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Leading with emotional intelligence


Lt. Col. David Gallagher, 50th Operations Support Squadron commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher DeWitt)


Today’s operational environment is dynamic and often requires rapid decisions to keep pace with operational threats.  


Leadership plays a fundamental role in successful execution of our mission. How you effectively lead a diverse team of professionals can be the difference between winning or losing a war. Understanding emotional intelligence and how it relates to leadership is a significant factor that allows you to be attuned to your emotions and having sound situational awareness to lead in challenging environments. 


“The act of knowing, understanding, and responding to emotions, overcoming stress in the moment, and being aware of how your words and actions affect others, is described as emotional intelligence,” said Brent Gleeson and Dyan Crace in their collaborative article on leading through emotional intelligence. 


Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence," created an emotional intelligence model to describe four areas leaders should possess in order to lead a successful organization: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.  


The most important trait in this model is self-awareness, to know and understand your emotions before you can impact others and create a positive work environment. This means understanding what makes you emotional and how those emotions makes you react.  It also means understanding your moods. Certain moods can make us overreact or not react at all to situations. Those who have a strong sense and confidence in who they are have the best opportunity to influence and shape others through leadership. Self-management allows you to lead yourself effectively.  How you handle stressful or emotional situations is most likely the same approach your subordinates will take. Redirecting your emotional state in a manner that focuses on solutions and positive direction will better aid in conflict resolution.

Social awareness is knowing your people and understanding what motivates each individual. Everyone in an organization is different, and all display emotions in different ways. A single leadership style may not work for every individual, pushing leaders to understand the individuals in their unit, and allowing the leader to adjust his or her style to fit the situation. 

Finally, relationship management starts with trust and communication. Trust is one of the most important traits for a leader. Trust begins with the leader and is the foundation for a successful organization. Subordinates must believe in the leader to make sound decisions on their behalf for the benefit of the organization. In turn, the leader must trust his or her subordinates to accomplish the details of the mission based on the commander's vision. 


Gen. John Hyten once said, “If you want to go fast you have to empower people with the authority and responsibility to execute.”  


This is impossible without mutual trust and communication between the leader and subordinates.


Some aspects of emotional intelligence comes naturally for individuals and other areas require attention. I struggled as a junior officer with controlling certain emotions during stressful situations. I had a tendency to outwardly display negative non-verbal communication such as a deep sigh when I was agitated about a situation.  Certain behavior, as insignificant as it may seem, can affect your ability to influence peers, subordinates and supervisors. In my case, I believe it affected my ability to think and make sound decisions during that critical time. I have matured over the years and have learned to keep my emotions in balance which significantly improved my decision-making ability and relationships with others. 


To effectively lead in a stressful environment you must be consciously aware of how you display certain emotions and know your people well enough to communicate in a way that does not cause adverse emotional responses from them.   


Sound emotional intelligence is a powerful tool to create a positive organizational climate conducive to operating in stressful and challenging situations. 


Start by leading yourself first, if you can’t manage your own emotions in a positive and productive manner, then you won’t be successful at leading others.  Individuals are more willing to put forth extra effort when requested by an empathetic person they respect and admire. As with anything else, awareness and practice will improve your emotional intelligence and increase your leadership effectiveness within your organization.