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What distinguishes good leaders from great leaders? Why does one person excel in an area while another languishes, even though they possess similar competencies and intellect? According to about 20 years of research, the difference stems from a person’s emotional IQ.

The leader in thought

One of my favorite writings on emotional IQ is the classic "What Makes a Leader?" by Daniel Goleman, published in 1998 in Harvard Business Review. Three years earlier, Goleman had written a book on the same topic, titled Emotional Intelligence.

Leaders and organizations often neglect the "soft" issues related to emotional IQ. However, through rigorous research Goleman and others demonstrated that these very qualities can make or break leaders—and thus the organizations they lead. For example, Goleman discovered that the emotional IQ of a leader ranked twice as important as cognitive IQ and competencies in relation to an organization’s success.

The 5 categories of emotional IQ

Researchers often delineate emotional IQ in five categories. Each tends to be self-descriptive. They include:

Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives. This includes a self-confidence that recognizes how you affect others, as well as a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Self-control: The avoidance of emotional outbursts. Thinking before speaking or acting. Trustworthiness and integrity. Comfort with ambiguity. Openness to change.

Motivation: A passion for work that goes beyond money or status. A propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence. Optimism in the face of failure. Organizational commitment.

Empathy: The ability to understand others’ emotional makeup. Responding well to people according to their emotional reactions. Avoiding sarcasm. Avoiding condescending remarks toward others.

Social Skills: Proficiency in managing relationships. Success at building networks. Effectiveness in leading change. Persuasiveness. Expertise in building and leading teams. Basic interaction skills with others.

Emotional IQ: born or made?

The research suggests that a certain level of emotional IQ is genetic. But there is an abundance of evidence that indicates emotional IQ can be learned as well. One thing the researchers know for certain: Emotional IQ increases with age. We simply call the process "maturity."

However, age does not guarantee a high level of emotional IQ. Often times, it must be learned with a desire to improve self. Also, it helps immensely to have someone who will help you "see yourself in the mirror" more clearly.

A dearth of awareness

If emotional IQ is so critical to the development of a leader and the success of an organization, why do so few organizations seem to be aware of this issue? Why do so few businesses, schools, and churches make this a priority in evaluating and recruiting leaders?

Certainly we affirm that basic cognitive IQ and competency skills are important for developing and selecting leaders. However, the evaluation of leaders is never complete without due consideration of emotional IQ. Organizations once thought that emotional IQ made a nice "add-on" to a leader’s skill set. But more than ever, today we are discovering that it is essential for the sake of the leaders and, concurrently, for an organization’s health.


Thomas Rainer is the president and CEO LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books.


User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • mark szymanski
    It is my sense that leaders lack the desire to put the hard work and time into developing people. Leaders are often distracted to actions that put fires out rather than developing people and taking advantage of opportunities resulting in the need for "ready made" leaders to be found - of which there are few. When we as leaders see that leading means developing people we will benefit with a healthy, growing, vibrant organization.
Thom Rainer

Latest posts by Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer
Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of 24 books, including his upcoming release, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church + 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive.”
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