How to become an effective leader through emotional intelligence

  • Effective leader

Great leaders inspire. Typically when we think of what makes a great leader, we think of things like drive, vision, and business acumen. But what makes one an effective leader is perhaps more unsuspecting: the ability to work with (and through) emotions.

It doesn’t matter if a team leader sets out to build the best team, execute a strategy or suggest a new vision, what matters is how they do it. If they aren’t capable of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they try to achieve will work as well as it could.

As our last post on EQ pointed out, emotions are contagious. The brain is wired to pick up subtle cues from one another. Leaders can draw others onto their positive wavelength — resonant leader — or they can create a lack of harmony by letting negativity come into conflict with others’ emotions — dissonant leader. Leaders that understand this notion and apply resonant leadership in the workplace are set apart from the rest — not only with tangibles such as retention of an effective team and business results, but also with intangibles such as higher morale, motivation and commitment.

In this post, we’re going to cover the 4 leadership styles explained by emotional intelligence that contribute to a resonant leader:

  • Visionary leadership
  • Coaching leadership
  • Affiliative leadership
  • Democratic leadership

We will dive into when each style is important and give actionable tactics of how to build up the skills necessary to apply each style in your workplace. As always, our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have examined nearly 20 papers in emotional psychology, neuroscience, motivation, and social psychology to provide you with these suggestions.


What is resonant vs. dissonant leadership

Take a couple minutes right now to think of the best and worst leaders you’ve worked with. Think of what made that leader good or bad. Chances are, it had a lot to do with how they did things; how they got to where they needed to go rather than the end destination. Research in the field of emotion has yielded new insights into what makes an effective leader — and it comes down to emotional intelligence (EQ). The best leaders have found effective ways to understand and improve the way they handle their own and other people’s emotions.

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Resonant vs Dissonant leaders

Resonant leaders are known to be great leaders. They have a higher degree of emotional intelligence as they’re in tune with their own and the emotions of others around them. These leaders are good at keeping the team focused and optimistic even during times of stress. They show empathy when needed and they care just as much about the people on the team as they do about their company’s performance.

Dissonant leaders, on the other hand, create groups that are more emotionally discordant. Their focus is solely on the bottom-line even at the expense of their people. They see the people management side as an economic waste, something that detracts from making more money. These leaders tend to operate more authoritatively, they lack empathy, and maintain greater social and emotional distance from employees. This type of leadership breeds emotional frustration, burnout, and disengagement among employees.


The four styles of resonant leadership

So, what are the common leadership styles associated with resonant leaders? Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee came up with 4 styles of leadership that make up an effective leader:

Four styles of resonant leadership

Each of these styles builds resonance, has an impact on a group’s morale and, if used appropriately, will in turn positively influence the bottom-line. High EQ leaders know that people management is a major investment that pays off in the long run.

Each style has a particular set of skills and instances where that style should be used. Have a look at the table below to get a feel for their similarities and differences.

Leadership styles and how to build them


Exercise #1: See the big picture through visionary leadership

The main objective of visionary leadership is to mobilize people towards a common goal or vision. These leaders use the emotional intelligence to champion change through vision, self-confidence, and empathy.

Here is a tactic that can help you cultivate a visionary leadership mentality. These skills will help you think outside the box, hone in on the big picture, become more confident, and lead with empathy.

Step 1: Mind-map your industry

You’re going to do this activity in order to get a fuller understanding and a more complete picture of the space you work and lead in — being a visionary leader means seeing the full picture.

A mind map is a diagram that connects information around a central idea. Think of it like a tree, although the structure is more radial. The center holds your main idea, say you’re going to mind map your industry which is in finance, and the branches are the subtopics or related ideas (financial markets, financial regulation, asset types, raising capital, etc.). With the branches, you’re going to start with more general subtopics and then continue to branch out with more specific items as you move outward.

This activity can be used for any thinking, brainstorming or learning a new task. You can create these on paper or use an online tool. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start in the center of the page to give you more freedom to spread out in all directions
  • Use images in your mind map as they help spark your imagination
  • Use different colours to help organize
  • Connect your branches as you go (from the centre outward) because your brain works by association
  • Try to stick to one or two words per line in order to keep your map organized.
Mind mapping

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Step 2: Adopt the perspective of an outsider

Now that you’ve worked through understanding your perspective of your industry, it’s time to look at it from a different perspective. Gaining the perspective of an outsider can be a helpful intellectual practice to develop new ways of looking at your vision. This can also help you gain insight on where to focus your given explanations to newcomers.

  • Take a moment to think about a topic you don’t know much about (we all have them!)
  • Imagine you were going to learn about this topic. What would you search? What questions would you ask? Who would you seek guidance from?
  • Now, apply this same mentality to your industry. Say you were fresh out of school. Where did you start? What questions did you ask? What were some of the perspectives you had then that have now changed?
  • Take 5 minutes to write these down and then reflect on this forgotten way of seeing your industry.

Step 3: Meet a stranger for coffee

Many visionary leaders will admit that what makes them visionary are their friends, colleagues, and professional acquaintances. You have limited time and resources. This last step will not only help you see a wider range of your industry, it will spark confidence and help you see your industry through a new lens.

The easiest way to tackle this step is through LinkedIn. Connect with someone who’s in the same industry but in a different sector, or even just someone who is interested in driving innovation. Ask to meet with this person for coffee and exchange. Be sure to talk while also listening carefully and remain genuine. A good way to start off is by asking them something about themselves or their work first before talking about yourself. This will signal that you’re in the conversation for the right reasons. Your contacts will play an important role in expanding your mindset.

The purpose of these tactics in order to spark your visionary mind, become more confident in your end goal and to become more empathetic towards others. These tactics will help you gain a fuller understanding of your industry and expand your mindset through meeting others with similar goals, leading you further down the path of an expert. Additionally, you will have more empathy for those on your team that might need help along the way.


Exercise #2: mentor others through coaching leadership

coaching leadership

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This style of leadership happens often with one-on-one interactions. These types of leaders show genuine interest in their team members which helps build trust and psychological safety. You should use this style when you want to help team members improve their performance by building long-term skills. It will keep employees motivated to achieve results. Leaders who are good at this style possess the following emotional intelligence skills: empathy, self-awareness, as well as other-orientedness. Here are a few ways to work on all three of these coaching skills as outlined by Dr. Nadler.

Step 1: Connect before you direct

In this micro-initiative you are going to assess the input coming in from your team members rather than simply giving them your output. This shows that you care about that person versus seeing them as someone who is there to do something for you. By doing this, you’re taking advantage of something in psychology known as our drive to bond. This bond you’re creating with your team member will actually make them feel more committed and motivated in their job.

Create bonds with your team members by checking in with them whenever you have your one-on-ones. Figure out something you have in common with them; you should have one or two things for each person. Show interest in them as a person, ask how they’re feeling, get to know their hobbies or names of their kids and significant others. Keep a small journal in your desk and write these things down so you remember for next time.

Step 2: Stay in their story

When we listen to someone else, we usually do it with intent to reply. It’s easy for us to get caught up in this because it’s too easy to share common knowledge about the topic. However, it’s important to remain in their story for a full understanding. One way of doing this is by telling them you see their perspective by repeating their perspective.

When a team member is explaining a concern, sharing insight or good news, summarize what they’re telling you while also highlighting the main feeling they’re expressing. Use the “blinking words” to help you out — these are the words that depict the emotional context. For example they say: “I am so overwhelmed that I’ve been put on four different projects.” You would say: “I can understand how overwhelming [blinking word] this must be for you, let’s see what we can do about this.”

Pause for a moment before you respond so that you can really let everything sink in. Ask follow up questions if you need further understanding. If you become good at this, they will become more open to talking to you and you will be fulfilling their drive to bond.

Step 3: Maximize their strengths

Take the time to figure out the strengths of people. Who is the best person to get the project rolling, who’s the best to finish? These could be different people on your team and it’s important to understand the strengths in order to maintain drive and motivation across the project. Additionally, you’ll be effectively taking advantage of each person’s expertise. You can infer their professional strength through their character strengths or you can learn these through observation and interaction.

Step 4: Acknowledge their progress

When things go right with a team, find out why so that the process can be repeated. When you acknowledge progress of someone they become more creative, productive and committed to their work. Not only that, but practicing this skill can help you find repeatable processes that lead to success.

Put this phrase somewhere you can see it everyday, “Point out what was done right and what you want to see repeated”. Here’s an example, “Joan great job on your initial report, you collaborated with others, kept me informed, and exhibited great critical thinking. These are things to keep doing as they worked really well in this situation”.

One thing to keep in mind during steps 1-4 is to remain authentic throughout the process. You don’t want your team to be aware of what you’re doing as it has the potential to come off in the wrong way. Instead, use your judgement and know when and how much to utilize each step of the process.


Exercise # 3: Practice perspective-taking through affiliate leadership

perspective-taking through affiliate leadership

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This style of leadership is all about building relationships and a collaborative environment. These leaders value team members’ feelings and self-worth. Naturally, this builds morale and harmony throughout the team which leads to improved performance and productivity in the long-term. You should use this style to strengthen connections among team members, when members of the team aren’t getting along, or in times of stress.

The main emotional intelligence skills associated with affiliate leaders are empathy and effective communication. This is an important skill as fewer than 50% of employees view their workplace as empathetic. Often what people find stressful is different. One study found that women were likely to experience physical symptoms of stress (headache or upset stomach) compared to males. While men report feeling more stressed about work than women. While gender isn’t the full indicator of how stress affects people, the study provides a glimpse of how widely the experience of stress can vary and why empathy is important to understand how and where those stresses differ for people.

Since empathy is such a big part of this leadership style, practicing these skills is what will help you become more proficient in this area.

Take out a piece of paper and answer the following questions

Step 1: Think of a time where a close friend felt bad about him or herself. Think about how you would typically respond to them. Write down things you’d say and the tone you’d normally take.

Step 2: Think about the times you’ve felt bad about yourself or were struggling in some way. Write down how you typically respond to yourself in these instances. Note the things you say and tone you take.

Step 3: Are there any differences between the two? If so, ask yourself why. What factors come into play that lead you to treat yourself differently versus how you treat others.

Step 4: Ask yourself, how do you think things might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you’d typically respond to a close friend? It is just as important to be empathetic towards yourself as it is to those close to you.

Step 5: Think about a time where, in a leadership position, a colleague was struggling. How did you react. Note the things you said and the tone you took. Now, replace that colleague with your close friend from earlier. How would your approach change? If there are drastic differences here, this could tell you that you need to be a little more empathetic toward your fellow employees.

Cultivating empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence that researchers believe is critical to being an effective leader. Additionally, it positively predicts job performance and will leave you with team members who experience greater satisfaction in their job.


Exercise #4: Empower others through democratic leadership

democratic leadership

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Leaders who are good in this type of leadership draw upon the knowledge of the group for input, collaboration, or for making decisions. This allows team members to feel valuable and know that they’re contributing to the end goal. Use this type of leadership whenever you need to get valuable input from employees or when you need to build a consensus surrounding a project. There are several emotional intelligence skills associated with democratic leadership. These are: conflict management, empathy, collaboration, and communication.

Here are some steps that can make you a more productive democratic leader:

Step 1: Distribute leadership

When using this style, it requires an equally shared power structure, without any hierarchy in general decision-making. This doesn’t mean that all decisions must be made as a group but rather that depending on the role of each member, decisions should be made by the person with the expertise in that role, along with input from others.

Distribute leadership among team members, placing certain people in charge of certain tasks or coming up with certain answers.

Step 2: Create feelings of empowerment

This comes from a clear distribution of responsibilities. You have already distributed leadership among the group members, now distribute responsibilities. Be clear when you give your thoughts or directions. Steven Covey has said that 60% of problems in business arise from unclear expectations. When people are unclear about directions, they can feel a lack of empowerment. To prevent this, take 100% responsibility for what you’re trying to get across.

  • Write down the key bullet points you’d like to discuss.
  • Practice saying it in as few words as possible. This will ensure you’re choosing the right and most clear words to get your instructions across.
  • Check their interpretation or their take away from what you said.

This will empower them, as they’ll have clear directions for their next steps.

Step 3: Democratize decision-making

Now that you have distributed leadership and given clear direction on the team’s objectives, you want to make decisions based on group deliberation. This means that when important decisions need to be made, they’re presented to the group, who then works together to decide the best course of action. To create an environment that supports and encourages deliberation, you want to cultivate constructive participation, facilitation and the maintenance of a positive emotional setting.

In order to conduct proper facilitation of this process, you’ll want to keep some things in mind:

  • Make sure that solutions reflect the group’s effort and understanding of the situation.
  • Ensure there is structure to this process. Set up guidelines for what needs to be figured out before what. Don’t deviate from this and keep the group on track.
  • Create a schedule for when certain decisions should be made.
  • Act as a mediator whenever issues arise.

The democratic leadership style surrounds the idea of consensus through collaboration. This framework will enhance communication, bring people together, and facilitate thought sharing. This will create an environment where employees feel appreciated, which then drives commitment.


Recap on emotional intelligence and effective leadership

A resonant leader consists of four different styles:

  • visionary leadership
  • coaching leadership
  • affiliative leadership
  • democratic leadership.

Each of these should be used at the appropriate times in order to cultivate the ultimate resonant leadership style.

In this post, we covered four different tactics, each contributing to one of the four styles.

  • Visionary leader
    • Learn to see the big picture by mind-mapping your industry, adopting the perspective of an outsider, and meeting interesting people outside of your field.
  • Coaching leader
    • Be a good mentor to others by connecting, actively listening, maximizing their strengths and acknowledging progress.
  • Affiliative leader
    • Practice perspective taking by thinking about how you would help a friend in the same situation
  • Democratic leader
    • Empower other by distributing leadership, create feelings of empowerment and democratize decision making