Emotional Intelligence


Emotional Intelligence: When Spin Meets Timing (Archive copy, originally written in 1998)

Harry Onsman

There is a tide in the affairs of management writing which if taken at the flood leads on to greatness. Or so it seems in the world of management fads. The art of creating “the next big thing” in management is a bit like getting a rocket of the ground: it’s all about timing and spin. A grand example is “Emotional Intelligence”.

Whilst others have staked a claim to its parenthood, the idea is now firmly associated with Daniel Goleman. His Emotional Intelligence (1995) and Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998) have just about muscled the competition out of the way in claiming pre-eminence in the field. A sure sign of this is, of course, the Harvard Business Review article, which duly appeared in late 1998 edition under the title “What Makes a Leader?” Goleman suggests that there are five components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness: recognising and understanding your moods and feelings, and appreciating their impact on others self-regulation: controlling disruptive impulses motivation: a desire to work for intrinsic rewards and pursue goals with persistence empathy: understanding other people’s emotional make-up social skill: managing relationships and associations by finding common ground with others Having a high EI means understanding your own and other people’s emotional makeup well enough to move people in the direction of accomplishing your goals.

In “What Makes a Leader”, he argues that effective leaders are alike in one crucial way in that they all have a high degree of EI. And especially at the upper levels of organisations, EI is what makes the difference. Without it, a person can be highly trained, very clever and brilliantly creative, but they will not cut the mustard as a great leader. In terms of content, it is hardly ground-breaking stuff. Many would recognise its components as reminiscent of Dale Carnegie, Chris Argyris, Eric Berne, Stephen Covey and many others. However, it is an interesting case study in how the not-so-original can become the one-and-only.

The publication of the HBR article completes the traditional journey of management ideas from a good kernel or clever summary to all-round panacea. In the case of Goleman, this leads to the claim that “emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership”. This claim marks an important development. It is important since leadership is one of those key areas of management writing that truly matters. If you want to make it to real guru status, only a limited number of fields are open to you. There is little point in being the guru of, for example, “merchandising in retail banks” as: no-one will be interested no-one will pay you large fees for your views it is a comprehensible topic. So the topic has to lead to one of the big six fields in management: leadership; strategy; organisational culture; corporate structure and systems; customers and suppliers; personal development. For each field, current gurus readily springs to mind.

Goleman’s timing is impeccable. The mood in management thinking is swinging away from one-minute prescriptions to an acceptance of complexity; from rational modes of thinking to learning to live with paradox and chaos; from singular solutions to multiple perspectives. Re-invigorating the notion of the affective domain of the brain and applying it to an organisational setting in the midst of all this management turmoil and confusion is a stroke of near genius. Spin and timing!

Now, the reality of course is that the idea of management as a non-rational activity, at least in part, has always been there. Being able to work with that aspect of the management job wasn’t called “emotional intelligence” but it was there. It was called interpersonal intelligence or empathy or character or even just feeling. (1) Even the term “emotional intelligence” predates guru Goleman. (2)

In fact, going back a few generations (not something generally encouraged in management thinking), there is an enormously rich tradition of writings on this subject including Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Nietzsche, Freud, Kierkegaard, Merleau-Ponty, and Foucault. But this tradition has simply not touched modern management thinking. About the only exception is Henry Mintzberg, the well-known writer on strategy who has argued for most of his published life that the non-rational aspects in strategising are as important as the rational ones. For a man celebrated for works like The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (1994), it is ironic that he actually pans most approaches to strategic planning as ineffectual. His concept of “emergent strategy” (read, making it up as you go along) has provided the post facto justification for many a managerial decision.

Goleman has brought this non-cognitive side of human nature back into the limelight, not by relying on philosophy but on neurological research. After all, in the cynical world of management, you can hardly quote a philosopher as your spiritual forebear. Better something hard-nosed like neurological research. So recent brain research makes the prescription (is it too disingenuous to summarise it as ‘Be Nice’?) acceptable to generations of managers brought up on a diet of hyper-rationality. Goleman has come up with an action plan that addresses the well-documented phenomena of “cognitive bias” in our thinking. (3)

Thankfully, at last, we will be able to do something about all those tortured work-place relationships out there in the real world. If Jack Nicholson asked when the Martians invaded, “Why can’t we all just get along?”, Goleman has the answer in terms of “how”. But there is a catch. As Goleman observes in his closing paragraph in HBR: “It is fortunate, then, that emotional intelligence can be learned. The process is not easy. It takes time, and, most of all, commitment. But the benefits that come from having a well-developed emotional intelligence, both for the individual and for the organization, make it worth the effort.” Now there’s an invitation to consulting nirvana. The learning process is time-consuming, requiring expert assistance, and if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault, not the consultant’s. In the world of organisational consulting, I predict 1999 to be the Year of Emotional Intelligence.


Harry Onsman is author of the book The Uncertain Art of Management.

hjonsman @ ozemail.com.au



1. For example in Etzioni (1993) or Hoffman (1984)
2. One example is Salovey and Mayer (1990)
3. Knights and Morgan (1991

References: Etzioni, A (1993), Character building and moral conduct: the spirit of community, Crown
Goleman D (1995), Emotional Intelligence
Goleman, D (1998), Working with Emotional Intelligence
Goleman, D (1998), “What Makes a Leader?” Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec
Hoffman, M (1984), “Empathy, social cognition, and moral action”, Moral Behavior and Development
Kurtines, W and Gerwirtz, J (Eds) Wiley Knights, D and Morgan, G (1991), “Corporate Strategy, organizations and subjectivity: a critique”, Organization Studies, 12/2, 251-273
Mintzberg, H (1994), The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Macmillan
Salovey, P and Mayer, J (1990), “Emotional Intelligence”, Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9:185-211