The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Tech Leadership Development

As the tech industry moves from autocratic to trust-based visionary leadership styles, leadership development must build emotionally intelligent leaders.

By: Leadership Dynamics team


5 mins

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This article on emotional intelligence in tech leadership is part of our series on leadership development

In tech, there is a near-constant need to grow in order to survive, but hiring top talent is much more difficult than in other sectors. To keep a leadership pipeline healthy, tech companies must make the best of who they have in the workforce, developing high-potential employees so they can be ready for the top jobs when the time comes. Designing effective leadership development programmes is critical for survival, but as the industry moves from autocratic leaders to more trust-based visionary leadership, we argue that the best programmes focus on building emotionally intelligent leaders.

In this article, we will explain the role of emotional intelligence in tech leadership development and why it is so important for success in this field.

Emotional intelligence in leadership

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand one's own emotions, manage them and recognise the emotions of others. The key components of emotional intelligence are:

  • Self awareness – The ability to understand one’s own emotions also means understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses. A leader with a clear self image means they never over- or underestimate their capabilities, know where to apply themselves, and where they have room for improvement. Self-aware people are more agile, able to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances and tend to maintain a growth mindset – desirable qualities for high performing leaders.

  • Self management – Someone with a good understanding of their own emotions will find it easier to manage them, to recognise emotional responses and control them. In stressful situations, leaders with good self management can pause before responding rather than reacting on impulse, giving them the space to take on board other perspectives in the team. Self management gives leaders a higher capacity for handling and adapting to challenges, and allows them to solve problems more creatively.

  • Social awareness – The other side of emotional intelligence is recognising the emotions and social cues of others. It helps leaders display empathy when interacting with others, considering their perspectives and why they may be feeling any number of emotions. When managing employees, this is part of knowing how to communicate in an effective way and manage conflict in the workplace. When working with other leaders, a diverse team with varying degrees of emotional intelligence can help avoid paralysis in decision making. People with high EQ (emotional quotient, a measure of emotional intelligence) are good at reading non-verbal cues and will hold back what they truly think if they feel like their views will not be well received.

  • Relationship management – A successful leader can maintain positive relationships not just with clients and partners, but within the business itself. Strong relationship management means an ability to influence others, and makes broaching tough conversations and managing conflict far easier, while also creating the conditions for good mentorship.

Why is emotional intelligence important in tech leadership?

In the tech industry, where innovation and creativity are highly valued, emotional intelligence is a critical trait for effective leadership. Tech leaders who possess high levels of EI are better able to manage their own emotions and those of their team members. They are able to communicate effectively, build strong relationships, and create a positive work environment.

The tech industry often merges leaders from different domain (market) experiences. For example, SaaS and FinTech management teams are made up of leaders, on one side, who understand the complexities of the traditional industry they are disrupting and the customers they serve. On the other, there are the leaders who understand best practice for a specific tech business or revenue model. While both kinds of leaders have value, making sure they work well together requires a degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, particularly as companies grow and scale, bringing in leaders with different domain (market), functional and situational experience to balance senior leadership teams.

Here are some specific reasons why EI is important in tech leadership:

  • Effective communication: Tech leaders with high EQ (emotional quotient) are able to communicate their ideas and vision clearly and effectively. They are also able to listen actively and respond to feedback in a constructive manner.

  • Team building: Leaders with high EI are able to build strong relationships with their team members, which leads to a more collaborative and productive work environment.

  • Conflict resolution: Conflict is inevitable in any workplace, but leaders with high EI are able to manage conflicts effectively and find solutions that work for everyone involved.

  • Innovation: Leaders with high EI are more likely to be open to new ideas and perspectives, which can lead to greater innovation and creativity within the team.

The importance of integrity in tech leadership

One of the top leadership qualities for effective leaders is the ability to lead by example. Those at the top have a responsibility to act with integrity because most employees look to their leaders for cues on behaviour.

Reflected by how important ESG has become, and the popularity of ESG investing, ethically responsible behaviour by a company’s leaders coupled with strong governance can be helpful for attracting investment and retaining talent. 

In recent years there has been a transition from a mostly authoritarian leadership style in tech to a more trust-based one. While autocratic leadership is likely to be effective when building a business from the ground up, such as in founder-led start ups, when it comes time to scale, responsibility needs to be spread across a management team. 

A leadership team that relies on a single individual to make decisions is likely to be dysfunctional, and though it might muddle through, it will usually enter a succession crisis if that individual decides to move on or the business embarks on a growth journey that requires different skills, experience and behaviours than those that have worked previously. A team that works well together with individuals that feel trusted will inspire employees to be more innovative, productive and creative. Ultimately, trust-based leadership styles such as visionary leadership, are more effective.

Visionary leadership involves inspiring and motivating team members towards a shared goal or vision. Leaders who adopt this more visionary leadership style are often seen as charismatic and inspiring, and can help to create a sense of purpose and direction within the team. They are also more likely to be receptive to feedback and input from their team members, which can lead to more creative and innovative solutions.

However, a leader cannot gain the trust of their workforce if they do not have integrity. 

The tech world has been moving to hybrid working for longer than many other traditional industries, which means they have had time to acclimatise to a disparate workforce. Since managers cannot stay on top of their employees all the time anymore, they must trust the people they have hired to do the job. This makes it even more important for leaders to set an example with high-integrity behaviours and build a strong culture that keeps a group of disparate people focused on a single vision.

How does emotional intelligence impact leadership development?

Emotional intelligence is a key asset for leadership. Leaders are leaders of people, not only products and services, so the ability to understand and anticipate the emotions of others impacts how skilled they are at people management.

But emotional intelligence is not just an asset for practising good leadership behaviour; it's a key ingredient for developing competencies and behaviours of its existing leaders and employees with high leadership potential. This article discusses how and why a degree of emotional intelligence can help a person grow into the responsibilities and demands of a leadership role.

Developing communication skills

Leaders who can recognise emotions and social cues in others means they can adapt their way of speaking to get their message across more effectively. Being an active and empathetic listener allows employees to be open and honest with the information they offer and the questions they ask. Those who build a culture of clear communication improve a company's likelihood of success because they are better at keeping everyone bought into the value creation plan.

Developing decision making

One of the most effective components of emotional intelligence is self awareness. A leader who knows their own strengths can apply them effectively.

It’s important to note that while a degree of self awareness can be helpful for making decisions, having too much can be counter productive as they become overly concerned with how they are perceived, and prevents them from revealing their thoughts if they feel other people on the team will not listen.

On the other hand, those with a lower degree of emotional intelligence can help drive through decisions because they can read the room but see action as more important than harmony.

Developing problem solving

Self-management – the ability to react to stimuli, take a breath and respond to challenges without giving into impulses – is part of being an agile and visionary leader. Agile leaders have an attitude of willingness to take on unfamiliar challenges and to be experimental with solutions to business problems.

Emotional intelligence allows leaders to behave in a more 'curious' way (see PACE for our full description). This means they have the ability to be flexible and consider multiple perspectives before landing on a solution. They are comfortable with the uncertainty necessary to spend time experimenting.

Developing mentoring skills

Mentoring is a key part of tech leadership and, more importantly, of a company's leadership sustainability. A transfer of knowledge from the most knowledgeable person to the less experienced secures the longevity of a company and makes sure that there are always high-performing leaders in place.

The ability to form trusting relationships and manage them well is critical to being a good mentor. The practice involves asking open questions, understanding what the mentee's goals are and building their confidence to achieve them. 

Designing an effective leadership development programme

1. Know who to develop

Identifying employees with high potential for leadership is critical to leadership sustainability. However, personal bias will often get in the way. Using objective, data-led assessments can cut through the emotion and lay out a clear roadmap for a business.

2. Implement a mix of development practices

Time-poor executives also need to be reached where and when they are available and able to focus, which means offering multichannel learning development, made possible with technology. An effective leadership development programme will make use of a mix of different learning opportunities and methods, from self directed learning to in-person courses and mentorship. 

Read the full article: How to Create a Leadership Development Programme for Tech

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