Emotional Intelligence: The In-Demand Skill for Great Leaders

Leaders come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, but leadership always boils down to relationships and connections. An effective leader builds trust, inspires, and mobilizes people toward goals. It starts with identifying a compelling vision of a shared future rooted in core values and is followed by creating a path for the success of all.  

by Elizabeth A. Wilson, CPA Dec 5, 2022, 18:23 PM

pa-cpa-journal-emotional-intelligence-the-in-demand-skill-for-great-leadersAuthentic. Courageous. Honest. These are a few traits that many would use to describe the leaders they admire and try to emulate. It is not difficult to state in a few words the traits admirable leaders have that are noticeable; it is much harder to identify those below-the-surface components of their leadership style that contribute to their success.  

Leaders come in many forms, shapes, and sizes, but leadership always boils down to relationships and connections. An effective leader builds trust, inspires, and mobilizes people toward goals. It starts with identifying a compelling vision of a shared future rooted in core values and is followed by creating a path for the success of all.   

Focus, or directing attention, is a key component to ensuring success. Leaders do not have the luxury of getting things done without distraction, therefore focus is less about task-completion and more about allocating attention. As a leader, one must strive to balance the call for attention in two areas – from oneself and from others – in the daily need to address challenging or triggering situations. A proper handling of these situations requires acknowledging and handling one’s own emotions as well as helping others handle theirs. 

In managing oneself there are two key components: self-awareness and self-control. Self-awareness is a skill that allows one to tune into one’s own feelings, thoughts, and needs. What is useful here is “open awareness,” which means approaching situations with fresh eyes and letting go of your habitual reactions and expectations. Self-control, or more specifically “cognitive control,” is commonly referred to as willpower. This ability keeps one on track with goals despite emotional distractions. 

Empathy and the ability to build social relationships are two important skills for focusing on others. Leaders who do both well bring out the best in their teams and inspire people to come together for a common cause. Empathy is expressed in three different ways:  

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to perceive and understand the emotions of another.
  • Emotional empathy enables one to share the feelings of another person. 
  • Empathic concern moves one to action by sensing what another person needs.  

A leader who is good at picking up on social context is usually more effective at building solid relationships. 

The ability to be perceptively in tune with oneself and one’s own emotions and having sound situational awareness are powerful tools when leading a team. Knowing, understanding, and responding to emotions, and understanding how one’s own words and actions affect others is often referred to as emotional intelligence. When it comes to success, whether in personal or professional settings, emotional intelligence matters just as much as intellectual ability. 

Emotional Intelligence 

Emotional intelligence became a popular term in the early 1990s, but the buzz over the concept has only continued to grow over the past 30 years. Much evidence has been collected that supports a direct correlation between emotional intelligence and career satisfaction, job performance, relationship success, and mental health. Leaders who possess high levels of emotional intelligence are likely to be more effective communicators and problem solvers because they have a deeper understanding of themselves, their team, and how words and actions impact success. 

Emotional intelligence is defined as the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Components include being aware of one’s own emotions, effectively managing one’s own emotions, recognizing and identifying others’ emotions, and building meaningful relationships with others. Those with high levels of emotional intelligence effectively tap emotions; this isn’t about suppressing one’s own or others’ emotions. It requires feeling, recognizing, and acknowledging emotions in real time and having the skills to not let those emotions dominate and get in the way of effective decision making. 

Emotionally intelligent leaders not only know how to manage their emotions and behavior at work, but they also prioritize creating a safe environment for the exchange of ideas and feedback within their teams. When employees feel secure enough to share thoughts and ideas freely without fear of negative repercussion, productivity, performance, morale, engagement, and job satisfaction levels increase. Leading by example, emotionally intelligent leaders manage stress and conflict in a careful way and teach their team members to do the same. 

Components of Emotional Intelligence 

As the COVID-19 pandemic taught us all, crisis can strike without warning and formulated contingency plans do not always apply. When the best laid plans don’t pan out, intelligently handling the emotions associated with crisis is paramount to survival. Emotionally intelligent leaders typically handle any size crisis better than their less-skilled counterparts by using self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Calling upon the qualities that contribute to each specific component, leaders can control emotional reactions across the board and make decisions with fewer unintended consequences. 

Self-awareness – This is the ability to understand one’s own emotions and act with authenticity and conviction. Honesty is vital to truly knowing who you are and what you believe in. Being aware of one’s own feelings puts you in charge, not your emotions, and allows for objective reflection. Beyond just recognizing your emotions, self-awareness includes understanding the effect your actions, moods, and emotions have on other people. Here are some of the leadership qualities that contribute to a consciousness of one’s own feelings and thoughts about them: 

  • Integrity/authenticity – Know your beliefs and stand for them no matter what. Deliver on your word and choose thought and action over personal gain.
  • Self-confidence – Know your competencies and leadership skills. Believe that you can make a difference and take risks to accomplish goals.
  • Humility – Leadership is about other people. Lead to transform, not dominate.
  • Self-discipline – Hold yourself and others accountable. Set an example for others.
  • Resilience – As the old saying advises, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. When faced with challenges and disruption, keep pushing to overcome them. 

An important aspect of self-awareness is assessing and understanding your limitations. Ask yourself who you are currently and who you want to be. Effective, resonant leaders have clear insight into what they are good at, what is difficult for them, and what they need to learn and do in life to be at their best. To lead authentically, be honest with yourself and use shortcomings as learning opportunities. Effective leaders solicit feedback for the benefit of the team and their own development. Be prepared to not always like what you hear but be willing to learn from it.  

Every good leader should know that their awareness work is never done. Internal self-awareness growth comes from introspection – examining one’s own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs – and being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. External self-awareness means understanding how other people view you. The only way to know this is to solicit feedback and be willing to listen. 

Self-management – Awareness of one’s own emotions is the starting point, but managing those emotions and the reactions they evoke is equally important. Self-management, or the ability to manage positive and negative emotions and act with mental clarity and concentrated energy, allows leaders to hold emotions in check and channel focus into creating positive outcomes and effective solutions. Here are some of the qualities that contribute to emotional balance and clarity: 

  • Self-motivation – Lead by example in a productive and inspiring way to embrace change and improvement.
  • Self-control – Identify misleading thoughts and beliefs, and exchange them for more real and adaptive ones.
  • Conscientious – Expand your perception of reality to gain a deeper sense of understanding. Make an intentional effort to focus on the present moment.
  • Accountability – Own up to commitments, promises, and mistakes. Establish clear goals and targets.
  • Positivity – Think in an optimistic way. Expect good results and success, and focus on being happy.
  • Patience – Slow down and take a breath before getting angry or impatient. 

Emotions dominate daily life, and regulating emotions is an important leadership skill. A leader’s mood, or emotional tone, influences the people around him or her. Choosing happiness, joy, positivity, and a hopeful outlook to share with those you lead goes a long way. It is as simple as greeting everyone with a smile and leading with kindness. To create hope, share your aspirations – both personally and professionally – with the team and encourage them to do the same. The best way to be hopeful about what is to come is to get everyone moving in the same direction, working toward the same goal, and reveling in the teamwork it takes to get there. 

Self-management contributes to the development of mindfulness and vice versa. As one grows in mindfulness, it becomes easier to manage oneself and one’s responses to pressure, stress, and negativity. Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate or reduce the emotional experience, rather it creates a present-moment awareness and an acceptance of the emotion, which allows for detection and intervention before emotions spiral out of control. The benefits of mindfulness in the workplace include stronger work relationships, increased productivity, higher levels of team trust, and positive performance feedback. 

Social awareness – The ability to understand people, groups, and organizational cultures and to act on one’s understanding of others’ needs and desires is social awareness. With social awareness, a leader can accurately pick up on the emotions of others, understand what is really going on with them, and communicate with them in a way that is intended to meet their needs. Here are a few leadership qualities that allow for a shift in focus from oneself to others: 

  • Empathy – Be perceptive and understand the needs of others. Appreciate other viewpoints and have a willingness to understand, even if you don’t agree.
  • Active listening – Listen and observe when others are talking. Pick up on emotions in other people and understand what’s going on with them.
  • Care for others – Genuinely feel for others. Show appreciation, recognition, respect, and understanding.
  • Compassion – Recognize the suffering of others and take action to help.
  • Inquisitive – Be curious, ask questions, and be willing to learn new things. Take an interest in the unknown, seek to learn about it, and don’t shy away from it. 

Social awareness is all about looking outward to learn about and appreciate others to recognize and understand others’ feelings. By living in the moment, practicing active listening, and keeping eyes, ears, and mind open for observation, an emotionally intelligent leader can understand a situation from another person’s perspective and practice empathy. Leaders who can empathize are often known for their people skills, have profound influence, are good communicators, and have a high capacity for handling difficult people and tense situations with tact and diplomacy. 

Relationship management – Relationships are at the foundation of leadership. The ability to guide the emotional tone of a group, build common bonds, mentor and develop others, and manage conflict are all part of building sustainable, successful relationships. Relationship building is most effective if a leader has interest in individual and team development, shows confidence in others’ abilities, and provides the team with the tools needed to overcome obstacles. Here are a few qualities that contribute to inspiration through persuasive communication, motivation, building bonds, and disarming conflict: 

  • Communication – Get the message across in a way that suits the situation. Encourage the exchange of information and ideas through dialogue.
  • Delegation – Build trust, experience, and confidence in others. Give honest, consistent feedback to motivate and reward people for their hard work.
  • Innovation – Give others the freedom to develop ideas, and motivate them to think outside the box.
  • Honesty – Tell the truth. This is key to gaining others’ trust and respect.
  • Empowerment – Build a sense of worth and value in team members, unleashing the positive traits in others.
  • Support – Give guidance and mentor others. Be with your team in the process.
  • Nurturing – Care for and encourage the growth and development of connections. 

An important component of being an effective leader is to build a support team. Leaders cannot succeed on their own, even the most outwardly confident executives need support and advice. An emotionally intelligent leader invests time in building relationships and making connections, shares information and power, and recognizes the importance of teamwork in success. By linking people, ideas, and resources, connections are forged and value is created. 

A leader can’t know what is in others’ hearts and minds without communication and inclusion. When employees are given an opportunity to participate, they feel valued, seen, and important. Their stories, their knowledge, and their experiences become woven into the fabric of the organization. Relationships are the foundation of leadership, and spending time developing and nurturing connections with others is vital to success. 

Leading others is a privilege, not a right or a guarantee. Likewise, following is a choice that is not handed out freely and without merit. Leading others effectively boils down to creating meaningful relationships, which takes time, effort, and focus. A good relationship is built upon trust, respect, self-awareness, and open communication. Trust allows team members and leadership to be open and honest in thoughts and deeds. Respect means valuing others’ input. Self-awareness (focusing inward) and taking responsibility for your words and actions means others are more likely to be supportive. Without open, honest, and effective communication, relationships will fail. Leaders who actively exercise their emotional intelligence skills can recognize the needs and emotions of others and build positive relationships by meeting those needs. 


Effective leadership evolves over time through insight and experience, and one’s leadership journey should be viewed as a work in progress that is likely to go through many iterations. Successful leaders need to continually upgrade their skills to effectively collaborate and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce. Emotional intelligence is at the forefront of in-demand skills for effective leaders. Those looking to achieve this level and succeed should take the time to work on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship building to increase your emotional quotient. It is a currency you can’t afford to be without.

Elizabeth A. Wilson, CPA, is chief financial officer of Valley National Financial Advisors in Bethlehem and is a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at esvizz13@gmail.com. 

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