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Awareness, Balance, and Usefulness - How Leaders Use Emotional Intelligence (EI) to Excel

November 22, 2016

The literature and studies on emotional intelligence (EI) are growing year by year, as is the number of definitions that describe it. At its core, EI deals with how we use emotions to be more successful - no matter what the setting. 

How does a leader get the most success from an understanding of EI? Leveraging three key elements - Awareness, Balance, and Usefulness - is a big piece of the puzzle!


Sun Tzu, the Chinese general, strategist, and philosopher said, "Know the other and know yourself: one hundred challenges without danger." In order for leaders to achieve success, they must be aware of their own circumstance as well as the circumstances of "others" (i.e., employees, clients, board members). This is especially true when considering our awareness of emotions.

  • Awareness of Self: What is our emotional state? What is triggering it? How is it impacting our relationships? All of these questions, and more, can only be answered by taking stock of our emotional state. This can be especially true when dealing with an emotion like anger, which is often triggered by other emotions such as fear or frustration. A heightened sense of awareness allows us to explore the root cause of what we are dealing with.
  • Awareness of Others: We do not exist in a vacuum, and our emotions are only one side of the equation when it comes to effectively managing relationships. It is also extremely important to diagnose the emotional state of the "other." Our capacity for empathy (recognizing, understanding, and appreciating how other people feel), for example, is enhanced by the level of awareness that we have for others.

If you watch any cooking show on TV (especially ones like Top Chef), you know the importance of salt. Many a Top Chef contestant has been told to "pack their knives and go!" because they used too much salt. Just as many have been eliminated from the competition because they didn't use enough! Just as balance is important when it comes to seasoning a meal, it is also necessary when trying to harness our emotions. 

  • Under-utilized: When our development of, or skill with, a particular emotion is not strong we have tendency to under-utilize it. Take self-regard (respecting oneself while understanding and accepting one's strengths and weaknesses), for example. When self-regard is under-utilized, this can result in feedback that we lack self-esteem or self-confidence.
  • Over-utilized: When our development of, or skill with, a particular emotion is too strong we have a tendency to over-utilize it. Continuing with self-regard as an example, when it is over-utilized we can get feedback that we are arrogant or conceited.

Our brains developed the capacity for emotions during the course of human evolution for a very specific reason - to help our species survive. The emotional jolt of fear that early humans felt upon seeing a saber-toothed tiger helped to trigger reactions that kept us alive:  fight or flight. But as we developed and became more civilized, our brains developed the capacity for more complex thinking. Our primitive emotions are still alive and well, but now - thanks to our cerebral cortex - we can process them better. An angry boss can appear as threatening as a saber-toothed tiger, but instead of only choosing between "flight" (fleeing the office) or "fight" (punching your boss), we can select a wider range of responses that are more useful (taking a breath and counting to ten, or tabling the discussion for another time). We still may feel fear or anger, but through awareness ("what am I feeling?") and balance ("am I reacting too much or not enough?") we can channel that emotion into helping find the response that makes us most successful. The emotions that we feel are neither good nor bad; anger can give us a great spark for action, whereas contentment can lead us to complacency. Instead we should ask, "Are these emotions 'useful' or 'not useful'?" Dr. Phil sums this element up very well with his catchphrase, "So how's that working out for you?" 


Emotional Intelligence models and assessments, such as the EQi 2.0 model, have given today's leaders an amazing array of tools for achieving great success by better understanding the emotions that healthy human beings are designed to feel. By remembering the three key elements of Awareness, Balance, and Usefulness leaders can maximize their ability to fully leverage EI for both themselves and their organizations.