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Emotional intelligence, often abbreviated as EQ, is the ability to recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and those around us. While everyone can take advantage of this skill, it’s particularly important for those in leadership roles. Not only can it help with managing a diverse team with different personalities and goals, but in the association space, it can also allow leaders to connect more personally with the mission of the organization and the people they serve.

But how can you assess the emotional intelligence of potential leaders and more importantly, how can you be intentional about developing these skills for everyone in your organization? 

Why Does Emotional Intelligence Matter in Leadership Roles?

At its core, emotional intelligence involves being aware of one’s feelings and those of others. This awareness allows a leader to better relate to their team, their members and even their board of directors. 

However, EQ goes beyond the ability to empathize with your team. Instead, it can impact most interactions and skills that allow leaders to excel in an organization. According to the Harvard Business School, emotional intelligence often comes down to four components:

  1. A leader’s ability to be self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Their ability to manage their emotions, especially when interacting with team members. 
  3. An understanding of an organization's social and cultural dynamics and the industry at large. 
  4. The ability to manage relationships and balance roles – like transitioning from a boss to a mentor to your staff. 

Benefits of Emotionally Intelligent Association Leaders

Although success in a leadership role can often be gauged by metrics like revenue, member retention or routine NPS scores among staff, those are only part of the equation. Emotionally intelligent leaders often impact the harder-to-measure intangibles of your association’s culture that can still play a significant role in the measurable metrics. 

Leaders with high EQ can:

  • Improve team performance – Emotionally intelligent leaders often have a better dynamic with their teams – from helping motivate your team to streamlining communication, so everyone is always on the same page. However, it can also mean creating a culture where staff members are more comfortable sharing innovative ideas, which can mean better results for your association. 
  • Identify problems early on – Just as important as being able to assess your emotional state is knowing when something is wrong with those around you. Leaders with high EQ can identify those non-verbal cues that can help address any concerns for your team. 
Related: Are You a Jerk? Learn More >
  • Increase staff retention – As the old saying goes, people don’t quit their jobs; they quit bad leaders. In a time when staff has plenty of work opportunities and the Great Resignation is still impacting associations, holding on to your most talented staff should be a priority. That often comes down to their dynamic with senior leadership. 
  • Build a healthier culture – For many organizations, culture often influences the behaviors of your leaders. Leaders with high EQ take an active role in improving your culture – from helping to reduce and identify burnout to allowing for more inclusivity within your organization. While performance-focused leaders can get things done, they may not be nurturing your staff in any way (hence those retention issues).

How to Assess Emotional Intelligence in Potential Leaders

So we know these types of leaders can have a lasting impact, but how can associations identify and assess the emotional intelligence of a current staffer or potential hire? It often comes down to two methods – observation and assessment.


As we mentioned, emotionally intelligent leaders have common characteristics – they show empathy to their teams, effectively manage relationships and understand how to regulate their emotions. However, you don’t want to wait until a high-stress situation or challenge to see those traits shine. 

Their behavior during routine work situations can help gain insight into their EQ. Are they able to lead meetings? Can they listen and respond to criticism? Do they remain calm under pressure? These are indicators of strong emotional intelligence. 

The interview process is also a great time to tease some of this information (and can also be used during annual reviews for existing staffers). Some questions to consider include:

  • What are you currently studying or working on? 
  • Are there any certifications or courses you’re particularly proud of? 

High EQ leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, which means they’re often looking to improve and should have a concrete plan for what that looks like. Professional development will likely be a big part of their life and hopefully something they’ll bring to your organization. 

  • How would you resolve a conflict between two staffers in your organization?
  • Put yourself in their shoes – who do you think won or lost in the situation? 

While you want to be sure your leaders have problem-solving skills, it’s just as important to know that they will take the time to hear from everyone and understand the lasting impact on their team.

  • Give me an example of an ethical dilemma you’ve faced at work and how you solved it.
  • What would you do if someone put down another person on your team?

Again, leaders with high EQ have a strong understanding of social and cultural dynamics in the workplace. These are also some of the most challenging problems to resolve, which is why seeing them in action can be extremely helpful. 


Of course, everyone enjoys a good personality test, and a few options are tailored to assess EQ. Some of the more common ones include:

Many are free online, so look into each to see which might work best for your organization.

Related: Should Personalities Influence the Way We Work? Learn More >

These tests often use scenarios (similar to what you can ask in an interview) and baseline questions that help assess characteristics like adaptability, emotions, conflict resolution and perception, to name a few. 

The Future of Association Leadership 

As associations think about the skill sets they’re looking for in future leaders – or the ones they’re developing among existing staff – understanding the impact of emotional intelligence is critical. Emotionally intelligent leaders can help improve retention, inspire innovation among staff and help create a better culture within the organization.

While it can be challenging to pin down the specifics of a high EQ leader, at a minimum, they should understand their strengths and weaknesses, know how to transition between different styles of leadership based on a given situation, and understand the social and cultural dynamics within your organization. 

Associations have a critical purpose – to move their mission forward. But to do that, they need leaders at the helm who can work with and empower the folks entrusted with doing so.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
January 19, 2023
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.