The coronavirus pandemic has proven to be the most significant test of leadership in our generation. In one example, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has gained worldwide attention for being an exceptionally effective leader during this time of crisis. Her special ability to manage the paradox of leading – with strength and empathy, confidence and humility, quiet restraint and infectious passion – makes her unique. Even more so, given she is just 40 years old.

In the business arena, we hear similar stories of exceptional leaders who are making their people feel supported and inspired to perform – even when they are feeling anxious, stressed, isolated or overwhelmed.

Yet leaders themselves are operating under tremendous strain. One global technology leader recently told me his top performers have openly said they do not want to be promoted into positions of team leadership. They have seen what it means to take on the emotional burden of a team – to look beyond their own issues to be there for others, sometimes 24/7.

Post-pandemic leadership is extremely demanding. How then do we cultivate leaders with the Leadership Intelligence required for this new context? The good news is that leaders with Leadership Intelligence can be found at every level of an organisation – and they continue to learn and adapt their abilities because that is just what such leaders do.

What is Leadership Intelligence?

Leadership Intelligence stems from the application of emotional intelligence to the challenges of leadership.

To understand Emotional Intelligence, we look to Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis, who describe it using four areas categorised into the internal and external domains:

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Self-management
  • Relationship management

Their work forms the basis of Korn Ferry’s Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ECSI).[1] Effective leaders draw on these four areas in new ways to manage their teams through the increasing complexity and uncertainty of today’s environment.

1. Emotional self-awareness

Self-awareness gives you the capacity to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. It enables you to keep growing. – Lawrence Bossidy Click To Tweet

Self-aware leaders understand their own emotions, have an accurate read of their own strengths and weaknesses, and know the pattern of their thoughts. They also know when and what they need to replenish their energy to be at their best.

For example, I have noticed a “Zoom tax” applies to my work. Running virtual workshops adds a tremendous cognitive load as I multitask between applications and try to “read the room” by monitoring 50 screens simultaneously. It also takes far more energy to invigorate 50 participants over the ether, compared with being in the room physically together. So, I need to give myself permission to recharge – I deliberately retreat into a quiet space, eat, or go for a run before the next gig.

Self-awareness allows you to sustain your efforts over time despite setbacks or extreme circumstances like a pandemic. To develop it, you need to build in time to coach yourself daily. Some leaders may start their day with a mindfulness exercise and finish it with a moment of journaling. Others may take short mindfulness breaks throughout the day to recentre themselves.

We have so many lessons hidden in our experiences. However, only reflection leads to action.

Learn more wellbeing tips for leaders

2. Self-management

You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength. - Marcus Aurelius Click To Tweet

While self-awareness is inward-looking, self-management is what you do with this heightened awareness. It may include controlling disruptive impulses so you can respond rather than react to triggers. But it isn’t only about the discipline to suppress emotions. Maintaining a positive outlook or tapping into your passions is also a great source of power for leaders.

An executive once told me on a coaching call that ego is a leader’s greatest weakness. I think it can also be your greatest asset – depending on your ability to right-size it. Your ego needs to be big enough to sustain confidence while working through adversity, but small enough to learn from feedback. Manage it so that it is in service of you, and not the driver behind your decisions.

3. Social awareness

I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization – Roger Ebert Click To Tweet

Empathy is your ability to sense how others are feeling so you can understand their perspectives. Your response does not, however, need to always be soft and compassionate – sometimes ‘tough empathy’ is needed to push high-performing teams to be their best. At different stages in my career, I had good managers who challenged me beyond my comfort zone because they saw potential in me that I could not. Social awareness also includes an ability to read the emotional currents and dynamics of a group of individuals, and understand how you factor into the equation.

To develop these competencies, allow yourself to be curious about how people operate and observe how they interact in social settings. You will realise that the interplay between people can be more interesting than the topic of discussion. Reading literature is another wonderful way to develop empathy – to get inside the mind of a character in a different context from your own and to appreciate why they make certain choices because of their unique worldview.

4. Relationship management

The business of business is relationships; the business of life is human connection. – Robin S. Sharma Click To Tweet

Strong relationship management rests on our ability to connect authentically with others and this allows us to build trust, muster support, resolve conflicts and inspire better collaboration. It is fundamental to operating productively in today’s complex ecosystems with impermanent teams and an increasingly distributed environment.

You can develop relationship management skills by observing other leaders – see how they manage conflict or achieve the outcome they seek through influence. You will notice often these leaders are adept at flexing the various leadership styles in their leadership toolbox to suit the individuals and the situation at hand. Great leaders don’t expect others to adjust to their preferences – they modify their own behaviour to get the best out of people.

Six leadership styles

  • Visionary: Providing long-term direction and context.
  • Participative: Building commitment and generating new ideas.
  • Coaching: Supporting long-term development.
  • Affiliative: Creating trust and harmony.
  • Pacesetting: Accomplishing tasks to high standards.
  • Directive: Gaining immediate compliance

For example, in a time of crisis, these leaders may be participative – in the trenches with their team, closely monitoring conversations to help people feel secure and safe. Or they might be more directive – a crisis calls for decisiveness, not hesitation. In this case, they might say “I don’t know the answers, but let’s try this together and we can pivot until we find what works.”

Sometimes they will need to be more visionary or pace-setting – galvanising the team. And there are times that call for a more affiliative or coaching approach, creating trust or supporting long-term development and providing care.

To be able to switch between styles takes a high degree of self- and social-awareness – which is why emotionally intelligent leaders are also adaptive leaders. They have the strength and flexibility of bamboo – rather than the rigidity of an oak tree.

If there is one thing leaders can do to develop their Emotional Intelligence, I would recommend both receiving coaching and learning to be a coach. Training to be a professional coach draws on most areas of emotional intelligence, which you can apply to many leadership situations. Coaching requires awareness of your own emotions and thoughts, to avoid letting your biases get in the way of actively listening and working with different personalities. You need to be curious and pay attention to what is said, be sensitive to the unsaid and appreciate the context. Empathise. You have to “hold space” and know when to encourage, challenge, provide advice or simply stay silent.

The secret to unlocking unlimited Leadership Intelligence is to gain mastery in these four areas of emotional intelligence – arguably the single most important skill a leader needs today. Because ultimately, this digital world needs more human leaders – and emotional intelligence is what makes us human.

This digital world needs more human leaders, and emotional intelligence is what makes us human. Click To Tweet

To learn more about a framework for measuring emotional intelligence, read our white paper.


[1] The power of EI: The “soft” skills the sharpest leaders use, Korn Ferry Institute 2018

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About the contributor

Eugene Chang is a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry Advisory, Singapore. He specialises in working with government, business and HR leaders to find novel ways to raise sector and firm-level competitiveness through the formulation of human capital strategy and the design and implementation of integrated HR systems. Eugene's areas of expertise include agile performance management, top team alignment, business strategy, strategic workforce planning, change management, culture transformation and leadership.

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