Emotional Intelligence and Leadership – Do We have a problem?

The phrase Emotional Intelligence is popping up everywhere. We have courses designed to improve it, organisations committed to using it as predictors of leadership potential and a significant coaching industry building up around the concept and it’s relationship to leadership. But are we really chasing our tail on this concept and it’s application?

Emotional Intelligence emerged as a concept in the late 1980s when two American psychologists, Peter Salovey of Yale and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, were casting around for a pithy way to sum up human qualities such as empathy, self-awareness and emotional control.

For a while, the phrase they hit on “emotional intelligence” . which languished in academic obscurity. Then Daniel Goleman, a writer with The New York Times, picked it up and nailed it to the mast of his best-seller Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. The rest is history.

We now have over 15 different models of emotional intelligence with other approaches also being worked on. We also have much research continuing on the links between emotional intelligence and leadership. But can we measure emotional intelligence in a meaningful way in the first place?

Some psychologists have serious doubts. “The idea that you can measure emotional intelligence like IQ is very misleading,” says Ross Buck, professor of communication sciences at the University of Connecticut. Emotional skills are slippery and relative in a way that IQ isn’t, he concludes. “Your communicative ability with someone you know is different from your communicative ability with a stranger, and each relationship will have its own characteristic emotional communication.”

The link between high emotional intelligence and good leadership is also coming under scrutiny. In fact it is now being proposed that if a leader’s emotional intelligence is too high, then this significantly impedes leadership ability, particularly in difficult times. Research is also being conducted on ‘the dark side’ of emotional intelligence as a negatively focussed manipulative tool.

Even Goleman acknowledges the difficulties in quoting the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle says:

“Anyone can be angry–that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not easy.”

The concept of emotional intelligence may have helped people realise that the emotional skills are important to intellectual achievement, but we may not be much nearer understanding how to measure or develop it than Aristotle was more than 2000 years ago – or it’s link with effective leadership.

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4 Responses to Emotional Intelligence and Leadership – Do We have a problem?

  1. Pingback: Daily Leadership Thought #146 – Your Inner Circle « Ed Robinson's Blog

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