Emotionally intelligent leaders are more transformational, for the most part

If you’re like me, you probably picked up Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence in the early 2000s after a third person recommended it to you. You thought it was fairly compelling but wondered about its academic rigor.

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Since Goldman’s book was originally published in 1996, the idea of emotional intelligence has picked up some serious traction in both popular media and academic literature. In one form or another, emotional intelligence has made its way into the news, “must read” leadership book lists, and classrooms for over 20 years.

If you’ve paid attention to the academic literature, you know it’s been pulled in and out of articles on practically every topic from business to psychology, education, medicine and even 200+ articles in computer science. In fact, a quick search on Summon by Proquest for peer-reviewed journal articles since 1996 gets over 22,000 hits. One particularly interesting direction with the term (to me, at least) is how it relates to transformational leadership.

In case you’re not familiar with emotional intelligence, it can be described as:

“the ability to perceive, understand, and manage the emotions of both the self and others to accomplish personal and collective goals” (Kim & Kim, 2017, p. 380).

I cite Kim and Kim (2017) here because they’ve written a fantastic new article on emotional intelligence and transformational leadership. Hyejin Kim and Taesung Kim’s article is titled “Emotional intelligence and transformational leadership: A review of empirical studies” published in Human Resource Development Review, They take a close look at the connection between these two important concepts in the literature.

Transformational leaders are “those who encourage followers to increase their intellectual confidence, actively work to challenge the status quo and achieve higher performance, and pursue learning and development” (Kim & Kim, 2017, p. 381)

So, is there a connection between emotional intelligence and transformational leadership? Obviously, academics love black and white answers to life’s complex questions (my attempt at sarcasm) so the answer is a resounding, “for the most part.”


Kim and Kim (2017) narrow their review down to 20 empirical studies that investigate the relationship between these two constructs and find that 15 of them show a positive relationship between them. Across the five continents, various industries and age groups, the results of the 15 studies show that emotional intelligence is a “critical contributor” to transformational leadership behaviors (p. 387). The other five studies, however, found the connection is muddied by how emotional intelligence is measured. The biggest issue? Validity. Do the items on the assessments actually measure what they claim to?

The authors point out the common vicious cycle of no scholarly agreement on the definition of the term, which then makes it difficult to agree on a way to measure the term, which then makes it difficult to agree on a definition, which then makes it difficult to agree on a way to measure it…

Then again, rigid definitions lead to rigid conceptualizations. Don’t you love academia?

So, yes, for the most part it seems to be that emotionally intelligent leaders are more transformational.

Emotionally intelligent leaders are “more likely to effectively influence employees by providing visions, inspiring them, encouraging their pursuit of intellectual competence, and attending to their specific needs” (Kim & Kim, 2017, p. 387-388).

I think both constructs are vital to conversations around leadership and human resource development (HRD), so I’m glad to see Kim and Kim’s (2017) article. Now, it’s up to us as scholars to work towards improved definitions and operationalizations of these concepts.

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