Why feelings matter in health-care leaders

Study finds trait that can make a difference for leaders at medical centers—emotional intelligence.

When leadership openings have arisen in some of America’s elite hospitals, boards and CEOs almost reflexively look for candidates who have all the traits you’d expect—decisive, resourceful, fiscally astute, and outstanding in project execution. But what about their feelings?

As the world of academic medical centers becomes more complex, highly matrixed organizations, with revenues that run into the billions of dollars, many are beginning to weigh the value of a candidate’s so-called emotional intelligence, be it for an opening for a top physician, researcher, or administrator. Emotional intelligence—the capacity to recognize one’s own feelings and those of others, to motivate one’s self, and to manage emotions effectively in one’s self and others—increasingly is a key competency for health-care leaders, finds new research that tapped Korn Ferry Hay Group experts and expertise.

The study, published in a peer-reviewed academic journal, provided unique insights on the upward paths of more than 270 leaders at the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. In what may be a first, this work looked at a group of medical leaders’ rise across a dozen years. Because these physicians had participated in an internal, leadership development program, which included a 360-degree assessment by Korn Ferry Hay Group (using the firm’s Emotional Competency Inventory, or ECI), data on their emotional intelligence could be explored.

The study found that 118 physicians (43% of the group) who were subsequently promoted showed higher scores in three EI competencies?change catalyst, achievement orientation, and self-confidence. Meantime, the 48 MDs (18%) who received not one, but two, leadership promotions, showed higher total ECI scores and higher scores in 10 of the 18 EI competencies.

“Our work supports the importance of emotional intelligence for physician leaders,” said Signe Spencer, a senior consultant with Korn Ferry Hay Group and a co-author of “Emotional Intelligence and Physician Leadership Potential: a Longitudinal Study Supporting a Link.” “Their EI competencies, research indicates, are important as they lead others through the big challenges of a sector that comprises 18% of the US GDP and has been swept by changes like the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.”

Health leaders who rose in a dozen years

The study examined 327 emerging leaders in an academic medical center’s internal development program, 272 for whom data was available and consent was given. Those promoted once (43%) scored higher in three emotional intelligence (EI) competencies; those promoted twice (18%) showed higher scores overall in an EI assessment and in 10 EI competencies.


The study did not attempt to assess participants’ success when promoted into formal leadership roles, including as department chairs or to terms on the institution’s board of governors or to an enterprise-wide committee.

The study found that older leaders had higher scores on EI competencies of empathy, emotional self-awareness, organizational awareness, and transparency. Women and men did not differ in their overall score on the emotional intelligence assessment, though females did have higher scores on managing conflict. Another finding: Although surgeons are legend in medicine for being demanding and hard-charging, there was no difference between them and non-surgical physicians in the overall scoring on the emotional intelligence assessment.

Spencer noted that this observational research, which shows correlation but does not attempt to prove causation, could broaden the discussion in health care about emotional intelligence. It’s a field pioneered by internationally renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman and his colleague, Richard E. Boyatzis, an esteemed organizational theorist. Both have worked with the firm.

If further studies deepen the link between emotional intelligence and successful health care leaders, organizations in this field may wish to consider teaching it to see if rising stars can increase their capacities, Spencer said. The work she co-authored also notes that emotional intelligence has been widely regarded as teachable and an important attribute in the telecommunications and manufacturing sectors, as well as for Ph.D. scientists.

The study appeared in the Winter 2015 volume of the Journal of Health Administration Education.