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5 traits of Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

Updated on January 10, 2023

Nobody does their best work when they don’t feel understood or cared about, so the value of emotionally intelligent leaders in an industry as fast-paced as software development is incredibly high. Here are some identifying qualities of emotionally intelligent leaders to help you spot them and be one yourself, regardless of the role you’re currently in.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) measures the ability to identify and manage one's own emotions as well as the emotions of others. According to an article in Psychology Today

"Emotional intelligence is generally said to include a few skills: namely emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same."

Emotional intelligence is distinguished from General Intelligence (IQ) in order to provide better measures of how adept individuals are at navigating social situations with others and managing their own emotional state. 

Why is emotionally intelligent leadership important?

Tech leaders with a high emotional quotient are better equipped to build happy, successful teams that can navigate unexpected challenges without crumbling under typical pressure. Emotionally intelligent leaders know how to handle their own emotions; they don’t put them onto others by blaming, shaming, getting aggressive, playing the victim or making brash decisions in the heat of the moment. When challenging situations arise, they’re able to navigate them professionally without suppressing their emotions personally or unleashing them on unsuspecting team members.

The Harvard Business School's article on emotionally intelligent leaders observes four key components of emotional intelligence:

1. Self-awareness
2. Self-management
3. Social awareness
4. Relationship management

All of these dynamics speak to an individual's ability to successfully manage their own behavior and interactions with other people. Let's break down five traits you might observe in an emotionally intelligent leader, and why they would benefit an organization.  

5 Signs of an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

If you're hiring or being hired into an organization, or if you're seeking to establish new connections with other organizational leaders, it helps to be able to recognize the real-world signs of emotionally intelligence within a boss, manager, or executive. Here are five signs to look for:

1. They’re thoughtful and approachable

In Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the titular queen famously threatens the life of one of her messengers when he gives her bad news, thus providing one of the most famous reflections on the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders. Even centuries ago, people understood that being receptive was a key component to good leadership. Emotionally intelligent leaders are the ones that you can trust to share vital information with, even when it points out an overlooked or misunderstood problem. These individuals are open and receptive to feedback, positive or negative, from their employees and peers alike. 

By the same token, when employees feel responsible for the emotions of their leaders, it creates a toxic work environment in which nobody can truly thrive. When leaders possess the ability to process their own emotions without reacting to them immediately, their teams are much more likely to enjoy the psychological safety necessary to produce their best work.

2. They admit mistakes and know how to apologize

Sometimes people mess up. Products get shipped late, recent releases are constantly breaking and the potential for you to tear your hair out can feel high! There needs to be accountability, but an emotionally intelligent leader always considers how systems and practices played a role in mistakes happening before they start blaming individuals. They also reflect on their own contributions to a problem and take responsibility, especially when they are the final decision maker. 

Neither leaders nor team members are perfect, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life—and therefore business. Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to own their mistakes and maintain empathy when their team members make them. Self-awareness and the ability to apologize are vital elements of good leadership, as is a willingness to accept the genuine apologies of others. 

3. They notice burnout and understand the importance of balance

When employees are overly stressed out, you’re likely to run into problems like higher turnover rates, decreased quality of work and poor internal relationships—to name just a few. Emotionally intelligent leaders can spot burnout before it wreaks havoc on their teams, and know how to support burnt out employees in getting back to a healthier, more balanced place.

What a “balanced” life looks like can be different for everyone, but there are a few universal truths:

  1. Nobody should feel like they have to sacrifice their health and wellbeing for their job
  2. Nobody should feel afraid to speak up when they need help
  3. Everyone should feel able to take care of themselves however they need to

Emotionally intelligent leaders trust their people to know what’s right for them, and to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. and to act in the best interest of the company. They understand that sometimes letting an employee work from home or adjust their working hours is the best thing they can do for the success of a project. 

If you do notice that a team member is regularly exploiting relaxed rules, seek to understand how you can help them become more committed. Ask questions about their feelings surrounding their role, and make sure you explain what’s expected of them with empathy—coaching them to respect the freedom given by helping them understand why you offer flexibility and giving them a vision of how their increased participation could benefit them and their team.

4. They practice self-care

Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t just value the wellbeing of their team members, they value their own wellbeing, too. Leading a team can be a lot of pressure, and those who don’t know how to handle that pressure healthily are likely to be more reactive and prone to burnout.

It’s not surprising that so many Silicon Valley leaders use mindfulness practices like meditation to stay mentally healthy. You don’t need to be getting your yoga on at 5 a.m. every morning to be a good leader (though it’s not a bad idea!), but it’s wise to have some kind of regular practice in your life that helps you complete the stress-response cycle, whether that’s exercise, journaling, playing with your dog—whatever works for you!

It’s not healthy for any of us to be “switched on” constantly when it comes to work. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that we add value by being continually available and clocking hours during the night and weekends, but an inverse effect may be at play. We need to make time for the other important parts of being a human if we’re going to be valuable members of society and our companies.

5. They honor everyone’s uniqueness

Everyone’s optimum work style is different. While team compatibility is important, emotionally intelligent leaders recognize that not everyone operates in the exact same way—and that’s ok. They trust their team members to work in whatever ways are conducive to their productivity and success, and don’t put pressure on anyone to work in a way that doesn’t suit them. They expect compliance when it comes to essential company/team practices, of course, but they don’t sweat the non-essential stuff, like the absurdly large exercise ball Developer Devon likes to work on. (Can that really be good for his back?!)

As the tech industry continues to confront giant issues like AI, data protection and the different work styles of younger generations, emotionally intelligent leaders will become an even hotter commodity. Things are always changing, and those with emotional resilience are the best equipped to guide teams through those constant changes without getting overly ruffled.

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