Emotional Intelligence and Leadership

In my frequent work with church leadership teams, I find that a constant challenge for ministers and elders is the way they address the relational dynamics that are constantly present in a congregation. When all is said and done, a critical component of leadership is how to relate to people!

One way to explore this critical aspect of leadership is through the lens of emotional intelligence, a theory popularized by the work of Daniel Goleman over 20 years ago. [1] In short, emotional intelligence reflects the capacity to monitor your emotions and the emotions of others, and to utilize that information to shape your words and actions. To say it another way, emotional intelligence is paying attention to your emotions and to the emotions of others in ways that help you effectively interact with others.

Following Goleman’s work, emotional intelligence focuses on four different competencies: [2]

  1. Self-awarenesswhat is going on inside you.
  2. Self-managementemotional self-control and adaptability.
  3. Social awarenessattentiveness to others and the capacity for empathy.
  4. Relationship managementcapacity to attend constructively in conflicted situations, with loss, or with the need to inspire, build teams, or develop others.

When talking about emotional intelligence, I occasionally receive some pushback. What about intellectual intelligence? What about knowing what to do? Obviously, knowledge and skills are incredibly important. However, knowing what to do and helping others do the right thing are two different matters. As Goleman notes, intelligence might get you the job, but emotional intelligence will help you keep it!

At the heart of human experience is the way our emotions shape our doing and being. Even the simplest of interactions in our families and congregations are fraught with emotional fields. Each of Goleman’s four competencies is critically important for leaders to develop. Beginning with self-awareness, effective leaders stay tuned to their own emotional state. To be self-aware is to be able to identify the feelings and thoughts surging within our own bodies. Once leaders are aware, they can explore constructive avenues for how to appropriately manage their own emotions – instead of letting their emotions manage them!

Moving beyond the self means attending to others. Social awareness calls upon the leader to remain attuned to what others are feeling. It is not always easy; so much of what a person is feeling is communicated nonverbally! Once some assessment of a person or a group’s feelings has been made, wise leaders turn to managing their influence in the relationship.

The language of emotional intelligence may seem a little distant to congregational life. But in many ways, the witness of Scripture reminds us that being a Christ follower means that we practice virtues (2 Pet 1) and embody the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5). Maybe, as church leaders, we can begin to imagine how important our emotional intelligence really is to the health and mission of our congregations!


[1] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, (New York: Bantam, 1995).
[2] I have explored this elsewhere. See Carson E. Reed, “Motive and Movement: Affective Leadership Through the Work of Preaching.” Journal Of Religious Leadership 13, no. 2 (September 2014): 63-82. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 2, 2017).


Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.
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Author:  Publish Date: May 23, 2017

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CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

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