The Link between Character and Emotional Intelligence

Character and emotional intelligence can be considered as two layers of our leadership capability, the two layers that are foundational to our leadership effectiveness. Character can be defined as the virtues, values, and traits that underlie our thoughts and actions. Emotional intelligence can be defined as the awareness and management of emotions, both our own and others’, to build positive relationships.

In the literature on leadership we often see character and emotional intelligence (EQ) treated as one and the same. Many of those writers that are focused on emotional intelligence (for example, Daniel Goleman) fold basic character traits into EQ. Similarly, those that are focused on character-based leadership treat EQ as a part of their definition of character. As an example, I facilitate a leadership development program using materials from Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. They define character as ”that set of capacities the leader needs to meet the demands of reality.” Those capacities cover the combination of virtues, values, traits, and EQ behaviors.


On the other hand, I generally think of character and emotional intelligence as two closely-linked but separate layers of leadership. Both character and EQ are a part of who we are as leaders. But emotional intelligence behaviors are built on top of the foundation of our character virtues, values, and traits. For example, respect for others is a character value that motivates our desire for relationship and drives us to further develop our empathy or our ability to work in a team.

This then is the basis for my analogy of a structure for leadership, where character (the virtues, values, and traits) is the foundation and emotional intelligence is the framework of our leadership. Those two ingredients are fundamental (or prerequisites) for making our leadership competency work. We can understand all the skills of leadership yet struggle if we have not yet built the strong foundation and framework upon which to build our leadership voice. Building our character and emotional intelligence is more than reading a few books, it is an experiential process since we build these into who we are and how we think. “We lead from who we are.”

What is your definition of character in leadership?

What are you doing to build the foundation and framework for your leadership?

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