Emotional Intelligence and Transformational Leadership

By Dr. Travis Bradberry, Lac D. Su, M.S. & Saakshi Arora, M.S.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, clearly among the greatest leaders of our time, had different childhoods, different experiences, different struggles, and different goals. Yet both had a transformational impact upon those around them. What sets these two men apart as leaders? Transformational leadership. Unlike the traditional, dogmatic transactional leader or the hands-off laissez-faire leader, transformational leaders do more than simply lead—they stimulate others to transcend their own needs and interests for a common goal.

Transformational leaders develop followers by creating a direction for them to follow, yet giving them the freedom to control their own behavior. These leaders are charismatic, visionary, inspirational, and intellectually stimulating. But how do they become so special to those who follow them and so effective in their jobs? And— with all of the attention focused on the links between emotional intelligence (EQ) and leadership recently—do transformational leaders even use EQ? TalentSmartEQ® decided to find out.

These days, most companies dedicate a great deal of time and resources to finding the leadership skills that will turn today’s high-potential manager into tomorrow’s visionary leader. Their potential is not realized through their capacity to lead, but rather in the approach they ultimately take to leadership. Extraordinary leaders don’t decide to transform those who follow them; extraordinary leaders simply take a conscious approach to leadership.

To explore the link between an individual’s leadership style and the skills applied daily on the job, a team at the University of South Africa, School of Business Management partnered with TalentSmartEQ®. Sixty managers at a South African insurance company completed the Multi-Factor Leadership Questionnaire (an assessment of leadership style) and the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal®—Multi-Rater (360°) Edition, which assessed their emotional intelligence based on feedback from peers, supervisor(s), and subordinates.

The first clear result from the study shows that transformational leaders rely on emotional intelligence far more than transactional and laissez-faire leaders. When forecasting who will emerge as the next transformational leader, our bets are on those who work to develop their emotional intelligence.


Transactional leaders take a conventional, highly- structured approach to employee motivation. They tend to be quick to point out mistakes and take action when things aren’t up to snuff. Since rewards and systems are inflexible for the transactional leader, they don’t tend to expend a great deal of energy on praise and interpersonal affirmation. Transactional leaders’ reliance upon rules and systems creates an inflexibility that is contrary to the use of emotional intelligence.

The laissez-faire leadership style is a hands-off approach that gives employees complete freedom over tasks, goals, and responsibilities. Leaders utilizing this approach tend to have lower emotional intelligence because laissez-faire leaders favor inactivity—they avoid taking a stand on issues, clarifying expectations, and addressing conflicts. Leaders relying on the laissez-faire approach fail to address the support and interpersonal connection that employees need from a leader, and they don’t establish the clear boundaries in difficult situations that make everyone more effective.

Transformational leadership is the product of an individual’s approach to the job of leading, and any leader—whether seasoned or emerging—can alter her approach and have a fresh impact on those she leads. The trick is to learn to apply the skills that make a leader transformational, and assessing one’s emotional intelligence is a great place to start. The Emotional Intelligence Appraisal® shows a leader where his EQ stands today and what he can do, in great detail, to improve in the areas that need it the most.


Sample feedback report page from the Emotional Intelligence Appraisal – Multi-Rater (360 ̊) Edition.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela are unique men who have had a similar, transformational effect upon their followers and, inevitably, the course of history. It’s simply amazing to see the impact transformational leaders can have on those around them. The vision they see and the emotions they evoke convince us to believe in them strive to turn their vision into a reality. This is the power of emotional intelligence in leadership.



Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmartEQ, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

Lac D. Su, M.S.

Lac D. Su is the Director of Strategic Alliances for TalentSmartEQ, the leading provider of emotional intelligence tests, products, and training. He forms and manages relationships with key TalentSmartEQ resellers and assists clients with the implementation of skill development initiatives.

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