Thursday, 17 March 2011

Emotional Intelligence: What can it really tell us about leadership?

On the heels of last month's post on a possible further component of emotional intelligence (EI), the Academy of Management Perspectives has just published a review of how EI relates to leadership. Is EI the primary driver of effective leadership? Or is evidence of its relevance to leadership “non-existent”?

A team of authors led by Frank Walter of the University of Groningen step in to arbitrate, reviewing past research as three distinct streams, an idea introduced by Catherine Ashkanasy and Neal Daus in 2005. The first stream contains research using standardised tests to measure employee's emotional such as emotion perception. Research within the second uses a rating method to make its measurements, trusting that we can accurately judge these abilities in ourselves or others. The third uses a broader definition, popular due to its power to predict work outcomes, but criticised as “including almost everything except cognitive ability”, which is less useful when we're trying to differentiate components of leadership.

The authors argue that by differentiating the streams we better detect when a case for a particular phenomena is supported by converging evidence – agreement across different streams. And such converging evidence exists for leadership effectiveness, examined through outcomes including higher effort, satisfaction, performance and profit creation within the team managed; all three streams agree on a role for EI. Similarly, there is a general consensus that EI relates to leadership emergence, the degree to which someone can manifest as a leader in situations where they lack formal authority.

The three-streams view also helps expose where evidence is gappy, as it is for specific leadership behaviours and styles. Can EI predict transformational leadership, a charismatic, visionary style that stimulates its followers? Definitely, if we consider streams two and three. But the stream one, hard ability EI evidence is thinner on the ground. For other leadership styles, such as the laissez-faire leader, the evidence is also unclear. For Walter and his colleagues, the jury is definitely out, as they believe that data from stream one is the best foundation for understanding what incremental value EI gives over and above other factors like personality.

The authors conclude that there is encouraging evidence that EI is a useful construct for understanding leadership, but warn that “the pattern of findings reported in the published literature suggests that EI does not unequivocally benefit leadership across all work situations.” They call for more stream one evidence, and insist there is a need to consistently control for both personality and cognitive ability, a step taken in only a single study reviewed.

Finally, the Digest HQ welcome their entreaty that “incorporating EI in leadership education, training, and development should proceed on strictly evidence-based grounds, and it should not come at the expense of other equally or even more important leadership antecedents.”

Happily, the review is freely available to access from the site of Michael Cole, one of its authors. Frank H. Walter, Michael S. Cole, & Ronald H. Humphrey (2011). Article: Emotional Intelligence: Sine Qua Non of Leadership or Folderol? Academy of Management Perspectives, 25 (1), 45-59


  1. Could you post thoughts contrasting the idea that EQ might prove beneficial for leadership roles with the idea that sociopathy does? The latter might just be a popular misperception, but if it isn't I'd like to have it discussed in contrast with the EQ findings.

    Actually, I realize I don't have a clinical understanding of sociopathy, so it could be the case that sociopathy does not correlate to low EQ. Maybe a sociopath could have high EQ but express it in hostile ways.

  2. Hi skm.
    That's a great question, and I'll try to give a partial answer here.

    It's worth noting that sociopath is one of those terms heard more often out of the clinic than within it. It is still used by some as a descriptor for antisocial personality disorder, but I don't imagine that's the right fit for what you're getting at, not least because those with that diagnosis tend to show poor job performance and may be less likely to progress to positions of seniority. There are other candidates that might fit the bill. How about the psychopath?

    If we think of psychopathy, the symptomology includes deficits in recognising emotions. (I explored doing my PhD with one of my lecturers James Blair (, a leading researcher on this area. Following this, we would indeed imagine a true psychopath to score poorly on EI measures, especially those within stream one. But our concept of a psychopath is not entirely locked to this clinical definition, and this is where the picture gets interesting.

    Amongst many areas suggested for further research, the Walter, Cole and Humphrey review talks about a lack of consensus on how EI relates to ethics in leadership.

    One view states that leaders with high EI are likely to be driven by empathy to be more caring and act in responsible ways.

    However, a second perspective suggests that high EI could be used instrumentally by some leaders, a means to their own selfish ends, in a Machiavellian manner.

    This would be consistent with one popular conception of the high-functioning psychopath: someone who knows how to bend and manipulate others, uncaring of the consequences: I can't help think of Hannibal Lector, manipulating Will Graham or Clarice Starling from within his bars.

    In other words, it's not necessarily a case of High EI OR sociopath/psychopath/bad guy - the two could go together. That said, the review suggests preliminary evidence speaks against this - reassuringly for the rest of us! I do recommend reading the review if you're interested in this topic. The section on ethics is towards the end.

    As a fuller answer, I hope we can address this in a future Occ Digest post.

    Let me know whether this goes some way to answering your question!

    Best, Alex

  3. Thanks, Alex. That was useful. And as a side note, I didn't realize sociopath and psychopath weren't interchangeable terms.

    I will be reading the entire review when I have a chance. Thanks for posting a link to the researcher's site; I see that he also has many other interesting papers there.

    (I am a layperson, not an io psyc btw)

  4. And that's great. Do continue to contribute as these are great questions.

    Best, Alex