Emotional intelligence has long been touted as vital for leadership success. But research now shows emotional agility – how gracefully you navigate internal shifts – is equally crucial. Leaders who can flow between feelings not only perform better themselves but are able to lead high performing teams and model desirable behaviors.

So how does emotional agility differ from emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence involves reading emotions in yourself and others, then using that awareness to manage behaviors and relationships empathetically. Emotional agility focuses more on how nimbly you respond to changing emotions and catch unproductive patterns before they rigidify into harmful mindsets or behaviors. Understanding what our emotions are, and what they are telling us about both ourselves and other people helps us to become better at managing ourselves and our teams.

An emotionally agile leader stays attuned to their inner experience (this is not about denying or suppressing feelings) but responds thoughtfully, not reflexively. They notice dark moods arising but don’t let those feelings ossify into cynicism. They curb initial irritation during a confrontation before it escalates, remaining solutions-focused. Emotional agility supplements self-awareness with adaptability. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, explains that: “Labeling emotions is at the core of our ability to empathize. We know that we can be excited, anxious and frustrated all at the same time and we need to learn to be able to recognize and acknowledge that complexity in other people.”

I’ve long believed that the best way to truly understand a difficult situation or person is to take a long hard look in the mirror. As I note in my book What’s Your Catalyst: The Power of Managed Change: “Empathy requires us to control our emotions and maintain awareness of how we handle those tough moments that spark reactions from us. So grab that mirror, and ask what it sees in your heart.”

Research shows this nimble emotional introspection offers many leadership benefits:

  • Improves decision-making. Leaders who engage their emotions without being engulfed by them make clearer judgments.
  • Aids conflict resolution. An ability to direct emotions constructively makes giving critical feedback easier and defuses tension.
  • Boosts resilience. Viewing even difficult emotions as passing mental states that don’t define you builds confidence to persist through turmoil. 
  • Enhances relationships. People gravitate toward leaders who radiate authenticity by expressing appropriate emotions for the situation.
  • Drives performance. Teams trust leaders who openly acknowledge stressors without being derailed so they can quickly refocus on priorities.


A quote about emotional agility

How can leaders strengthen their emotional agility?

Notice hooks. Catch when situations trigger unhelpful knee-jerk reactions like defensiveness or blame.

Get curious. Instead of suppressing frustration, investigate its source and how to address it. Reframing emotions makes them useful data.

Explore options. Consider how to best harness current emotions to guide your actions, rather than letting them control reactions.

Commit to change. If current patterns or mindsets constrain you, have the courage to evolve them.  

The next time challenges arise, remember emotions aren’t destiny and feelings aren’t facts. With agility, you can tap their wisdom to guide leadership presence and impact. Leaning into emotional flexibility will lift your team and organization to new heights.