Everyone has likely heard of emotional intelligence. You may have even read a book or two on the subject trying to figure out how to increase yours, but most people are challenged simply by understanding what it is.

emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a concept largely attributed to psychologist Daniel Goleman, who differentiated intellectual intelligence from emotional intelligence in the mid-1990s, defining the latter as the ability to identify, assess and manage emotions in one’s self and in others. People with high emotional intelligence have a good handle on their emotions and can self-regulate, which helps make them good leaders.

Emotional intelligence is the most important soft skill, and it makes you stand out in a crowd. As opposed to hard skills which are the technical skills you need to perform your job, soft skills are non-technical skills that relate to how you work. They are important for just about every job, but are especially critical in management or leadership positions.

Think about your communication skills, listening skills, time management, teamwork, problem solving and empathy as soft skills. All of these are skills you need to be successful in your role, no matter what your position is.



The soft skill of emotional intelligence is first built on self-awareness. One of the challenges to becoming emotionally intelligent is the fact that we think we are self-aware, but we actually aren’t. A study reported in the Harvard Business Review examined what self-awareness really is, why we need it and how we can increase it. After surveying nearly 5,000 participants, researchers found that only 10%-15% of people actually fit the criteria of being self-aware. However, 95% believe they are self-aware.

That staggering statistic is proof that you can’t change what you don’t see. If you are unaware, you are blind and unwittingly self-sabotaging your performance. This is hindering your results, and the worst part is that most people don’t even know that they are doing it.

Most leaders spend their time focused on metrics, building their subject matter expertise, managing relationships and leading others – they are focused on external factors. But in the 40,000+ individual coaching sessions that I’ve done over the last 25+ years, I can confidently tell you that the biggest return on leadership performance will come from a shift to an internal focus.

That’s what my book Leading Lightly coaches you to do. I wrote it to help you uncover your hidden blind spots and identify your self-limiting perspectives. It’s only once you start to hone in on yourself that you have the power to change and optimize your performance.


It’s not only adults who are emotionally intelligent, kids can be proficient at a very young age. Generally speaking, these children had a powerful empathy lesson early on in life that really resonated with them, or they were raised in a difficult childhood where they had to be hypervigilant just so they could manage and thrive in a dysfunctional environment. For me, it’s both cases.

I had a difficult childhood with a mother who suffered from mental illness and an alcoholic father. But it was a lesson in empathy my mother taught me when I was five years old that stays with me today.

I had always wanted a kitten and when a neighbor’s cat had kittens, I was finally allowed to have one. I picked out my favorite and couldn’t have been more excited! I took it home and played with it all day. When dinnertime rolled around, I struggled with what to do with the kitten since I didn’t want her to run and hide in places I wouldn’t be able to find her. We had a huge safe in my house, so I contemplated putting her in there, but I was worried she would be afraid in the dark. So, I climbed up high and put her on a shelf from which I knew she would be too scared to jump down. I figured it was just for dinner so I could easily get her down when I was done eating.

But during dinner, my mother hears the cat crying, gets up from the table and sees the kitten on the shelf. She pulls me into the room and asks “What were you thinking?” I explained very logically that I wanted to make sure I could find the kitten easily after dinner.

My mother pointed out that the poor kitten was terrified, and all of a sudden, I got it. I understood the experience the kitten was having, not just my own experience worrying about finding it. I was horrified as at that moment, I had a deep understanding of the cruelty that I just imparted on the cat without realizing it.

My mother forced me to return the kitten to the neighbor and amid sobs, I told her I was too young to care for it. One year later, I was able to get another kitten and every day, I considered the experiences that cat was having. That is my first memory of empathy, and that memory has never been lost on me.


When we are able to lead lightly, we practice mental fitness, emotional intelligence, mindfulness and self-awareness in every action, every day. That may sound daunting, but in my book, I give you a framework to follow by pumping up the five muscles of mental fitness. Just as an athlete works out in the gym to be able to optimally perform on game day, we should be working out the muscles of our mind for peak production.

Mental fitness is your measurable ability to engage constructively in life and work every day, no matter what stressors you encounter. It is your capacity to consistently respond to challenges with optimal performance in the moment and minimal recovery time afterward. There are five muscles involved:

  1. The most important muscle is building self-awareness. Self-assessing your internal state means that at any given moment you can observe yourself and articulate what you find. And we now know that once you are aware, you are no longer blind and can begin to make changes.
  2. The next muscle is mindfulness, which begins with breathing. I know, it seems so simple, but research shows the quickest way to get out of a triggered emotional state (such as anxiety, anger, sadness, envy, etc.) is to do deep diaphragmatic breathing. You can get out of that state in a little as six seconds by using your breath to calm emotions.
  3. Your beliefs are a muscle, and the ability to choose helpful beliefs over impeding beliefs is part of being mentally fit. Beliefs are a core part of our perceptual lens and are powerful in shaping our everyday experiences, but they may not always be facts.
  4. The muscle that allows us to see multiple, disparate perspectives and viewpoints also allows us to understand and consider perspectives that are not in alignment with yours. With mental fitness, we replace either/or thinking with both/and. We acknowledge that two seemingly contradictory things can both be true at the same time. We develop the skill of suspending judgment and embracing the complexity of gray over black and white thinking.
  5. The last muscle is of personal accountability. Most people define accountability as doing what you say you will do and when you say you will do it. But my definition goes radically farther – it’s about being accountable for your thoughts, moods, behaviors and results, both positive but especially the negative.
brain power

When you are developing mental fitness (i.e. soft skills), you are actually changing your brain’s physiology. You are intentionally disrupting neuropathways that run well-worn patterns of thoughts and moods. Instead, you intentionally create new neuropathways by trying on or adopting different lenses or perspectives. What eventually happens is that you solidify these new neuropathways to become your brain’s new norm through repetition over time.

One of the ways you know you are making changes within your brain is becoming conscious of some of the hidden habits of your mind that you weren’t previously aware of. The ability to catch your own thoughts in the exact moment they are occurring is absolutely one of the most critical mental fitness skills.

But how do you get there?

  • Take the stance of playing detective within yourself. Be an objective observer who is constantly looking for cues and clues.
  • Be able to name your emotions in all their complexity. It’s why I came up with this list of 850+ words to be able to identify feelings, emotions and moods as we experience them.
  • Learn how to read the room and understand how your reactions negatively impact not only yourself but those around you and other outcomes.

Just like building any other skill, you need self-awareness, focused attention and a lot of repetition over time in order to be successful in developing your soft skills.


I have a couple of suggestions for how to put this work into play. First, my company has a MindMastery app, which was the first transformational, change technology app in the marketplace when it launched ten years ago. This free app prompts you to do quick self-reflection at eight random times each day, every day. You’ll notice that you have different emotional states throughout the day. Eventually, you’ll be able to detect these clues that you would otherwise miss. After practicing this for weeks, even months, you will start to see the hidden habits of your mind.

I also have a brief mental fitness quiz in Leading Lightly. By answering just a few questions honestly, you’ll get a general sense of your current level of mental fitness development. You’ll be able to tell whether you are at the starting line, including whether you are relying on avoidance strategies which simply appear to be mental fitness. Even if you find that you’ve already got a solid level of mental fitness, you can still increase your capacity for getting out of triggered states quicker.

Remember, mental fitness is not only the ability to rapidly shift out of a triggered state, but to do so permanently no matter what. This means you can consistently do so in almost any scenario at work, home or any other context.

Of all of the soft skills, emotional intelligence is arguably the hardest to teach. But it’s not impossible! By being able to empathize with others, develop self-awareness and monitor your own thoughts and behavior, you will find yourself making better decisions and be able to lead your life with a sense of lightness, clarity and control.

Learn more in Leading Lightly

This article was originally published on Careers in Government.