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Leaders’ Emotional & Social Intelligence: The Lazarus Drug in Crisis?

By on December 19, 2008 – 11:11 am  4 Comments

Timothy So, Msc, is a PhD candidate in Psychology in the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry. He is a Research Associate of Cambridge University's Well-being Institute and a Chartered Occupational Psychologist. Timothy is also responsible for both the Traditional and the Simplified Chinese PPND sites. Full bio.

Timothy's articles are here and here.

goleman_lg.jpgIn 1998, Daniel Goleman published his first article on Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Leadership in Harvard Business Review (HBR), titled ‘What Makes a Leader’. In that article, one of Goleman’s key messages was that ‘IQ and technical skills are important, but emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership’ (Goleman, 1998). It was adhered to by many business and political leaders.

From EI to SI

Over the past 10 years, leaders who demonstrate competencies (such as 1.self-awareness; 2.self-management; awareness; and 4.relationship management) at appropriate times and ways in sufficient frequency to be effective in leading process are regarded as having high EI. EI has become a major topic of leadership research until the end of 2008, when Goleman published another paper with Richard Boyatzis in HBR about Social Intelligence (SI) and Leadership (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008). Being defined by Goleman and Boyatzis as ‘a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits (and related endocrine systems) that inspire others to be effective’, SI may rock the fields leadership and management, just as EI did 10 years ago.

Back to 100 Years Ago

The importance of mastering the art of interpersonal relationships had been recognized earlier. Almost 100 years ago, psychologist Edward Thorndike (1920) from Columbia University proposed 3 distinct types of intelligence: (1) abstract intelligence; (2) mechanical intelligence; and (3) social intelligence. Although social intelligence resonated intuitively, only abstract intelligence has gained psychologists’ attention for so many years, after early attempts to refine and measure social intelligence were proved unsuccessful.

Three Significant Findings

Despite the frustration in operationalizing SI, Goleman & Boyatzis (2008) today have offered promising evidences that every leader can learn to be a better one through developing EI and SI.

  1. EI & SI do help.. Goleman & Boyatzis discovered that when leaders exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods, it literally affects both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers. Goleman & Boyatzis believed that great leaders are those whose behavior powerfully leverages the system of brain interconnectedness. It implies that it follows that a potent way of becoming a better the kinds of social behavior that reinforce the brain’s social circuitry. leader is to find authentic contexts in which to learn. This finding adds huge value in the previous leadership and organization studies as it may explain how and why positive emotions can enhance one’s leadership potential (Higgs & Aitken, 2003), positive work attitudes (Carmeli, 2003), performance in teams and groups (Offermann, et al., 2004) and economic outcomes of the firm (Tomer, 2003) through the biology of empathy.
  2. EI & SI are important in crises. Goleman and Boyatzis also showed that among workers in health care organizations who are in the face of crises from time to time, those whose leaders have low SI reported unmet patient care needs at three times the rate and emotional exhaustion at four times the rate than those whose leaders have high SI. Surges in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol strongly but negatively affect people’s reasoning and cognition while we under stress and crisis. In contrast, workers with high SI leaders reported good emotional health and enhanced abilities at work even during the stress of layoffs. In the current economic turmoil where everyone is stressed, does this finding offer leaders from different organizations or communities any insights?


  4. EI & SI can be measured and developed. The Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI), is a behavioral assessment tool of SI and EI. This 360 degree evaluation instrument assesses leaders according to 7 SI competencies. (Full version of ESCI) and provides good indicators of SI and EI.

The utility of EI and SI on organizational performance is found in notable organizations such as the U.S. Air Force, L’Oreal, Met Life, Egon Zehnder International, American Express, and many others (Cherniss, 2006).

Applicability to the current challenges?

At the end of 2008, I am glad I have read Goleman and Boyatzis’s paper in HBR about emotional and social intelligence,. It has enormous practical potential. I have personally set developing EI & SI as one of my core goals in 2009, and I see the importance of ESI to the global economic crisis, which probably is the most serious one in our lifetime. Scholars and leaders around the world should not only echo EI & SI, but also bring in immediate and noticeable applicability in response to the challenges and crises as well as fetch people in business community back to a flourishing level!


Carmeli, A. (2003). The relationship between emotional intelligence and work attitudes, behavior and outcomes. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18 (8), 788-813.

Cherniss, C. (2006). The business case for emotional intelligence.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2002). Leadership and emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Books.

Higgs, M., & Aitken, P. (2003). An exploration of the relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership potential. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18 (8), 814-823.

Offermann, L., Bailey, J. R., Vasilopoulos, N. L., Seal, C. & Sass, M. (2004). EQ versus IQ: The relative contribution of emotional intelligence and cognitive ability to individual and team performance. Human Performance, 17 (2), 219-243.

Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper Magazine, 140, 227-235. Tomer, J. F. (2003). Personal capital and emotional intelligence: An increasingly important tangible source of economic growth. Eastern Economic Journal, 29 (3), 453.


  • it would be so helpful if someone cited the specific behaviors
    that Goleman interprets as good “relationship management”
    or, in the case of those in healthy, “empathy”
    – and what behaviors do not.

  • waynej says:

    Timothy, true to form I am going to have to bring up some issues with the research on EI & SI. Much of the claims about EI are really questionable. For example a recent study in Australia found that EI had minimal impact on School performance. And interestingly if you control for personality it predicts very little.

    Similarly empathy (SI)predicts burnout in psychiatric nurses.

    Email me if you’d like some resources that question the validity of EI.

  • Ryan Niemiec says:

    Good article, Tim. So many of my colleagues have often said that the social cannot be measured (e.g., you can train someone who lacks social intelligence skills). Your article reminds us that indeed there is a lot of future potential AND there are successful measures for measuring this character strength of social intelligence. Thanks!

  • vince says:

    2waynej….can i have ur email?I have many questions..ty

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