The meeting of heart and head: the imperative of emotional intelligence in 21st century leaders

13 Dec 2012

mind and heart, leaders with emotional intelligence There has been a leadership paradigm shift from top-down management to the leader as mentor, motivator, facilitator and collaborator. In an economically and ecologically fraught new era, is emotional intelligence in conjunction with cognitive intelligence an element of the effective 21st century leader?

In our last edition of HGInSIGHT, I wrote about the correlation between emotional intelligence and effective leadership both theoretically and in terms of its contemporary application. In this piece, we’re looking from now into the future at what kind of leadership style will prevail in a rapidly changing globalised, digitised, fiscally pressurised 21st century and whether emotional intelligence is a component of it.

In a recent blog post, our Executive Director Jean Fagan explored the hallmarks of future leadership and organisational success in light of:

“The rapid pace of change in a technology driven world where information sharing drives knowledge, has altered relationships and changed the way we do business. As a leader, you are constantly required to leverage your core capabilities, however, given the context of change and technology, are they the right ones for future leadership and organisational success?”A quick look at the past to provide context.

In the eighties and nineties, transactional leadership theories were dominant, having developed over decades after the World Wars and the Depression. Companies were top-down and structurally demarcated; leaders focused more on systems and structures over people and the bottom-line over the bigger, more sustainable long-term picture. The latter point in particular often led to collapse: think Enron, Swissair and a host of others.

Transactional leaders often adhere to what has become a stereotypical image for a reason – the charming yet narcissistic, rigid control-freak that zeros in on short-term results at the expense of long-term, sustainable ones. Unsurprisingly, these leaders are low on emotional intelligence; a 1999 study surmised this and, in contrast, that “effective leadership which was transformational while bringing about a high-level of performance outcomes in the organisation, also had a high-level of emotional intelligence” (Beddoes-Jones, 2011). These leaders are pro-social, sustainable, curious, values-focused and authentic yet adaptive; they change as the context does and enforce change where it needs it.

These leaders are the right fit for the times. In an age of recession, stratospheric job competition, stress and resource depletion, employees look to leaders with vision who can impart a sense of meaning and individual purpose as well as a concern for values, people/clients and social responsibility in addition to profits and stakeholders. People increasingly want to feel that their work is valuable and ethical and that they have agency in the workplace. In short, people at levels want to feel a part of something good.

Speaking to the writer of an article (George, 2010) on the Harvard Business Review blog, a Laotian immigrant working at Medtronic’s heart valve facility said, “I make heart valves that save people’s lives. I do my own quality control, because if one of the valves I make fails, someone will die. At Medtronic 99.9 percent quality is very good, but I couldn’t live with causing someone’s death. My satisfaction comes from the 5000 people alive today because of heart valves I made.” This employee is not a cog in the machine; she has agency, huge responsibility, and a strong sense that her work is worthwhile – indeed, it’s life or death.

The 21st century is already seeing, and will see more of, a myriad of forces that are shifting the workforce and with it, the type of leaders it needs at its helm. A paper by Hewitt Associates looked at a range of demographic and technological forces at play in the business world this century, forces that make flexible, empowering, communicative leaders a necessity. They are as follows:

o    The Emergence of Employee Networks
o    More Diverse Workforces
o    Growing Importance of Information to Employees
o    Power Shifts from Leaders to Workers

These lead to:

o    Empowered Employees
o    New Ways to Connect to Work
o    Speed Blurs Work and Personal Life
o    More Diversity in Employee Needs and Concerns

These point at the emergence as the century progresses of shifting power structures, different age groups and ethnicities working together and modes of working and communicating, and a need for flexible staffing models, employee education and knowledge-sharing, collaborative decision making and creativity, tolerance and flexibility in the workplace.

What does this all have to do with emotional intelligence? Research by Barbuto and Burbach (2006) concludes that there is an absolute correlation between transformational leaders and emotional intelligence. Specifically, they found that  “a leader’s interpersonal skills were positively related to individualised consideration, inspirational motivation, and idealised influence.” To be a change agent in an organisation, emotional processes must be identified and understood as “change is often an affective event” (Ellis, 2010). The affective forces at play under the surface are only harnessed if a leader has self-awareness and is able to understand the individual and collective processes of his or her organisational constituency.

As corny as it sounds, the hearts and heads of employees and consumers need to be roused more than ever. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, an Indian yogi, author, humanitarian and non-profit founder who has featured at the World Economic Forum and on the BBC, CNBC, CNN and more, said at a Ross Net Impact Thought Leadership Summit at the University of Michigan this year:

“It’s not about how much money you can grab, but how much you can do. Businesses must take larger responsibility by focusing on how they can touch everyone. Transactions are only sustainable if they benefit both parties.”

Vasudev also said that “As a business leader, you are sometimes required to manage hundreds or thousands of people. But you must be able to manage your own mind before you manage other people’s minds.”

This type of leader should be a trusted, inspirational role model to employees that focuses on individuals, encourages curiosity, problem-solving, and creative solutions, and aligns employees around a strong and clearly communicated set of values.

This type of leader has more than just intelligence and business acumen.

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev speaking at the Ross Net Impact Forum (The Intersection of Business, Social Impact, and Sustainability). Michigan, 10/16/12. Retrieved from

Fiona Beddoes-Jones, ‘Authentic Leadership – the 21st century imperative?’ Business Leadership Review, 8:2 (2011). Retrieved from

Bill George, ‘The New 21st Century Leaders, Harvard Business Review, 2010. Retrieved from

Barbuto and Burbach study (2006) cited in Dr. Mark Ellis, ‘The Emotionally Intelligent Leader of the 21st Century,’ 2010. Retrieved from