stakeholders. 
  • Learn how to praise others – Inspire the loyalty of your team and give praise when it’s deserved. 
  • Pay more attention to your surroundings – See if you can pick up on the “energy” of your environment. If you’re stuck in traffic, consider looking around at people sitting in their cars and seeing what you can pick up about them.

Bonus Key Skill: Relationship Management

Working well with others and leading an effective team is a process that begins with emotional awareness and the ability to recognise and understand what other people are experiencing. Leaders who can successfully manage the relationships of their teams have excellent communication skills, the ability to tune into others, the skills to mediate stressful situations, and they encourage others to do the same. Additionally, an effective leader is able to extend their perspective to the staff they lead and encourage others to think more openly and with empathy.

Relationship management tips include:

  • Bring awareness to how you use nonverbal communication – recognising the nonverbal cues you send to others can help improve your relationships.
  • Use humor and play to relieve stress – both are natural antidotes to stress. They also encourage more connection, shared memories, and release happy, feel-good hormones.
  • Look at conflict as an opportunity to grow closer to others – finding ways to resolve conflict in a constructive and healthy way can strengthen the trust and bond between people.


As you’ve learned here, emotional intelligence is an essential skill for building and managing relationships as a leader. By creating self-awareness around your emotions, triggers, and reactions, you’re better able to remove yourself from the equation when managing the feelings of others. Additionally, when you become in tune with those working alongside you, there’s room for deeper understanding and clear communication. 

In my coaching sessions with school leaders and organisations, I help create awareness around the importance of leading with emotional intelligence to help create a supportive and thriving culture. 

If you’d like to learn if my School Wellbeing Consulting or Leadership Coaching may be right for you, schedule a discovery call, and we can discuss how to tailor a program to meet your needs.

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