We’d like to present the first of two articles on emotional intelligence, a concept we believe is essential today in developing effective physician leaders. Comments from our 360-degree feedback process over the years urge physician leaders to build stronger relationships with a variety of stakeholders and improve not only how they manage their own emotions, but how they inspire and motivate their staffs.

In this article we define and explore emotional intelligence. We also highlight research connecting emotional intelligence to leadership and organizational success. In the next article we will examine the connection between emotional intelligence and healthcare practice, especially healthcare leadership practice.

Thus we can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all of this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue

Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.

Aristotle could be considered one of the earliest advocates for the importance of emotional intelligence with the above statement, which provides insight into the effective use of emotions. He suggests that the mark of virtue is being aware of the right emotion at the right time and then turning that recognition toward the right purpose. Since Aristotle’s time, our understanding of the impact, use and definition of emotional intelligence has grown considerably. We hope to shed light on emotional intelligence as an effective leadership tool.

Emotional Intelligence Defined

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize one’s own emotions, sense emotional input from others, and react appropriately to that input. The definition and concept of emotional intelligence was developed by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer and popularized through a series of books and articles by Daniel Goleman. Because of its value to understanding and developing leadership practice through emotional intelligence, Goleman’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, “What makes a leader?” has become the most widely requested HBR reprint in the past 40 years.

Goleman’s model (shown below) includes two domains and four competencies. The first domain is Personal Competence: How we manage ourselves. This domain includes self-awareness, which is the ability to recognize and assess our emotions and to have self-confidence in our capabilities. In addition, this domain includes self-management, which is the ability to control, demonstrate, adapt, and effectively use your emotions.

The second domain is Social Competence: How we manage relationships. This domain includes social awareness, which is the ability to recognize and understand the emotions of others through the use of empathy. Relationship Management is also included in this domain and is defined as the ability to use emotional input in interactions with others regarding motivation, influence, change, teamwork and collaboration.

We at LifeWork Solutions often frame Goleman’s model using the Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis, with which many of our clients are familiar. A SWOT analysis has both an internal (strength/weakness) and external (opportunity/threat) orientation. In Goleman’s model the internal orientation is represented by self-awareness and self-management.

We ask our clients to explore their own strengths and areas for improvement through a number of assessments, including a 360-degree feedback process (self-awareness), and commit to a formal, co-created development plan (self-management). The external dimension is represented by social awareness and relationship management, how we are interacting with others. These dimensions are addressed during the coaching process.

Making the Business Case

Emotional intelligence has been tightly linked to leadership effectiveness because emotions play an important role in determining professional behavior. Professor and author Carolyn Saarni proposed that, “emotions are functional: they serve to goad us into action whereby we initiate, modify, maintain, or terminate our relationship to the particular circumstances we are engaged in”. In addition, researchers have suggested that the capacity to perceive emotions and practice empathy is critical to leadership success. Emotions could be used in the workplace to create an effective organizational culture, improve decision making, support individuals, and enhance working relationships.

Others have seen strong links between emotional intelligence and successful leadership practice through the increased use of participative management, putting people at ease, improving self-awareness and composure, building and mending relationships, doing whatever it takes, demonstrating decisiveness, confronting problem employees, and effectively managing change. Another study, by Lopes, et al, suggested that: “Emotionally intelligent individuals received greater merit increases and held higher company rank than their counterparts. They also received better peer and/or supervisor ratings of interpersonal facilitation and stress tolerance than their counterparts.” These leadership studies have led to the belief that emotional intelligence could also be an effective tool for improving organizational performance.

Researchers believe that emotional intelligence influences organizational effectiveness in a number of areas, including employee recruitment and retention, development of talent, teamwork, employee commitment, morale, and health. In addition, emotional intelligence was shown to improve innovation, productivity, efficiency, sales, revenue, quality of service, customer loyalty, and client or student outcomes. There is also some indication that the use of greater emotional awareness and management led to work teams that exhibited better performance because of the improved ability to exchange information, solve problems, make decisions, and engage in productive conflict management.

A Caution

While the research that supports emotional intelligence as a successful leadership competency and ability is substantial, the concept has faced scrutiny. For example, some view Goleman’s claim that emotional intelligence accounts for between 85 and 90% of the difference between star performers and average performers in senior leadership positions as an indication that emotional intelligence may promise more than it delivers. Some say emotional intelligence has tried to integrate everything but IQ, and therefore fell short in terms of specificity and clarity. In addition, the multidimensional nature of emotional intelligence has caused difficulty in distinguishing it from other intelligences and personality traits.


Despite the cautions listed above, it has been suggested in the Harvard Business Review that emotional intelligence has become a fundamental leadership competence that enhances professional success.

“In hard times, the soft stuff often goes away. But emotional intelligence, it turns out, isn’t so soft. If emotional obliviousness jeopardizes your ability to perform, fend off aggressors, or be compassionate in a crisis, no amount of attention to the bottom line will protect your career. Emotional intelligence isn’t a luxury you can dispense with in tough times. It’s a basic tool that, deployed with finesse, is key to professional success.” (Harvard Business Review, “Breakthrough Ideas for Tomorrow’s Business Agenda,” April 2003)

Watch for our next installment…Emotional Intelligence in Healthcare Practice.

Betty Till is an executive coach and president of LifeWork Solutions. She has worked with hundreds of physicians and other clinical leaders on leadership development, most often with those who are transitioning into leadership roles or who are working to become more conscious leaders. She is a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC) and a Certified Physician Development Coach with more than 25 years in health care.

Michael Cherry, PhD, is an associate of LifeWork Solutions and a professor of business communications, marketing and organizational development. He is an executive coach whose specialties include emotional intelligence, team development, strategic planning, Not-for-Profit management, and job transition coaching.