Emotional Intelligence: The Difference Between Good and Great Leadership


In 1848, Phineas Gage—a competent, well-known construction manager—began working with his team to ‘blast’ through rocks in preparation for building the Burlington Railroad through Vermont.

The Blasting procedure was simple.

A hole was drilled through a rock, blasting powder was poured inside with a fuse and sand was poured on top of this. Then, a tamping iron was used to pack (“tamp”) down the sand into the hole above the powder.  

The layer of sand ensured that blasting powder wouldn’t explode prematurely after which Phineas Gage would pack it with his tamping iron.

One day, around 4.30 p.m., Phineas Gage got distracted by loud noises as he was about to swing the tamping iron.

As he looked over his right shoulder, Phineas saw his crew knocking over large boulders from a pit. Breathing a sigh of relief, Phineas resumed his usual tamping and proceeded to swing the iron.

But, Phineas was unaware that there was no sand in the hole because the loud noises had also distracted his assistant (who was responsible for filling the hole with sand).

Within seconds, gunpowder from within the hole was ignited as Phineas Gage  tried to escape the line of fire.

He failed to move away fast enough.

The tamping iron—3 ft 7 inches long with a weight of 13 and a half pounds—fired through his head like a rocket.

Phineas Gage Skull Tamping Iron

Digital reconstruction of Phineas Gage’s skull via Ratiu et al.

The iron entered through Phineas Gage’s left cheek, passed behind his left eye, severed his optic nerve and come out of his forehead— landing 100 feet behind him in the bushes.

Phineas Gage’s body landed a few metres away from impact, as he sat down silent and confused about what had just happened.

As his crew ran over to his body to check if he was alive, Gage casually looked at them and said that he’d have to see a doctor.

Shortly after, Gage asked his assistant for the construction foreman book to log his exit from the job site—as if nothing had happened and he’d just finished a day’s work.

A few hours later, as he sat down with Dr. John Harlow, Phineas described precisely what happened to him.  He was still able to speak and think as if the accident had never happened.

After several months of treatment, it looked like Phineas Gage was back to normal, with the exception of physical scars from his accident and weak vision in his left eye.

Over the next couple of years, his personality, habits, leadership skills and emotional intelligence would stay intact.

Or would it?

Phineas Gage Emotional Intelligence

Photo of Phineas Gage after the accident.

What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Is It Important for Leadership?

According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, expert on emotional intelligence and co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (Book), emotional intelligence is…

“Your ability to recognize and understand emotions, and your skill at using this awareness to manage yourself and your relationships with others.”

Emotional intelligence is an intangible force that influences our ability to navigate our behaviours and social complexities through communication and decision-making.

You’ve probably come across a few people with high emotional intelligence in your lifetime.

They tend to have that charisma or “something” about them, that magnetically draws people towards them.

Emotionally intelligent people are highly persuasive and articulate with their use of words—think Martin Luther King (Good) and Adolf Hitler (Bad).

Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skill areas, with two primary competencies: personal competence and social competence.

Personal competence consists of self-awareness and self-management of your emotions—it’s about you.

Social competence concerns relationship management and social awareness for human communication and interactions with others.

Now, consider how many emotional experiences you have on a daily basis.

These emotions drive your daily habits and decision-making processes.

If they’re not well understood and managed appropriately, your emotions will steer the direction of your life—triggering bad habits and bad decisions that could cost lives.

In the context of leadership, emotional intelligence could be the difference between good and great leadership.

Leaders with high emotional intelligence have a strong self-awareness of their emotions to better communicate, influence and motivate others to take action.

Leaders with low emotional intelligence usually have low awareness and self-control of their emotions. They have less empathy for others with a weaker ability to connect with and communicate to others.

This is why high levels of IQ (intelligence quotient) and technical skills are not enough for great leadership.

The smartest, most skilled person with the best training doesn’t necessarily equate to a great leader because great leadership requires a high level of emotional connection with others.

Dr Travis Bradberry’s study into the emotional intelligence of personalities within the workplace, discovered that emotional intelligence was the strongest predictor of high performance in all types of jobs. [1]

90% of the top performers were high in emotional intelligence, with a higher average income per year and an increase by one point of emotional intelligence contributing to as much as an extra $1,300 in annual salary.

20% of low performers were high in emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence also accounted for up to 60% of the job performance for supervisors through CEO’s.

Bradberry also discovered a startling trend through measuring the emotional intelligence of 100,000 senior executives across industries in six continents. [2]

The emotional intelligence of an executive rises as they climb managerial positions, peaking at manager level and dropping off significantly to the CEO position.

This means that most executives that are promoted have the least emotional intelligence, even though it’s a strong predictor of performance and great leadership.

Let that sink in for a second.  

Fortunately, your emotional intelligence can be trained and developed just like your IQ.

To better understand how to do this, let’s get back to what happened to the top performing construction manager—Phineas Gage.

Phineas Gage’s Brain on Emotional Intelligence

Prior to his accident, Phineas Gage was considered at the time by his employers to be the…

“most efficient and capable foreman … a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation.”[3]

Gage was highly emotionally intelligent, polite, calm and great with managing relationships.

After the incident, his family, friends and Dr. Harlow noted otherwise…

“The effect of the injury appears to have been the destruction of the equilibrium between his intellectual faculties and the animal propensities. He was now capricious, fitful, irreverent, impatient of restraint, vacillating…His physical recovery was complete, but those who knew him as a shrewd, smart, energetic, persistent business man, recognized the change in mental character. The balance of his mind was gone.” [3]

In other words, Phineas Gage lost his emotional intelligence after the accident.

He could no longer follow through efficiently on his plans and every emotion Phineas experienced exploded into action.

Although his intellect or IQ remained intact, Phineas was no longer the calm, disciplined and empathic leader he once was.

The new Phineas Gage was erratic, easily angered, low in self-control and empathy for others.

Let’s have a look into the human brain to better understand this…

Emotional Intelligence Brain

Image Credit: Travis Bradberry: Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (Book)

Everything you experience in the world—touch, sounds, sight—enters through the base of your brain as a signal.

This signal travels across your brain to the limbic system, responsible for generating emotions you feel.

Phineas Gage’s brain still had a normal functioning limbic system, so what was the problem?

The same signal from your limbic system travels to the front of your brain, where the emotions are rationally interpreted and responded to appropriately.

This is the part of the brain that Phineas Gage lost during the accident.

Both of these parts of the brain work together to determine your level of emotional intelligence.

The better the communication between the emotional and rational parts of your brain, the higher your emotional intelligence will be.

As you practice emotional intelligence, your brain will create new connections and strengthen the link between these two parts—until a new habit emerges.

Unfortunately, Phineas lost the connections in his brain necessary for managing his emotions well and leading others effectiveness.

So, what happened to Phineas Gage after losing his emotional intelligence?

Gage lost his job as a construction manager and struggled to maintain a stable work life. 

After short job stints as a coach driver in Hanover, New Hampshire and Chile, Gage moved to live with his mother until he died in 1860— around 12 years after his accident.

Where to Go From Here

“Emotions have taught mankind to reason”


The strange story Phineas Gage provides a compelling case of the importance of emotional intelligence for success in work, relationships and life as a whole.

Often, we judge intelligence and leadership based on IQ, technical skills and experience, neglecting the crucial component of emotional intelligence.

Great leaders have the ability to communicate through their rational intellect (head knowledge) and emotional intellect (emotions) to lead effectively.

Although the “How To” will be addressed in subsequent articles, the first step to improving your emotional intelligence is to use your self-awareness to assess where you are right now.

You could take short EQ tests (Emotional Intelligence tests) available online, reflect on your past behaviours through journalling and create a plan of action to work on your weak areas.

When in doubt about what to do in any given situation, just remember the golden rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”— Matthew 7:12


1. Research done by Talentsmart.

2. Harvard Business Review piece covering the study on executives.

3. Harlow, John Martyn (1868). “Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head”. Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2 (3): 327–47.

4. 2 years after the incident, Henry Jacob Bigelow—a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School—brought Phineas Gage and his doctor, John Harlow to verify the case. This was later published in the American Journal of The Medical Sciences.

5. Credit to Dr Travis Bradberry for ideas on Emotional Intelligence.