The Myth of Emotional Intelligence And Leadership

leadership and emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is a crucial component of both effective leadership and power.
Especially long-lasting power.

However, it’s not the “Emotional Intelligence,” as most people think of it.

By the end of this article, we will understand that it’s more power intelligence that enables and supports leadership and power over the long run.

How People Get Emotional Intelligence Wrong

First of all, most authors and writers have spread misinformation about emotional intelligence. 

Let me give you an overview of how that happened.

Daniel Goleman, in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence popularized studies like this one with the often misquoted headline that “EI accounts for 80% of career success”.

For the sake of clarity, Goleman clarified that he has been widely misquoted and misrepresented.

And of course, to anyone with a critical mind, the “80% thing” is absolute nonsense.
But that didn’t stop the spreading of the misunderstanding.

The issue has been compounded by the misunderstanding of “vulnerability,” as espoused by the research of Brene Brown and culminating in bestselling books such as Daring Greatly.

Since then, vulnerability has become a new way of showing power. And leaders should now “show their weakness”, and “show their true selves.”.
Of course, there are moments when a leader must be vulnerable, but not nearly as frequently as some people have been led to believe and not nearly as obvious as one might want (also read: vulnerability is not power).

So today, many people see emotional intelligence as a form of touchy-feely leadership.
Of course, that’s not the case; emotional intelligence is simply the ability to better understand feelings and social dynamics.

But let’s go in order.

CEOs Are Emotionally Stupid

ceo emotional intelligence

So today, many people believe that emotional intelligence means tending to relationships and that emotional intelligence will help them become more powerful.

But is that true?
Does EI help in climbing dominance hierarchies?

Well, it turns out that Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 measured the EI of many managers, executives, and CEOs.

What he found out was striking.

Managers had higher EI scores than average.
But CEOs?
CEOs showed lower EI scores than the average.

See the results here:

chart plotting EQ results by job titles

Bradberry’s answer to that says a lot about human nature (and cognitive dissonance).
Bradberry, instead of calling into question the whole idea that EI helps you advance in your career, says that CEOs weren’t doing a good enough job and they had some work to do.

This is a good example of “bending the data to fit the narrative”.

But let’s get back to the data now and develop a better theory with it.

And the data clearly showed that emotional intelligence is not a great predictor of career success. At least, not if you’re aiming for the top spots.

The Truth of EI & Gaining Power

emotionally dangeorus leaders

The truth, unluckily, is more complex. And somewhat darker.
And the truth is that ruthlessness and calculative Machiavellianism can be some of the best assets for climbing to the top of many hierarchical organizations.

To climb to the top, too much empathy and too much self-importance can actually become major obstacles.

Here is indeed what George Simon, Ph.D., says in his important book “In Sheep’s Clothing“:

CEOs like who they are and are comfortable with their behavior patterns and how they act.
Even though their behavior might bother others a lot.

The CEO might be emotionally intelligent enough to understand when his behavior might bother some people.
But he also ignores those other people’s feelings and keeps on going anyway.

And says again, Simon:

CEOs most often have inflated self-esteem, and it’s not compensation for underlying feeling of inadequacies.
CEOs are undeterred by adverse consequences or societal condemnation.

That’s a different type of emotional intelligence.
It’s not endless love and empathy. And it’s not about accommodating others. 
The emotional intelligence that is more likely to carry people to the top is also about knowing when to keep on going straight, no matter how others feel.

In the words of Dan Rust in his wonderful Workplace Poker, CEOs act more like Teflon rhinos.

Here is how Dan Rust defines rhinos (edited by me for brevity):

Sometimes these individuals don’t even perceive rejection that would seem blindingly obvious to others. We call these people “Teflon Rhinos” because nothing sticks and nothing penetrates their thick skin.

That thick skin is not what most people think of when they read about “emotional intelligence”. 
But in my book, it’s one of its most important elements.

Rust says again:

So is the key to success having a rhinoceros-thick skin, emotionally speaking?
Well, there are a lot of benefits.
You don’t let rejection slow you down. It’s easier for you to talk to influential, powerful people without being intimidated. You’re more likely to ignore the lame criticisms of others. You persevere through obstacles. Accept no excuses. Drive yourself hard—and drive others even harder. You achieve your career goals, and in the end, that’s all that really counts, right?

Dan Rust then goes on to describe the negatives of being an extreme rhino and proposes a slightly more balanced approach.

Power Requires the Ability to Switch Off Empathy

But a new theoretical paradigm seems to emerge when it comes to power and emotional intelligence.

And that’s because the people who get to the top are able to dim, shut down, or ignore empathy and interpersonal emotions to enact plans and activities that might bother, hurt, or pain at least some of the people around them.

And looking at the business world today, we might make the case that no Emotional Intelligence is better than too much Emotional Intelligence IF that EI functions as a constraint on actions.

Here is the truth, then:

  • In life and interpersonal relationships, EI is crucial
  • To become a (mid-level) manager, EI is very important
  • To get to the very top, a “barge my way through it and fuck what others think approach yields better results than one which is overly concerned about others

And that’s why, sadly, the world we live in is prone to hostile takeovers by people who have no conscience and no moral checks and balances.

Bad Leaders Without Conscience

De Mesquita did some wonderful research.

And he came up with this tagline:

 Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

With his work and abundant evidence, de Mesquita shows that politicians who enact bad policies for the citizens increase their power and prolong their time in power.
To enact those bad policies, those dictators need no emotional intelligence—or, at least, not the “empathic” EI that some people think-.

Unfortunately, we’re not just talking about dictators here.
Bad policies worked for several powerful men in democracies and Western countries as well.

For example:

Leaders with no conscience at all are very dangerous to everyone. And, in the long run, can also lead to very poor results for themselves too.

What’s the solution, then?

Ultimate Leader: High EQ, But Can Shut It Off

Now we get to an important aspect of leadership.

Sometimes you might have to act in spite of your empathy and caring. That’s part of being a leader with a mission.

enlightened leader

Even though it seems like many CEOs have little EI, it would be very silly to discount Emotional Intelligence as a crucial aspect of leadership, power, and even the ability to quickly climb dominance hierarchies.

Countless studies, papers, and research studies show a positive correlation between EI and effective leadership (for example: Emotions and Leadership: The role of emotional intelligence).

The ultimate leader is indeed a compassionate leader who cares for and loves the people he leads.
But who can also look beyond the single instances and act forcefully when needed? A leader who feels the pain for himself and for others but, if he must act, will act anyway

As Ray Dalio says in Principles, the whole should take precedence over the single, and what’s good for the whole is good.
And as Babin and Willink say in The Dichotomy of Leadership, a good leader must love his troops but, ultimately, carry the mission for which he is responsible.

And as Robert Greene says in The Laws of Human Nature:

This empathy, however, must never mean becoming needlessly soft and pliant to the group’s will.
That will only signal weakness.
When it comes to our primary task—that of providing a vision for the group and leading it toward the appropriate goals—we must be stern and immovable. Yes, we can listen to the ideas of others and incorporate the good ones. But we must keep in mind that we have a greater command of the overall details and global picture.

As Daniel Goleman explains in Primal Leadership, the best leaders can combine different types of leadership and pick and choose what is best suited for the occasion.
And Goleman recommends developing both democratic and affiliative leadership styles, focused on harmony and relationships, and authoritative leadership style, based more on top-down orders for crisis and “difficult” employees.

Long-Term Power Rests on Good Leadership

Robert Greene says that leadership rests on two opposing forces:

  1. the people’s need for a leader
  2. the people’s resentment of the leader’s power and benefits.

Poor leaders let resentment grow and then must rely on coercion -and the military- to keep their control.
It’s not always easy to stay on the good side of the majority of people, and that’s one of the reasons why Machiavelli in “The Prince” said that it’s best to be feared than loved.

But don’t let that mindset infect you.
Great leaders do manage to enact strong leadership while being loved. And so can you.

As a matter of fact, the more empowered the people around you, the more you need to also be loved and respected.

That’s because empowered followers have the power to oust a leader. Or, at least, have the power to walk away.
That is almost always the case in corporations, and in democracies where people have the power to vote you out.

These great leaders create enough goodwill to outweigh the resentment for having a leader in the first place.

They do it through showing empathy, caring, and delivering results.
And that’s why empathy, caring, and love, all elements of emotional intelligence, are crucial for leadership.

When leaders fail to show they care about the people they lead, the follower disconnect. Passive aggression increases, and the chances of rebellion also increase.
A mutiny, either in the form of violence or voting the leader down, becomes more likely.

This is what Robert Greene says:

When leaders fail to establish these twin pillars of authority—vision and empathy—what often happens is the following: Those in the group feel the disconnect and distance between them and leadership.
They know that deep down they are viewed as replaceable pawns.
And so, in subtle ways, they begin to feel resentful and to lose respect. They listen less attentively to what such leaders say. 


… And On Tough HR Decisions

Needless to say, not everyone deserves your love and not everyone deserves to be in your team.

Emotional intelligence also allows you to “see” who are the people who are spreading rumors, discontent and generally poisoning the environment.

It allows you to see the power dynamics in your tribe and the power moves that can be used against you by conniving completists.

Emotional intelligence allows you to know when it’s time to use force and prune your beautiful trees off the bad apples that threaten to spoil the bunch.

Then once you know, act forcefully and swiftly.
As I often repeat on this website, there can be no love without the capacity of facing evil.


Emotional intelligence is crucial for leadership because value-adding leadership and leadership of empowered individuals, ultimately, rests on the people to choose you and support you as their leader.

But you must not confuse “emotionally intelligent” with touchy-feely. Or with “paralyzed” by what others think and feel.

Emotionally intelligent leaders do care about the people around them.
But they also have a deep understanding of how to get the most from them and when it’s time for forceful actions.

And that’s what emotional intelligence is about: understanding people, caring, and leveraging that knowledge and love to doggedly pursue the best course of action.

Scroll to Top