Developing Emotional Intelligence

Contributor:  Peter has over 20 years military experience. From electronic systems engineer to professional educator and father of two he has seen a wide variety of emotional responses to an even wider variety of situations.

Some ideas on developing emotionally intelligent leaders

But first, a dit! I pull behind two cars whilst leaving a multi storey car park.  Some poor guy was having serious trouble with the ticket machine.  He pleads with the person bleating from it, each time getting louder explaining he’s paid enough so let him out.  His plight to this faceless automaton is fruitless and, after a few minutes, he finally decides to give up and move out of the way.  At this time, the woman behind him (just in front of me) decides to reverse to give him room.  She’s about to clip my car so I honk my horn.  “F@ck off!” harks the driver having the issues.  Once the lady goes by he’s keen to let me know that he’s not happy that I sounded my horn at him.  I explain that I wasn’t honking at him; the lady in front nearly reversed into me.  He’s still not happy but he’s pacified enough and I’m able to continue on my journey with no more interference.  For many this innocuous experience would be over, but not for one with a reflective disposition.  I also have a desire to wrap some practical actions around developing emotional intelligence (EI), something even I, after serving for over 20 years, need to continually brush up on.


He didn’t look like a military leader, but one never knows.  He was, however, leading a family which included a wife and two children.  My initial thought: What a terrible example to set.  My second thought: He’s put on a set of blinkers making him hyper focused on this emerging situation assuming the entire world is conspiring against him.  Thought number 3: His EI is non-existent; he is so angry about the microcosm of this situation he didn’t take even a breath to think about the impact of his actions, let alone the second order effects.  A recipe for disaster in most situations, but particularly when operating in uncertain, chaotic and hostile conditions as military leaders do.

Emotional Intelligence

UK Defence Doctrine talks about people being the decisive edge.  The Army Leadership Doctrine advises practitioners to understand behavioural science and promotes a need for EI under the banner of gaining influence, whilst a lack of it could be a cause of toxic leadership.  Joint Doctrine Publication (JDP) 0-20 UK Land Power is the first piece of British Army doctrine to explicitly state that EI is a unique skill demanded of successful land forces personnel.  Daniel Goleman, EI’s original proponent, proposes five components of: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.  In a nutshell – he suggests that you need to understand how your emotional state affects other people, that you should  control your emotions to get the best from those around you (for the right reasons) and more generally that it is important to become a strong people-oriented person (and leader).  In the military a leader rarely has the luxury of picking their own team so this is a difficult to attain, but vital skill.  Frustratingly (as humans) but excitingly (as learners), EI appears to be largely absent from many situations; from the OC’s conference table to the supermarket checkout, but it can be routinely and recursively observed, discussed and practiced in real-time.

Existing Study Material

There is a great chapter in the Army Leadership Doctrine entitled ‘Developing Leaders‘.  It is written in plain English and provides some sound activities that can be exercised by the lowest levels of leadership within the organisation.  It focuses on learning from experience by describing the difficulty of reflection on our own and others’ behaviour through a simple model of the learning cycle.  It goes on to describe the “fundamentals” which includes a paragraph to “enhance learning”.  In addition the recommended reading, contained in a 2 page annex, is accessible and varied including short inspiring videos.  I will be the first to admit, I’m a poor reflector; the only reason I’ve embarked on writing this paper is because my 4 year old son asked me a wonderfully simple question: “Why is that man so angry?”

Wider Implications of a Lack of EI

Considering the potential impact of EI on operations, I’ll return to my ‘dit’: the angry driver would have failed at the first building block of Integrated Action.  A leader cannot consistently make good decisions and subsequently enjoy successful outcomes without firstly understanding the audience.  Luckily for the angry man, I was just a benign audience member, keen to continue on my way home after a great day out with my two boys.  I just didn’t want a lady, herself frustrated at someone else’s misfortune, to crash into me!  But, what if I had adversarial tendencies? Or was in fact an enemy?  Confrontation through a lack of audience understanding could have easily escalated this situation towards conflict.

A soldier not only has to control their own emotions for the benefit of the team, but they should do so that they don’t further alienate other actors operating in the same environment.  With an army of circa 79,500 regulars and 30,000 reservists, which will remain at those numbers (Fallon at RUSI), we won’t have the capacity to allow for unwarranted confrontation.  It is crucial that we remain clear headed, take a breath when needed and appreciate that we will never agree with everyone whilst at the same time we are being forced to work together to solve more pressing problems.  This takes emotional intelligence, which is unfortunately not taught.  So, until our training catches up with the new Leadership and Land Power doctrine each unit has a responsibility work out what their short term solution is in the interim.

Developing EI

Unfortunately, there is no clear and universally right approach to developing EI.  I do, however, think there are a few questions we can ask ourselves and some activities that can help us in our journey to develop greater awareness and management of EI within the workforce.  Here are some early offerings:

  • Describe a situation where you or someone else lost their temper.  Just like the dit above.
  • Why did you or the other party lose their temper?
  • What emotion took control?
  • What impact did it have on the outcome of the situation?
  • What could have been the worst case scenario?
  • What would happen if a similar thing happened on your last or next operation?
  • What can you do to ensure it doesn’t happen again to you or someone else?

It is important that when conducting a reflective discussion using the questions above, the answers cannot come from the Chain of Command (CoC).  Doctrinally pure Mission Command must be embraced for development of EI to succeed.  Sell the value of EI where you can and let your organisation decide what it needs to optimise performance.  Perhaps have a key member of the training team conduct some initial research to give their team constraints, but the junior leaders must come up with the scenarios, steer the discussion and feedback the relevant lessons.  It took this author 30 mins to think about this situation and chat it through with a friend, a couple of hours to write an initial analysis and considerably longer to turn it into a formal lesson learned.  Which activity you choose  will be dictated by time, existing Knowledge, Skills and Experience (KSE) levels and the depth to which you wish to develop EI.  And don’t assume your other ranks can’t take on the meatier analysis – I’ve met a trooper with an A Level in psychology keen to discuss Zimbardo and Milgram.  But don’t think that EI can be grown overnight.  It will take many sessions, lots of feedback and considerable effort from every individual in the team to really foster an environment where EI fits in and becomes a key operational enabler.  Culture must be considered.  Especially as the military is likely to deploy as part of a international coalition, or alongside host nation partners.

Good luck and enjoy the journey – it should be fun picking apart the behaviour of that angry storeman!  If you stumble or get lost, seriously consider asking a 4 year old what they think.  You may get lucky like I did and be able to move forward after hearing a simple statement or thought provoking question.

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

Image courtesy of MOD/Crown Copyright 2015

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