Emotional intelligence is a pretty recent concept. It was coined in 1990 in a research paper by John D. Mayer of UNH and Peter Salovey of Yale. It was later defined by Mayer in the Harvard Business Review thusly:

“From a scientific (rather than a popular) standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions. It doesn’t necessarily include the qualities (like optimism, initiative, and self-confidence) that some popular definitions ascribe to it.”

Almost a decade later, Rutgers psychologist Daniel Goleman established the important connection between emotional intelligence and business leadership. In HBR’s 1998 article, “What Makes a Leader,” he states that the most effective leaders all have a high degree of emotional intelligence. IQ and technical skills are irrelevant when it comes to reaching an executive position.

Emotional intelligence has five major components:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills

Each of these components allow people to recognize, learn from, and connect with other people’s mental states.

According to HBR, understanding what constitutes emotional intelligence is important not only because it is so central to leadership, but because people who are strong in some components of it may be lacking in others. One example used by Salovey during a 2010 leadership conference was Bill Clinton, who was remarkable in his empathy yet devoid of self-control.

Mayer and Salovey coined the term “emotional intelligence” the same year that the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine was invented. For the first time, people could look at what was happening in the brain while it was functioning. Golemans extensive work on the subject of emotional intelligence is infused with findings from these studies. With that research Goleman and others have been able to further establish the connection between emotional intelligence and leadership.

They’ve been able to understand what physically happens to the brain when you understand what another person is saying, for example. They’ve also found definitively that emotions like anger can lead to bad decision making and that sometimes things like flattery simply do not work. All of these modes of research lead to a simple conclusion. In order to be a better leader you need emotional intelligence of a high degree.

There are still some counterarguments though, notably a Wharton progessor named Adam Grant who has reported that there is a lack of correlation between tests results measuring emotional intelligence and business results. His methods are obviously contested by Goleman and others.