Leadership: Social Intelligence is Essential

I’ve long argued that outstanding leadership requires a combination of self-mastery and social intelligence. What’s the difference? Self-mastery refers to how we handle ourselves; for those familiar with my model of emotional intelligence, self-mastery breaks down into self-awareness and self-control.

The leadership competencies that build on self-mastery include self-confidence, the drive to improve performance, staying calm under pressure, and a positive outlook. All these abilities can be seen at full force, for instance, in workers who are outstanding individual performers. The operative word here is “individual” – and that’s the rub. When it comes to leaders, effectiveness in relationships makes or breaks. Solo stars are often promoted to leadership positions and then flounder for lack of people skills.

When Claudio Fernando-Araoz, head of research for the executive recruitment firm Egon Zehnder International, looked at CEOs who had succeeded and those who had failed, he found the same pattern in America, Germany and Japan: those who failed were hired on the basis of their drive, IQ, and business expertise – but fired for lack of emotional intelligence. They simply could not win over, or sometimes even just get along with, their board of directors, or their direct reports, or others on whom their own success depended.

All this has made intuitive and theoretical sense to me. But I like data. So I’m pleased to see several new studies that confirm how essential social intelligence – as opposed to simple self-mastery – can be for leadership effectiveness. The findings:

  • At a transportation company, those leaders strongest in the social intelligence competencies led greater revenue growth, compared to executives with strengths only in the self-mastery competencies.
  • The same goes for banking: at a major nationwide bank, high social intelligence (but not self-mastery alone) predicted executive’s yearly performance appraisal, which in turn reflects business success.
  • The value of social intelligence even applies to clergy: among Catholic priests,, greater social intelligence predicted more satisfied parishioners.

All these studies were based on the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI), which I helped my colleague Richard Boyatzis design. I’d like to see if other researchers verify this effect using other measures to replicate these findings. Any graduate students out there

24 thoughts on “Leadership: Social Intelligence is Essential

  1. Folks interested in this topic might also check out the new issue of Greater Good magazine, which focuses on the psychology of power. Of possible interest:

    The Power Paradox: True power requires modesty and empathy, not force and coercion, argues Dacher Keltner. But what people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.

    Are You a Jerk at Work?: Robert I. Sutton explains how to handle bullies in the office—and prevent your own “inner jerk” from getting out.

    Also, this piece covers an area that Dan has repeatedly touched upon in this blog:

    Stop! Calm Down! Think!, by Dawn Friedman: Research shows that the Second Step program is creating kinder, smarter schools.

  2. I read one of your books (about social intelligence) and thought it was very good.I have a history of manic depressive and OCD ilness and have just been diagnosed with PDD-NOS which is why I type this message because I’m not sure if I more directly relate to a paranoid personality disorder.What is the difference?

  3. Excellent piece! I’m one of those who have attained an appreciable level of self mastery, but soon realised that i wouldn’t do as well in the long term in my career if i didn’t work on my ‘social intelligence’. People and Businesses in the 21st century are realising that no one has monopoly of knowledge or resources, and true wisdom lies in leveraging resources domiciled in vast people and technology networks.

    I believe ‘smart people’ are at a greater risk of being socially ‘unintelligent’. I believe it’s important for social skills to be taught at much ealier stages, and should possibly constitute a significant part of academic curriculum.

    The success of tomorrow’s society would be largely determined by how efficiently and effetively it can pool and harness multi-disciplinary competencies of it’s members in a highly co-operative climate.

  4. Cyber-disinhibition..

    I have become interested in this syndrome since beoming involved in various messageboards over the last 5 years.

    It seems self-evident to me that the absence of robust physical consequences will remove inhibitions to free expression. And a very good thing too.

    Whether this leads to ‘flaming’ is more debatable, and even if it does, should this be a probelm, given that words on a screen are not sticks and stones and are never going to break real bones?

    The anonymity of theinternet is a great assett, and a great liberator of thought, but sadly, I have noticed a distinct lack of tolerance of ideas, resulting in group flaming of the worst kind. What seems to happen on many boards is the establishment of small, quasi anarchistic clubs with their own rules and exclusion protocols.


  5. People skills are essential. As a leader, you have to be able to handle the people you work around with and also the people who work under you. Even if you rise to the top, you’ll find it difficult to manage if you lack these skills. At some level, you have to be able to understand how other people’s minds work.

  6. My english is very bad, sorry, but I try it. I from Chile and read your book, emotional intelligence, is a very very good book.
    Me gusto su libro, lo estoy empezando a leer, y me parece bastante interesante.
    Me gustaria estudiar psicología y me gustaría lograr también algo importante en este ámbito.
    No entiendo mucho inglés asi que me es dificil leer lo demas

  7. I’m a newcomer to this (blogs, emotional intelligence) but… here we go…
    I have always thought the only substantial thing that happens in life is what happens between people (and I may even go so far to say between ‘living’ beings or elements).. so the bottom line seems to me to be how people relate. That means not remaining in one’s own universe but being able to come into succesful contact with all the other universes that one encounters. Once the focus is no longer “i am the center of all universes and all revolves around me” then there is a need for ‘common tongues’…or at least ‘understanding’ as opposed to ‘imposing’
    The other neat thing about ‘social’ intelligence is that it opens that door…. I’m thinking of all the isolated people I know who don’t feel like they are understood ;-).. to take a metaphor…the signalling network in telecom which ‘sets up’ the calls while leaving the actual commuications lines free until connection is made. It’s not for nothing it’s called ‘intelligent network’. Quite different than just information dumping.

  8. The idea that “social intelligence produces great business etc. leaders” is a nice example of tautology.

    Philosophically speaking, you could also call it a straw man’s argument

    Seriously, what’s the big idea? That a successful leader has to be “socially intelligent”? Many leaders (espeially in the entertainment business, but also in politics, academia, military, you name it) are, while successful, also egotistic, vain, authoritarian, exploitative, opportunistic — in other words, they may be socially dumb (and personally deeply unhappy), but socially they are seen as successful leaders.

    Just look at that toupee of a Donald Trump!

  9. I think this is such a great topic. Leadership–good leadership, that is–so much depends on an ability to empathize with, work with, and coach others. And it’s so often lacking in people who get promoted to leadership or managerial positions, which can make life very hard on their subordinates.

    Even bad leaders, however, can offer lessons in emotional/social intelligence, if we can stay detached enough to really analyze where their competencies are and aren’t. Recognizing patterns in others can help us with our own self awareness and growth.

    Thanks for the nice column!

  10. Dr. Goleman,

    I am a doctoral student at Walden University pursuing a Ph.D. in Applied Management and Decision Sciences with a Leadership and Organizational Change Specialization.

    I would be very interested in using the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory as part of an application project that I am planning.

    I left my e-mail address if further discussion is desired.

    Many thanks.

  11. Dr. Goleman,

    I am a Faculty in an Indian B-school. Your work and revolutionary disclosure inspired my research topic “Manifstation of Emotional Intelligence on Decision Making in Knowledge Based Industries”.

    Even though it is outside the scope of my research, one aspect of Emotional Intelligence that draws my thinking is its selective application by an individual.

    I look forward to research findings on these topics and any insights and guidelines from you.

    Thanks and regards

  12. Hi,

    I am pursuing my research in “Manifestation of Emotional Intelligence on Decision Making in Knowledge-based industries”. Is there a way in which we can collaborate

  13. Dr. Goleman,

    I am an italian engineer and I read your first book on Emotional Intelligence.
    Don’t you think that fantastic leaders , people with incredible social nose , that understand
    groups dinamics in advance , can have a bad EQ with their friends , partner ?

  14. …why , about you, is so hard to change the
    “first impression” we make on people and how to use emotional intelligence to understand soon what in our verbal and non verbal communication is misleading our conversation partner ?



  15. I have read your recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Social Intelligence and the Biology of of Leadership”. It was excellent. I was talking with a group of colleagues about this topic and a question came up: Is there a test/tool/assessment to actually measure a person’s social intelligence? If you are hiring people and you want to understand/know their social intelligence ability how can you uncover the level of that skill?

    It is evident the importance of Social Intelligence. The ability to connect with someone, the ability to sense when something is off and the courage to address it and talk about “the elephant in the room”.

    Thank you for all your wonderful research and information on this topic!

  16. Dr. Goleman,

    I am a Human Capital Development Ph.D. Student from the University of Southern Mississippi preparing to write my dissertation and would be very interested in using the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory as part of my dissertation.

    I am also an executive at a Native American Casino and plan on looking at leadership among three Native American casinos (assuming the other two will give me permission). My question is why do people follow other people? This concept of Social Intelligence fits in with what I am thinking about.

    Please contact me at my e-mail address if you would like to discuss it further or if I can use your inventory as part of my study. Thank you.

  17. I agree with Dr. Goleman concept of EQ. I’ve learned and observed around my enviroment, I found that person who has great EQ will succeed in his/her job. While person who has wonderful IQ, sometimes getting fail.

  18. I agree with Dr. Goleman concept of EQ. I have learned and observed around my environment, I found that a person who has great EQ will be succeed in his/her carrier. While a person who has great IQ, sometimes getting fail.

    Thank you.

  19. Jan. 2, 2009

    Am proposing in 14 pages, New Paradigms for Effectiveness, holistically speaking, to the Obama Transition Team.

    Have begun to identify outstanding authors, networks & proponents of holistic ways.

    Would you like a copy?

    If so, what is your address please?

    With Love & Healing Touch…


  20. Dr Goleman,

    I’m at University of Technology Sydney (Australia) and I’m writing an annotated bibliography of EI. Such a fascinating area of interest to me.
    As a young leader myself managing a graduate program, do you think if one is reasonably defined in interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, then being close in age to those you manage can assist in the effective leadership and development of the graduates own individual emotional intelligence?

    Secondly, I would also like to say that I whole heatedly agree that unlike IQ, EI or EQ can be learnt, and even more so developed. I’ve seen this happen to myself as I continue to grow and develop in my own profession, through personal and professional development I am gaining social intelligence skills that help me communicate with individuals I have to grow and develop as they begin their careers, whilst continuing to grow and understand my own areas of motivation.

  21. I am intrigued and will head out to buy your book as soon as I go offline. I have been so frustrated by the “bullies” at work who lack any emotional intelligence.

    My question: Why does executive management or the boardroom allow these leaders to dictate the organizational culture which ultimately erodes the much good with the little bad? Why aren’t they identified and rid of before the sometimes irreversible damage is done?

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