Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in Leadership for Flat Organizations

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree November 12, 2022

The days of the traditional leader are over. (Well, if it were up to us.)

Leadership can be much more dynamic than traditional pyramid structures. Let's start with how to make corporate leadership effective while valuing every team member and playing into everyone's strengths and weaknesses—leadership based on emotional intelligence.

4832 1140x0

Emotional intelligence and how it works in leadership

Emotional intelligence—sometimes abbreviated as EI but more commonly known as EQ—seems to be the opposite of its more famous (or infamous) brother, Artificial intelligence (AI). Regarding emotional intelligence in leadership, other factors, such as IQ and general knowledge, can also be taken into account.

Daniel Goleman, the founding father of the common use of the term emotional intelligence regarding leadership, considers it an indispensable quality for successful leadership. IQ and knowledge are only the base—a good leader will define themselves in the field of EQ.

So what exactly is this EQ in leadership, and what are the four competencies Goleman defines for emotional intelligence in leadership? And how does that translate to non-hierarchical organizations?

Daniel Goleman's emotional intelligence

It is now generally accepted that emotional intelligence is one of the essential qualities a leader must have. According to research by TalentSmart, emotional intelligence is the strongest predictor of performance in leaders.

Goleman breaks down emotional intelligence in leadership into four core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management


As a good leader, of course, you know your strengths. But more importantly, you know your weaknesses. You can reflect on yourself, your personality, and your performance. Knowing and understanding your own emotions allows you to relate to others and recognize them. By self-analyzing your work and your values, you bring out the best in yourself. This is essential if you want to bring out the best in others—which, of course, any good leader would.

Regarding this aspect, Joshua D. Margolis (Harvard Business School) says: "Self-awareness is about your capacity to sense how you are coming across, to have undistorted visibility into your own strengths and weaknesses, and to be able to gauge the emotions you are personally experiencing."


Properly regulating those emotions is where a leader excels in self-management. This will be especially evident in times of stress: how do you react to pressure, and how well do you control your emotions?

In those stressful times, a reaction comes in the blink of an eye; it is more of a reflex than a thought-out strategy. Here, your emotional intelligence comes into play: can you read the emotions of others, can these influence you, and can you regulate your own emotions accordingly?

Of course, this doesn't mean you never show emotions. And it doesn't mean that an emotionally intelligent leader is never angry or even stressed. It is more about when this happens, and how much control you have over it. "The fire and breaks," as Margolis puts it.

Feeling inspired? Discover 8 radical lessons from 150+ pioneering organizations to spark change in your workplace.

Join us to explore these transformative insights and unlock the first chapter of our book, on the house! GET YOUR FREE CHAPTER NOW!

Social awareness

After understanding your own emotions, it is vital to recognize those of others. A leader works with people, each with their own reactions and emotions. Your job as a leader is not to predict them but to recognize them. Read the room, read individuals. Emotional intelligence in leadership is about making connections with others. It is about empathy. It is about having a feel for what is actually happening.

This part will be slightly different for flat organizations, as social awareness also goes for understanding hierarchy and formal structures. However, social awareness is at least as significant in informal structures—arguably more.

Expectations of bosses or stakeholders also need to be met. Social awareness benefits everyone: team members, those up the ladder (if present), and yourself.

Relationship management

Relationship management in emotional intelligence refers to the ability to influence others—a core quality in a leader. It is about pushing others in the right direction.

No, not pushing. Moving.

However, it is also about keeping everybody on the team happy and inspired. This part is crucial for a leader hoping to lead people from being just a group to becoming a team.

Relationship management is how we channel awareness of ourselves and others into our interactions with people around us.

As defined by Goleman, these four competencies all relate to each other. All four are equally necessary for leadership that demonstrates emotional intelligence.

But how do these leadership skills relate to flat organizations?

Emotional intelligence in leadership without hierarchy

Is there leadership without hierarchy?

Absolutely. It is just more dynamic and fluid.

As Jo Freedman wrote in 1970, “structureless groups” do not exist. Where there are humans, structures are formed.

"We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one," Freedman wrote. Her theory regards the women's liberation movement, but it applies to all forms of groups and social structures, including corporate teams.

So, flat organizations don't lack leaders. In fact, everyone is on the shortlist to become a leader.. One project requires different skills than another, and natural leaders can vary.

For team members, this means you can be a leader in one project but answer to one of your former “subordinates” in another.

How do you do that? How do you become a good leader—especially an emotionally intelligent one—in a non-hierarchical management structure?
Click to tweet

How does emotional intelligence in leadership enter this flat organization?

Just as in any other organization, a good leader inspires. With dynamic leadership, emotional intelligence is more important because a leader is not necessarily the most senior. Or even because they are the best leader. It is because the team selected this individual to lead them in this project.

Interpersonal relationships are more essential since team members answer to you because they actually want to, not because they are simply required to do so. Because you have their back.

How do you do that? How do you become a good leader—especially an emotionally intelligent one—in a non-hierarchical management structure?

  • Get to know (really know) all the players. Whether or not the teams themselves are also dynamic within your organization, make sure you know everyone. Like, actually, really, authentically know them, to the point of knowing their typical state of mind. In what field do they excel, and how can that help the team and the project? How can you facilitate any particular team member to give their best? How can you motivate them? By knowing their emotions, and how to read them, you can gauge what they offer and what results they can deliver.
  • Listen. A good leader listens. Actively. Remember, keep the big picture in mind (i.e., the successful completion of the project). Good communication builds trust and collaboration. Communication is more than words—be sure to “listen” to body language as well.
  • Trust & transparency. The essence of flat organizations is that they're built on trust. Transparency feeds accountability. Be open about decisions and the grounds on which they were taken. As a leader, you don’t have to be the master of all trades, but you do need to be willing to listen, respect the expertise of others, and change your mind—if that's what is clearly best.
  • Build relationships. Within the team, between teams, with customers, everywhere you can. This makes you a central pillar of the team. Relationships are what most work/business is about in the end. (And most of life too, for that matter.)

Emotional intelligence is a skill; it can be trained. That makes it different from IQ, which you were essentially born with.

Train your emotional intelligence, and you will have a lot going for you as a leader.

Want to learn more about this, how to cut out middle management or how to run better meetings? Or do you want to learn how you can actually implement this in real life, and how Buurtzorg did it? Go check out the Corporate Rebels Academy and join our revolution today!

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
Read more
Oct 29, 2023
From Sociocracy to Deep Democracy: Comparing Decision-Making Methods
Lennard Toma Written by Lennard Toma
When it comes to decision-making, there are several types of consent to choose from. Which one is best for your organization? Should you…
Read more about From Sociocracy to Deep Democracy: Comparing Decision-Making Methods
Oct 22, 2023
5 Levels Of Problem Solving: A Framework For (First-Time) Managers
Pim de Morree Written by Pim de Morree
Leading people can be tough. Taking the reins for the first time? It can feel like navigating a maze blindfolded. Many first-time managers…
Read more about 5 Levels Of Problem Solving: A Framework For (First-Time) Managers
Oct 08, 2023
Mastering Group Decision-Making: Striking the Perfect Balance
Lisa Gill Written by Lisa Gill
At the heart of any organizational culture is how we make decisions. In traditional organizations, there usually isn’t a particularly…
Read more about Mastering Group Decision-Making: Striking the Perfect Balance
Jul 09, 2023
Bee-inspired Teamwork: Lessons for Organizational Success
Marc-Peter Pijper Written by Marc-Peter Pijper
As a young parent, I often find myself watching the "Maya the Bee" cartoon with my three children. It's actually quite an enjoyable program…
Read more about Bee-inspired Teamwork: Lessons for Organizational Success
May 11, 2023
Map of Meaning: Change The Meaning of Work Instead Of Organizational Structure
Pim de Morree Written by Pim de Morree
'Why am I here'? Ever wondered that, at work? How much you value the answer to that question, can be outlined with the map of meaning. Read…
Read more about Map of Meaning: Change The Meaning of Work Instead Of Organizational Structure
May 10, 2023
To Decide is Human: The Importance of Effective Decision Making in Organizations
Doug Kirkpatrick Written by Doug Kirkpatrick
Everyone makes a bad decision from time to time - that’s only human. While some bad decisions are obviously more impactful than others,…
Read more about To Decide is Human: The Importance of Effective Decision Making in Organizations
Read all articles

Download: Free Guide

Unlock our in-depth guide on trends, tools, and best practices from over 150 pioneering organizations.

Subscribe below and receive it directly in your inbox.

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.