How 5 Emotionally Intelligent CEOs Handle Their Power

The idea that CEOs are demanding and even ruthless Machiavellian types has become something of a cliche in American cinema. From Montgomery Burns on The Simpsons to Bobby Axelrod on Billions, the belief that CEOs will stop at nothing to get their way has become an entrenched stereotype.

Yet, in the modern workplace, the reality is quite the opposite. The most successful CEOs IRL are well-adjusted leaders who know how to harness their emotional intelligence as a way to bring out the best in others.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos uses his self-deprecating humor to make others feel comfortable with him. Elon Musk has thanked Tesla owners on Twitter for taking a chance on his cars when experts said his company wouldn’t work. And then there’s Ford’s former CEO Alan Mulally, who wrote handwritten notes to employees, praising their work.

Whatever business or industry you’re in, making human connections with your customers and the people who work for you is crucial. People want to do business with — and work with — someone they can trust, and trust is built upon humanity.

Here’s how 5 of the world’s most successful CEOs have used emotional intelligence to their advantage, and how it has helped them to garner respect and elevate their leadership.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

The concept of emotional intelligence has been around since the 1995 publication of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s bestselling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

According to Wikipedia:

“Emotional intelligence (EI), also known as Emotional quotient (EQ), is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”

There are five components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-Awareness – Do you know your own strengths and weaknesses and are you willing to admit to them accordingly?
  • Self-Regulation – Do you take the time to think before you speak or act? Are you able to cope with things that are outside of your control?
  • Motivation – Are you motivated by money and power or do you see your work as something you’re passionate about? Are you willing to take on new challenges?
  • Empathy – Can you respectfully communicate with others, especially people from other cultures, religions, and ethnicities?
  • Social Skills – Are you able to argue for your point of view without alienating others?

These are all soft skills, but they impact how well business leaders make decisions, tolerate stress, and manage time, among other things. These are all important factors in whether CEOs earn respect and find success in the organization they lead.

5 CEOs Who Harness Their Emotional Intelligence

Here are some of the best examples of business leaders who have not only inspired others with their success but have earned the respect of the people they work with thanks to their EQ.

1. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX

Elon Musk
Elon Musk stands inside a rocket awaiting assembly. Image: SpaceX Media.

After claims of a higher than average injury rate at Tesla’s Fremont factory, CEO Elon Musk urged workers to report all injuries, adding he would personally visit the factory floor and perform the same tasks as injured Tesla staff.

In an email to workers, Musk wrote:

“No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.

Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.

This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.”

Musk uses some strong phrases in his email, such as “how much I care” and “it breaks my heart.” As leadership and management expert Justin Bariso writes in an article for Inc., Musk’s opening words are touching, but it’s his promise to take action that is truly powerful. “To personally meet every injured employee and actually learn how to perform the task that caused that person’s injury is remarkable for the CEO of any company.”

Key takeaways: Actions speak louder than words. Musk’s offer to work alongside factory workers with a goal to better understanding their perspective shows that he genuinely cares. Although time-consuming for a CEO known for working 80-90 hours a week, this exercise builds empathy and can be motivating for disgruntled employees.

2. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo

Indra Nooyi
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2008. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s huge value in writing thank you notes to employees. During the 10 years Douglas Conant served as CEO of Campbell Soup Company, he turned the suffering business around, putting the focus back on the people who worked there. He wrote 30,000 hand-written “thank-you” notes to his employees, an exercise that required that he pay attention to each and every person in the company.

But what about writing letters to your employees’ parents?

That’s exactly what PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi did after visiting India to see her mother when she took on the company’s top job. Sitting in her mom’s living room, an endless stream of visitors and random people started showing up, telling her mom what a good job she had done raising her daughter. Other than saying hello, the visitors hardly spoke a word to Nooyi at all.

As Nooyi explains on The David Rubenstein Show, she realized her parents were responsible for much of her success and they deserved the praise. “It occurred to me that I had never thanked the parents of my executives for the gift of their child to PepsiCo,” she says.

When she returned home, Nooyi wrote a letter to the parents of each of the members of her executive team. “I wrote a paragraph about what their child was doing at PepsiCo,” she says. “I said, ‘Thank you for the gift of your child to our company.’”

Parents wrote back to her, saying they were honored. Some of the executives even told her it was the best thing that had ever happened to their parents.

Talking to The Boston Consulting Group, Nooyi says the way to hold on to employees is by “hooking them emotionally to the job, through the company’s business model and what it stands for.”

“You need to look at the employee and say, ‘I value you as a person. I know that you have a life beyond PepsiCo, and I’m going to respect you for your entire life, not just treat you as employee number 4,567,’” she says.

Key takeaways: Through her unique and unusual display of gratitude, Nooyi bonded with her executive team in a heartfelt and deeply personal way that helped her build loyalty and morale. No wonder she has a 75% in-house approval rating.

3. Richard Branson, Founder, and Chairman of Virgin Group

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson. Image: Owen Buggy.

Sir Richard Branson, a world-famous entrepreneur, adventurer, activist and business icon has launched a dozen billion-dollar businesses and hundreds of other companies. All this despite the fact he was a dyslexic school drop-out.

Branson is open about the fact that he struggled with dyslexia in his youth. He advocates for better support for young people to help them understand dyslexia as a “different and brilliant way of thinking.” He’s a big supporter of Made By Dyslexia, a charity dedicated to changing the stigma around it.

Just recently, Branson published a letter to his younger dyslexic self on his blog:

Dear Ricky, I know you’re struggling at school and I wanted to give you some advice on how to become the best you can be, even when it’s difficult and you feel like the world is against you… I know you have problems with reading, writing, and spelling and sometimes find it tricky to keep up in class. This does not mean you are lazy or dumb. You just think in a more creative way and struggle to find the relevance in school. Just make sure you turn your frustration with education into something positive. Find things that interest you and pursue them doggedly. This passion is what will keep you going when things get tough — and life is always full of challenges. Your alternative ways of thinking will help you see these challenges as opportunities…

The blog post has been shared more than 26,000 times.

Key takeaways: Branson’s post taps into all five components of emotional intelligence — he’s self-aware and admits dyslexia has been a weakness (and a strength), he writes about coping with a condition outside of his control, he shows that dyslexia was a motivation for his success, he displays empathy for young people who also have the condition, and he puts his point across — his sincere letter to himself and, you could say, other dyslexics — in a caring and meaningful way.

4. Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric

While listening to the brilliant Freakonomics podcast the other day, I came across the story of Jack Welch and how blowing up a factory became a defining leadership lesson (This podcast about how to become a CEO is worth a listen!).

In his mid-twenties, Welch was the manufacturing head of a pilot plant producing a new plastic. After only working a short time at GE after earning his Ph.D., he was sitting in his office across from the plant when he heard a huge explosion. When he looked out his window he saw all the smoke, the roof destroyed and shattered glass everywhere. Incredibly, no one was hurt.

He was called to New York to explain what had happened to the higher ups and says the drive was the longest ride of his career.

Mentally prepared for the worst, he thought he was going to get fired. But instead of being raked over the coals, Welch says the executive — a chemical engineer and former MIT professor — calmly asked him what had happened and if he knew how to fix it.

“He took the Socratic Method with me and did an incredible job of engaging me in learning about what I did wrong in the process. And I learned never kick anybody when they’re down. No one would ever say that I was soft by any means. But they would never say that I beat on anybody when they were down.”

Welch would eventually become chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001.

Key takeaways: Instead of firing Welch, the executive was empathetic, turning an expensive mistake into both a lesson for Welch and an opportunity to innovate. In the end, the failed project resulted in a better product than GE’s risk-averse competitors.

5. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella at the Microsoft Search Summit event in San Francisco in 2010. Image: Johannes Marliem.

Satya Nadella was a relative nobody — a low-profile computer scientist who had been with Microsoft for decades — when he took over as CEO in 2014. And he had a couple of big acts to follow — Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. But he’s proven himself, leading the software giant to more than $85 million in annual revenue while also investing in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, augmented reality and quantum computing.

One embarrassing fail under his watch was the launch of a Twitter bot named Tay that was designed to advance artificial intelligence communication. The public experiment went horribly wrong in less than 16 hours when people started taking advantage of the bot and Tay started tweeting racist and profane comments, prompting Microsoft to shut the project down and later apologize.

The engineers who worked on Tay must have felt mortified by the whole experience. So you imagine their surprise when Nadella sent them an email, which included the following:

“Keep pushing, and know that I am with you… (The) key is to keep learning and improving.”

He also urged the staffers to take the criticism in the right spirit while exercising “deep empathy for anyone hurt by Tay.”

In an interview with USA Today, Nadella says it’s critical for leaders “not to freak people out, but to give them air cover to solve the real problem.”

“If people are doing things out of fear, it’s hard or impossible to actually drive any innovation,” says Nadella.

The team went on to create Zo, a new AI chatbot that was launched last year and so far, so good.

Key takeaways: We’re only human and everyone makes mistakes. Nadella’s email showed his employees that he has their back. By encouraging them to learn from the experience, rather than scold them over a public failure, he motivated them to continue giving the project their all.

Sharpening Your Emotional Intelligence with Practice

One of the most powerful ways to put emotional intelligence into action is to learn the difference between thoughts, feelings, and actions, and how these three interact and affect us in different ways.

In order to sharpen your EQ, start by practicing empathy. Whenever you feel yourself getting into a disagreement, pause for a second and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try and see things from their perspective.

When you make mistakes, step back and examine what went wrong so you can learn from what happened and do better next time. Think about what motivates you and take note if you are motivated by money and power rather than something you care about.

While your IQ may not change much over your lifetime, you can certainly work on increasing your emotional intelligence. Psychology Today outlines six key abilities that will increase your emotional intelligence:

  1. The ability to reduce negative emotions.
  2. The ability to stay cool and manage stress.
  3. The ability to be assertive and express difficult emotions when necessary.
  4. The ability to stay proactive, not reactive in the face of a difficult person.
  5. The ability to bounce back from adversity.
  6. The ability to express intimate emotions in close, personal relationships.

Regularly practicing these key skills and being self-aware when it comes to your emotions will help increase your EQ over time.


While it’s true that steely determination and even greed often drive performance and profits, it’s an approach that no longer fits in most modern workplaces. Emotional intelligence characterizes the most successful and human organizations. And the business leaders above use EQ to their advantage, earning respect within their companies and expanding their business.

What tends to set these executives apart is a level of disciplined self-awareness that helps them develop as leaders faster than the average CEO, as well as knowing how to put together a complementary team around them.

While most leaders know that emotional intelligence is a key to their success in businesses, developing it is a lifelong objective, not a quick exercise. And for CEOs who hold people’s careers in their hands, achieving a level of EQ is a responsibility.

At Pagely, our own CEO Joshua Strebel’s EQ makes our day to day that much more enjoyable. We’re treated as family here, and we never doubt that both Strebel, and the COO (who happens to be his wife) Sally, have our backs.

We have previously shared leadership lessons from Phil Knight, Co-Founder of Nike.

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