How Emotional Intelligence Became a Key Leadership Skill

An understanding of what exactly constitutes emotional intelligence is important not only because the capacity is so central to leadership but because people strong in some of its elements can be utterly lacking in others, sometimes to disastrous effect.  You can see Salovey, now Yale’s provost, making this point vividly in a talk he gave at a 2010 leadership conference in which he describes how a single picture (which we can’t even see) illustrates the remarkable disparity in the emotional intelligence of  President Clinton, who was so remarkable in his empathy and yet so devoid of self-control.

In subsequent work, Goleman focuses more deeply on these various elements of emotional intelligence. In 2001, with Case Western Reserve professor Richard Boyatzis and U.Penn faculty member Annie McKee, he explored the contagious nature of emotions at work, and the link between leaders’ emotional states and their companies’ financial success in “Primal Leadership.” In 2008, in “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” Goleman and Boyatzis take a closer look at the mechanisms of social intelligence (the wellsprings of empathy and social skills). And most recently, in “The Focused Leader,” Goleman applies advances in neuroscience research to explain how leaders can increase each element of emotional intelligence by understanding and improving the various ways they focus their attention, both expansively and narrowly.

It is perhaps an indication of how young this field is (or perhaps how fundamental Goleman’s typology is to it) that pretty much the entire canon of thinking on the subject in HBR also focuses on one or another of these elements of emotional intelligence as Goleman laid them out.

In “Cultural Intelligence,” for instance, Elaine Mosakowiski of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and LBS professor Christopher Earley take an in-depth look at one important social skill, the ability to adjust to different contexts, offering a diagnostic to help you gauge your abilities and a six-step process for improving them.  In “Contextual Intelligence,” HBS professor Tarun Khanna examines how leaders develop what Goleman calls “cognitive empathy,” the aspect of social intelligence that “enables leaders to pick up implied norms and learn the unique mental models of a new culture.” In Emotional Agility, consultants Susan David and Christina Congleton, focus on one aspect of self-regulation, detailing a process for recognizing and rechanneling your negative emotions, an idea echoed in Kellogg school professor Leigh Thompson and U. Chicago behavioral science professor Tanya Menon’s approach to coping with envy at work. And in “Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups,” Steven Wolff of Marist College, and another CWR professor, Vanessa Urch Druskat, examine how emotional intelligence is manifested in and strengthens teams.

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