Leaders emerge in all communities and draw upon their personal attributes to influence people. Successful leaders often have an attraction that captures the interest of others and motivates them to pursue the vision of the leader. History presents ample case studies that highlight how humans are susceptible to the range of extremes when influenced by a person who has a leadership advantage. To emphasise this point, consider what advantage Einstein, General Patton, Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and Geronimo had as leaders? Sure, these are historically significant personalities but each had an edge or advantage that allowed him to stand out and influence large numbers of people. This essay will not advocate that leaders need to make unprecedented change, rather it will challenge readers to reflect on their skills that can be capitalised upon to create an edge that influences a team in a meaningful way. Like a commercial business, if a leader does not have a competitive advantage, the environment will consume the leader and reduce performance, influence, the ability to build a team and mission accomplishment.

Why an advantage?

In the first instance, John C. Maxwell (2007) equates leadership with influence. The many qualities that go to achieving this have been a conversation for as long a one person has led another. The undeniable goal for a leader is the desire to inspire and motivate individuals and teams. These are the nuggets that nestle at the sometimes-unreachable depths that define the effectiveness of a leader. Finally, all teams want to achieve and be successful but with a leader who is limited, this human desire can be left unsatisfied. At this point, it is fair to ask, “can’t all leaders influence, inspire, motivate and achieve to some degree?”

Generally, the answer may be yes, however; obstacles exist that restrict a leader from becoming better, realising potential or excelling. Knowledge, experience and judgement is the cocktail that delivers confidence, insight and capacity. Knowledge is the easiest element to gain and is attained through institutional learning, in the workplace and through self-development. The extent of knowledge acquired is determined by the quality of information provided and the commitment of the learner. Experience is built by organisations providing new opportunities for people to practice. The value of the experience is determined by the standard of the activity and the level of the participant’s engagement. Finally, judgement is the most difficult element to nurture. There is a strong correlation with childhood upbringing and how knowledge and experience is provided and acquired throughout life. These three elements can be seen as obstacles or enablers. Either way, they determine the strength of a leader.

Colonel Tim Collins (2003), Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment in Iraq 2003, delivered his famous eve-of-battle motivational speech to his unit before going into combat. In this moment, he drew upon his ability to connect with people by relating to them on a level that was informed, came from a voice of reason and authority, and appealed to the sensibility of individuals and the expectations of the British Army. In that speech he characterised his leadership as committed and empathetic, an approach that inspired and motivated soldiers. This was his advantage. Unfortunately, not all leaders have discovered their advantage, care to have an advantage, or do not realise they need an advantage.

Based on this rationale, that means leaders may not be in tune with who they are, who their people are and how to reconcile those two elements. Therefore, to explore what a leader’s advantage could be, developing emotional intelligence will enlighten the unknowns. Moriarty (2017) draws the conclusion that emotional intelligence is the key to leadership success and when combined with cognitive intelligence a leader can switch styles to suit situations. Knowing who you are and who you lead allows a leader to determine how to lead.

A contemporary Australian example is the current Governor General, General Sir Peter Cosgrove. He gained knowledge and experience starting as a platoon commander in the Vietnam War and progressed to the highest military office. Judgement grew with this and today he honourably demonstrates this as the Queen’s representative. The images of him in East Timor celebrating freedom with the East Timorese, as the Chief of the Defence Force delivering decisive and sensitive news, and as the Governor General consoling Australians during times of disaster, finely demonstrate emotional intelligence. That is his advantage.

Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman’s view of emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness, which can be discovered with reflection. This valuable necessity requires time to allow leaders to contemplate who they are with questions such as:

  • Do I need motivation or am I the motivator?
  • What are my core values and beliefs?
  • What personality type am I?
  • Who are my role models?

Secondly, self-management relies on the leader assessing the situation and using their skills and attitude to influence within that environment. Questions to ask may be:

  • Is my behaviour appropriate?
  • Am I doing this for my pleasure or personal gain?
  • Am I considering others or the organisations?
  • Do I have a glass half full or glass half empty outlook?

Thirdly, social awareness requires the leader to assess the needs of others and the team. Questions may be:

  • Do I know what my people need and want?
  • Do I know the organisation’s expectations and standards?
  • Do I empower others?
  • Do I communicate effectively?

Finally, Goleman culminates his theory with relationship management where leadership is delivered after the previous three elements have been examined and understood. After peeling away the detail, this narrows the idea to applying your known self, while managing your negative tendencies, to meet the needs of the individual, team and organisation. A few examples of emotionally intelligent leaders who use this as their advantage are:

  • Colonel Hal Moore – 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment (We were Soldiers movie)
  • Colin Powell – Platoon Commander in the Vietnam War who, after 35 years, rose to become US Secretary of State.
  • Jacinda Ardern – current Prime Minister of New Zealand.


A successful, impactful leader has an edge that other leaders do not, but not all leaders will discover this or believe they have an advantage. To be successful in private enterprise, a business needs a competitive advantage that is sustainable, for without that the business will either fail or remain mediocre. In the military, soldiers and officers deserve leaders who seek to be their best and who, by developing an advantage, give promise that individuals and teams can succeed. Emotional intelligence is a framework that can assist a person to find their edge; it may even be the advantage they seek.