Communicating like a leader requires emotional intelligence

By Nancy R. Burger 

The former presidential speechwriter James C. Humes said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.”

Leaders set the vision for an organization and inspire followers to execute that vision by providing a clear and powerful message. Delivering that message effectively, however, requires more than slide decks and performance reports. It requires applying skills that collectively indicate emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, understand and manage emotions and feelings. It requires proficiency in both self and social awareness as well as in self-regulation.

Here’s what EI is NOT:

  • Being nice
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Being sociable and/or likable

In his 1998 article “What Makes a Leader,” Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote, The most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.

Goleman’s words have stood the test of time. According to a recent Gallup poll, a caring manager is a key driver for employee engagement. In fact, the report states, “The manager or team leader alone accounts for 70 percent of the variance in team engagement.”

Behaviors of a Leader with EI

What are easily identifiable behaviors that reflect EI in a leader? 

  • Admitting mistakes and/or weaknesses
  • Asking for help
  • Showing willingness to engage in tough conversations
  • Presenting ideas clearly 
  • Exhibiting optimism
  • Controlling impulses and remaining measured in the face of disruption
  • Inspiring others

How can a leader develop EI?

Even if a leader is sorely lacking in EI, they can start the process of developing the necessary skills by:

  • Asking for feedback. The first step is to gain awareness around what skills need improvement by willingly accepting honest feedback from stakeholders.
  • Administering anonymous employee surveys. Administering anonymous surveys can help in this process if the leader embraces the feedback with humility, vulnerability and accountability. 
  • Hiring a leadership coach. A coaching engagement can provide added support not only in cultivating EI skills but also in demonstrating to followers that the leader is leaning in with commitment and resolve.

It is important to note that beyond the personal work, a leader also must foster a culture in which EI is encouraged. This starts with establishing a strong core-value system built on the expectation of EI-centric behaviors and by modeling that value system every day by demonstrating vulnerability, self-control and optimism. An emotionally intelligent leader not only sets the tone for the workplace but also creates a safe space for followers to do the same, therefore fostering a culture of trust and openness. In such an environment people will become more willing to ask questions, make mistakes, challenge ideas and take risks.

Emotional intelligence may not be a firm requirement for leadership, but it is a firm requirement for leaders who want to build trust, loyalty and healthy cultures that last.

Practical tips for communicating with EI

Be open 

By sharing concerns, stressors, and mistakes, a leader can create a safe place for others to do the same while fostering a healthy culture that both embraces vulnerability and encourages innovation
and collaboration. 

Actively listen 

To ensure that others feel heard, pause after listening, then repeat back some of what was said. I often refer to this as “listening with your tongue” because it encourages staying rooted in the present moment in silence while giving full attention to the other.

Purpose and Clarity are Key 

In all communication, a leader should focus on the ‘why’ of the organization instead of just on the ‘what’ and ‘how.’ Purpose-driven organizations are more successful, and employees who feel connected to that purpose are more engaged. Avoid long, wordy slide decks and the use of jargon. People are better equipped to understand concepts that are presented in a clear, fresh and simple way. 

Tell stories

A leader can make presentations engaging and accessible by using storytelling to provoke mental images and sensory experiences. Personal stories are even better, as they create warmth and evoke vulnerability. 


Acknowledge a concern, worry or complaint before responding or trying to “fix” the problem. Use phrases like, “I understand that you’re concerned about X,” or “I can see where Y would be difficult for you.” Then dig deeper by asking open-ended questions like “Tell me more about your experience,” or “Can you expand on that a bit further?”

Nancy R. Burger is a workplace communications strategist and coach who guides executives and teams to foster emotionally healthy cultures. A Marshall Goldsmith-certified leadership coach, author and seasoned researcher, Nancy brings her 10-plus years in communications expertise and research in psychology to elevate workplace connections. She works with C-suite executives, heads of HR and training/recruiting, managers, business owners and team leaders across many industries. Nancy also delivers workshops and talks to universities, leadership organizations and networking groups, all with the aim of cultivating clear, effective and productive communication dynamics. For more information visit www.nancyrburger.com.

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