Emotional Intelligence in Leaders: Real Life Examples

Jeff Evans's picture

What makes a good leader? Is it the steely certitude of a General Patton? Was Abraham Lincoln a good leader because he doubted himself, or in spite of his self-doubt? Researchers are realizing that emotional intelligence is an important part of the well-rounded leader. History is replete with examples of leaders whose interpersonal and intrapersonal skills best served their companies, their causes, or their countries.


Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and a Stanford Business School graduate, wrote about CEOs who demonstrate high degrees of emotional intelligence. He picked Fortune 500 companies and interviewed employees, studied speeches and published writing, and evaluated what he called the “emotional thermostat” settings of these leaders. Some highlights:

  • Jeff Bezos of Amazon — Obsessed with the hearts and minds of his customers, Bezos has a long-term perspective on business strategy and relationships (with customers and among employees).
  • Howard Schultz of Starbucks — Away from Starbucks for eight years, Schultz says that the main reason he came back was “love” for the company and its people; Starbucks is noted for its generous health care benefits, a philosophy inspired by Schultz’s father losing his health insurance when Schultz was a child.
  • Indra Nooyi of Pepsi — With a philosophy of “performance with purpose,” Nooyi has helped move employees from a day job to living a calling. She's known for singing in the hallways or walking barefoot in the office.


Princess Diana evinces the apex of emotional intelligence in our modern era. Nobody would have faulted her for slipping into the comfort of royalty. Instead, she reached out to HIV and AIDS patients. More than comfort, she provided a much-needed spotlight. Some celebrities with high emotional intelligence quotients (high EQ) can be the conscience of a country.

  • Oprah Winfrey — Willing to expose herself to ridicule for her open displays of emotion and cheerleading, Winfrey has moved many needles through sheer personality; successful in business, entertainment and philanthropy, she has a knack for understanding audiences and celebrities alike.
  • Matt Damon — Damon and Ben Affleck started careers in lockstep, but Damon’s natural appeal has eclipsed Affleck’s career; Damon, a humanitarian, helps focus attention on political and social issues worldwide.


Politics literally means “relating to citizens.” We expect our politicians to have emotional intelligence; to understand and empathize with everyone’s problems. 

  • Winston Churchill — Perhaps because of his own basket of insecurities, Churchill was an astute leader in harrowing times; he tapped into the emotions of his country and rose to the challenge, balancing cold calculations with emotional understanding.
  • Abraham Lincoln — Arguably the epitome of the emotionally intelligent President of the United States, Lincoln pressed on with monumental changes using his own internal compass, even when all his advisers pointed in other directions; emancipation, suspending habeas corpus, and refusing to punish the Confederacy are all examples of emotionally intelligent decisions that went against the grain.

You may notice them first for their fame, but emotionally intelligent leaders in all walks of life endure for their contributions.