The impact of emotional intelligence in Leadership

Six years ago, Egon Zehnder Int. an executive search company based in Buenos Aires, placed 227 CEO’s globally.  A year later, 23 had failed.  It became Claudio Araoz’s responsibility to determine what had happened.  The research was compelling, as it showed that the leaders who failed had an over-reliance of IQ and no ability to collaborate/cooperate effectively with teams and no capacity to participate in people’s feelings.  The result was that they had failed.  This research is an important demarcation point that emphasises the end of the old “command/control” styles of leadership to that of emotionally intelligent leaders.  UCLA research has also reiterated that 93% of leadership effectiveness is related to emotional intelligence such as presence, honesty, authenticity, creativity, trust and integrity and that 7% of leadership effectiveness today is related to IQ or technical competence. *

As Kevin Murray, director of communication at British Airways said:  “Organisations going through the greatest change are those who need emotional intelligence the most”  Dr. Goleman argues,  “The IQ talented, or those on the extreme high end of the IQ scale often suffer a lack of social skills – a lack of emotional intelligence”.

The obstacle to certain leaders shaping their environments effectively is not because of a lack of expertise, but rather a failure in the area of intra-personal and inter-personal competencies coupled with a lack of communicative skill. Diagnosing when this is the case and intervening becomes a critical value-add of Human Resource specialists that can significantly improve organisational climate and productivity.

World-renowned specialists in this area, Dr Goleman, McKee, Boyatzis and others all advocate that there is a ‘new leadership’ demand.

“Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions…their success depends on how they do it”. Goleman McKee & Boyatzis, The New Leadership.

Their research indicates that team performance is as a direct result of emotional intelligence competencies of leaders, accounting for twice as much to do with star performance at all levels in an organisation and accounting for 90% the reason for star performance at the highest levels in organisations. This staggering finding begs more attention to how ‘Resonant Leaders’ (as they call them) behave.

Many follow their thinking and it is widely established that many factors are contributing to the growing need for leaders with more evolved and communicative styles. Factors in South Africa include more environmental complexity over cross-cultural interactions, a need for time-urgency to stay competitive, increasing pressure for skills and expertise, the war for talent and competition to keep top people and the increasing demand from a workforce for more consultative, humanitarian environments. Yet all the while, leaders are required to provide direction, opportunities for growth and mentorship and keep up with international standards. To manage these emerging trends and ensure that organisations are keeping up, human resource practitioners are becoming more aware than ever of the importance of leaders having the communication skills to navigate their environments effectively.

In our experience, as communication coaches working with emerging leaders over different industries for over 27 years, we have experienced that skills can definitely be developed and that the demand for these skills is growing stronger every day.

With an increase in new leaders being fast-tracked, without on-the-job time for tough lessons, where mistakes and inefficiencies cannot be tolerated and pressure is high, where they need to make an impact, gain trust, respect and buy-in fast, top companies are realising that these skills are worth  consciously coaching and developing.

Science behind Resonant Communicative behaviour

Underlying the business reasons for Resonant Leadership are fundamental physiological and scientific reasons for why this works. Neuroscientists are daily finding new links that explore how we are ‘wired’ and how emotion plays a role in thinking, decision making and behaviour. The new field of Social intelligence which bridges many sciences, is revealing just how susceptible our systems are to the emotional state of our leaders and peers and how we shape our environments and how they shape our brain functioning.

The “social brain” as it is referred to in this new field, is showing scientists how and why certain people are able to access people’s talent, innovation and best potential while others shut down and disable key competencies in others, making them “Dissonant” as leaders and essentially ‘dumbing-down’ their work-force. Much of this has to do with the conscious and unconscious messages they send, which depends much on internal competencies and forces which others perceive and interpret.

Meaning is essentially communicated through the body’s expression in space (non-verbal behaviour), vocal tone and quality and speech. Whether we realise it or not, our emotional brains or limbic structures are reading and interpreting signals to determine intentions, emotions and thoughts and determining how we feel about it all the time. When we are not processing, our brains are mulling over relationship data, showing how key others are in our quality of lives and survival. 

A person in a more dominant position, may have more impact on our emotional radar than a peer because the brain will pay more attention to it, a useful skill probably refined through evolution. Astonishingly, research has shown that a verbal attack from a leader can activate the same centres in the brain as a physical attack, flooding the brain and body with the fight or flight responses that ‘protect’ and defend. This, we also know, de-activates a spectrum of brain-wave activity (alpha) that is essential in creativity, innovation and idea generation and constant flooding can impede immune system functioning and even the process of neurogenesis (where brain tissue grows).

Because of our ‘open loop’ brain, research has indicated the emotional state of leaders has a 50 – 70% impact on the emotional climate of a team and therefore their performance output. For this reason, their conscious and unconscious reactions and communication in every-day interactions have a direct impact on productivity and performance. Leaders that have stronger self-awareness and self-management strategies and skills in dealing with their environment, have a more positive overall impact on climate. This, the experts say, affects the business bottom line and they have proven it.

While we know that aggressive and commanding styles of leadership activate fear and coerce or propel performance, this, it has been shown, is rarely sustainable and pushes people to produce only what they have to, not what they truly have the potential to.

The area of social intelligence requires leaders to have the ability to identify and appraise emotion and intention in others and manage this in a way that generates more positive emotional drivers. This basically enables potential and creates a committed, inspired and passionate workforce. 

What are the emotional and social intelligence indicators in leaders?

Many scholars have defined a vast number of leadership characteristics. The ability to be transformational, inspirational, courageous, empathetic and knowledgeable are a few examples of “traits” that successful leaders display (Kakabadse, Adair, Goleman & Boyatzis). Goleman and others identify the further emotional and social intelligence traits as key in leadership behind many of these. Some are not seen directly, like self-awareness, confidence and self-management or the ability to self-motivate, manage internal stress and stay optimistic in the face of challenges. These are essential traits which need to be personally developed in leaders.

Others qualities, are more easily seen in a social context and have a profound effect on the entire team, these aspects, fall into the Golemans social intelligence framework and include: primal empathy and empathic accuracy, listening and attuning to others, knowing how the social world works, interacting smoothly with a wide variety of levels of person, effective self-presentation, expressing care about others and the ability to influence and shape the outcome of social interactions.  All these aspects require high levels of self-awareness and proficiency. Intra-personal competencies strengthen and reinforce development of social intelligence skills.

Blockages in any of the levels in a leader can create a host of organisational problems like work-force resistance, resentment, lack of motivation or morale, lack of performance, respect and stubborn resistance to change.

What distinguishes communication delivery of a leader?

We know that leaders are gauged and measured on two important levels, informally and formally. Marketers and PR experts see to it that CEO’s and spokespeople are rigorously groomed to give effective messages to the media to manage perceptions of investors and customers, and even internal messages are being strategically implemented, but people have wised up and are sceptical about manufactured messages. What people are really looking for is congruence in the tone and communication of the leader in every-day, informal interactions.

What will ensure the message is trusted and positive? While content accounts for maybe 7% of the message, 83% comes from the subtle, unconscious connotations that underlie the conscious message, which either enables or obstructs trust and bonding to the messenger.

While much time is focussed on communication, strategy leaders are not learning authentic communication and developing their internal and expressive skills to optimise every-day, interactional delivery. Part of the reason is a lack of awareness of the possibilities in this realm.

We tend to think that communicating consists of only linguistic elements of stringing words, phrases and sentences together but there is a lot more to it. Few understand how our true communication emerges from our being and the impact our values, intentions, thoughts and emotions have in our communication, and how visible they are to others with well-developed perception. 

This is largely because the process of communicating is so unconscious and habitual and our patterns of communicating have been so ingrained from the time in the womb when the rhythms of our language has been patterned on the structure of our mothers, that we rarely had to consciously think about this amazing skill and why we sound and behave the way we do.

Communication happens through two ‘sign’ systems:

  • the voice and speech mechanism and
  • the non-verbal (or the body’s movement in space).

The voice and speech mechanism

Effective communicators use the full range of the voice (tone, quality, musicality of the sound, pitch and volume, pause and emphasis and resonance of the vocal presentation) to enhance whether others will be willing to listen and the way the message is cognitively and emotionally perceived.

The ability to produce sound and create speech emerges from a complex process of the use of breath, the vocal folds inside the larynx and the oral cavity which acts as an air resonator. The oral cavity does much to shape and to enhance the quality of sound and tone in voice.

Tension in modern day life often creates obstacles for the optimal use of the voice. Negative emotion and stress impede breathing and constricts the muscles around the larynx impacting vocal quality. The shaping of the pharynx and oral cavity may also be jeopardised by habitual holding patterns created by underlying emotions such as anger or fear, i.e. a clenched jaw or a stiff tongue.  When the shaping of this air resonator is limited by such emotional patterns, tone will be negatively influenced. This could mean that while you have a perfectly rational and sound message to deliver, interference in these aspects could undermine the message, rendering it dull, lacking conviction or worse, communicating the underlying feelings of aggression. 

While there are no specific standards and each case is different, shaped by a multitude of factors including culture, common mistakes are speech rate that is too fast, a lack of resonance and lack of use of modulation making messages monotonous and dull. Typically, leaders who are able to manage their stress both mentally and physically are best at enhancing their vocal quality and clarity. Tiredness, resentment or stress in the vocal tone can also quickly spread through a team with viral speed.

Language is obviously what gives the sound meaning. Choice of words, use of emphasis, structure of messages all have vital importance to how a message is perceived. We know for instance that use of strong and direct emotive words reflects the emotion of the individual but also illicit that emotional response in others. This can be used both positively and negatively. While this can be inspirational in a speech, it can also be detrimental in casual discussions. Strong statements like “she is never on time”, leaves people hopeless with no room for improvement. Small adjustments to word choice can create a more resonant communication message. For example, “She tends to be late. Would you mind finding out what is causing this?” The intention of the message is similar but the expression and delivery is more positive and effective.

Voice and linguistic choices are of direct importance in good leadership. Leaders are often not aware of the impact of these two hidden tools and yet, all humans respond to the presence or absence of these elements. Monica Singer, head of State said in Leadership Fables: “Communicate who you are and be aware that the words you use become and you become the words you use.”

Non-verbal communication – communicating authenticity

If you speak to anyone who has had the privilege of meeting a great leader, phrases such as “he has such a presence and charisma” or “she really is authentic” or he/she “really cares about people” are bound to emerge. It is expected that the true leader will not only “do or say the right things” but will radiate leadership qualities from his/her being, embodying the notion of leadership at all times.

How are the signals of leadership or perceptions formed? How do these qualities come across so noticeably in some and not others?

In non-verbal communication, the key is congruence. What we mean is an alignment between the verbal message and the signals that the limbic structure reads of the person’s movement in space. We do not consciously process meaning, but our limbic brain does the calculation for us, giving us the feeling of congruence or a mis-alignment. When we aren’t convinced, it produces a feeling at best that is “iffy” and lacking conviction and at worst, distrust and negative emotion like anger.

Paraphrasing Damasio, we are always functioning as a multiple presence of the self. As such, we don’t advocate tagging a direct meaning to another’s ‘body language’ without substantial observation. Personal uniqueness and culture play major roles in the use of the body as a sign system. We read other’s bodies from the perspective of our own personal and cultural patterns.  Yet, there are certain universal truths about non-verbal communication spanning all cultures that we have examined as a base of leadership impact. 

The work of Scholars such as Birdwistell, Delsarte, Eckman provide information about these patterns and the fundamental principles of all human movement. Laban/Bartenieff further offer guidelines when decoding body language with specific reference to functional and expressive patterns.

Generally, as a rule, it is important that non-verbal behaviour is slow, open and sustained. Sharp, repetitive movements of the body and hands (the kind when reprimanding someone or pounding a finger on the desk), while they may indicate high energy levels in some cases, need to be managed in certain contexts and good leaders learn to adjust to their circumstances through personal and physical self-awareness, adjusting to the energy requirements of the people in their company.

It is easiest to unpack some further elements whilst referring to two respected leaders: President Obama and Former-President Nelson Mandela.

Observing and analysing the body patterns of these iconic leaders, it is evident that they both:

Have presence: They are both grounded in their movements. They both stay centred, seldom leaving their own personal space, with the pull line of gravity flowing directly through their bodies when in the upright position.

Sure of himself and can be trusted: They both spread and widen in their upper bodies. They both have a good head-neck relationship with the crown of the head, the highest point of the body. They both make use of open movements from the centre of the body outwards when sharing information.

Mean what they say: In their gestures there is integration between the energy and intent present at the core of the body, and the energy and intent that is present in the gesture. Thus, creating the impression of congruency between what it meant and what is said.

Care about people: Both Mandela and Obama express themselves within the upper body and lean slightly towards the person that he is communicating with, without compromising their own space. Mandela in his later years had a tendency to lean more forward – especially reaching out to make contact with people. It is as if he softened and paid more attention to how the people that he is interacting with feel. Obama displays slightly less but the same softening and shaping of the upper body when communicating directly with one other person. He furthermore tilts his head slightly to the side as an indication that he is listening attentively to the other person.

For leaders in business that don’t have this, what can be done? Through guidance we can all learn to embody our thoughts and feelings and support our verbal messages with our body language. It takes a high level of self-awareness and feedback and slowly habitual patterns can be changed. 

Those who do not improve or master their personal delivery of their communication will struggle to lead others. 

It is important that leaders are aware of their voice and speech communication tools, get honest feedback regarding  habitual patterns and professional communication coaching to enhance tools and ensure that their impact in their environment is powerful and positive and that simple bad habits are not standing in their way to making a real difference.

Un-managed Stress, the threat to Resonant Leadership

While stress has been briefly addressed throughout, it is essential to recognise the impact stress has on overall Resonance of leaders. On every level un-managed stress can impede communication, direct people towards commanding, un-structured, unclear and thoughtless responses that isolate, polarise and enrage people, thus disabling the talent of that individual leader in their context as well as negatively affecting productivity of teams.

Managing stress in the workplace is more than encouraging work-life balance, exercise, nutrition and sleep. The challenge with dealing with stress in leaders, is that they often don’t have the time to address it in those ways. Many stress management programmes are time consuming or limited to specific areas and can rarely be sustained within the context of the working environment and inevitably fall by the wayside when things get tough, the very time that they are called for.

There are physical responses that need to be managed on-the-job, while conflict emerges, while crises happen and while a manager inspires his team towards new targets.

To stay competitive, leaders need these awareness and techniques that combine the mental and physical aspects of stress. They need the holistic and integrated picture of how to manage stress as it builds. The combination of two previously unrelated fields is yielding these kinds of results.

Neuro-feedback reconditions the way the brain functions and alters established brainwave patterns so that a person can control their management of typical causes of stress in a meeting, presentation, performance appraisal or conflict. Physical management can occur through body integration training and provides the person with awareness and skills to release the altered patterns in the physical body such as in breath, muscles and voice.

We have found that in their skills development programme, participants learn how to enter a mental state of Alpha (where the mind is calm) and increase their focus, creativity, concentration and out-of-the box thinking capacity. This transforms negative stress into a positive mental state that is productive and solution orientated.

The combination accelerates and enhances the ability to manage stress or stressful situations in a positive stress mode and also enhances communication skills as a result.

This is a wonderful way for leaders who are required to perform consistently with high levels of emotional intelligence and communication skill, to do so.



As HR practitioners, we encourage you to make your organisation aware of the importance of personal communication, especially in rising leaders.

(References: Dr. Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence Why it can matter more than IQ, Richard Boyatzis and Annie Mckee – Resonant Leadership)

For more information contact My Pocket Coach on (011) 781-1444