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Is emotional intelligence relevant to a fighting force?
  1. Emma K Daffey-Moore
  1. Correspondence to Sqn Ldr Emma K Daffey-Moore, Station Medical Centre, RAF Akrotiri, Akrotiri BFPO57, UK; emma.moore115{at}


Over the past decade, the expectations of what the fighting force are tasked to deal with has changed significantly. The high-risk, high-tempo operational environments in which personnel have deployed in recent years have been complex and diverse, creating a spectrum of conflict where having EI would be an essential attribute. EI could be beneficial for the organisation and the individuals involved, and historically, there has been a distinct lack of EI. For it to be better used within the military, the entire concept needs to be explored, accepted and integrated into training throughout the rank structure; from the recruitment process to throughout the career development with support from senior commanders. This article discusses the relevance of emotional intelligence (EI) to the British Armed Forces.

  • Emotional intelligence
  • Military
  • Psychology

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Key messages

  • The environments in which people are now deployed are complex, creating a spectrum of conflict that would benefit from an individual having emotional intelligence.

  • A large amount of criticism has been levied at the concept of emotional intelligence, the main argument being that it has nothing to do with intelligence.

  • Research has shown that an organisation will benefit from individuals who possess significant amounts of emotional intelligence.

  • If emotional intelligence is going to be incorporated into the military, the concept needs to be fully integrated and accepted by military commanders.


Emotional intelligence’ (EI) relates to an individual's emotional and social skills and comprises four dimensions—self-awareness, emotional management, self-motivation and self-management skills1–3 (Box 1). There are few constructs that have captivated the attention of theorists, researchers and practitioners with such intensity as EI;2 consequently, there has been a breadth of literature discussing and analysing the concept and, in some cases, questioning the concept altogether. The main arguments in favour focus on the idea that EI can be taught, that it is not inherent in an individual, and that it has nothing to do with intelligence.3 While these references may seem outdated, they have been acknowledged as definitive pieces of research, and as such, were part of the extensive recommended reading list for the Senior Officer Study Programme, run by the Portsmouth Business School, at Royal Air Force Cranwell, which the author completed in 2014.

Box 1

The four domains of emotional intelligence3

  1. Self-awareness or emotional attunement and people skills. The individual is able to read his or her own feelings, and has the capacity to empathise with others and take other people’s feelings into account.

  2. Emotional management. The individual is not overwhelmed by their own emotions, such as sadness and anger, and that they remain appropriate to the situation. ‘It can be seen as an ability to cheer oneself up, or stop a temper tantrum in mid course by, for example, going out for a walk’.

  3. Self-motivation. This is connected with the extent to which an individual is good at delaying gratification. ‘A conclusion from this research is that those capable of delaying gratification (ie. Waiting a while to take a reward rather than taking it immediately) were more socially competent and self-reliant than individuals who settled for immediate rewards. Those intent on obtaining immediate rewards had trouble subsequently postponing gratification, tended to be more argumentative, had low self-esteem, and coped badly with stress’.

  4. Self-management skills. This refers to the ability to handle situations without being overwhelmed or subsumed by them.

In recent years, there has been a significant amount of negative criticism towards the whole concept of EI.3 Petrides et al2 believed that it is ‘indistinguishable from personality’, a view shared by Eysenck4 who believed that assessing EI is equivalent to analysing other personality traits, which bear no significance to actual intelligence. Others feel that the concept of EI is invalid because it is not a form of intelligence, and that it is defined too broadly, and has no intelligible meaning.5 It has been suggested that EI should be seen as an emotional competency and so should be taught through a specific training process.6 From a health perspective, having EI is about having the ability to understand the patient. Searches of the literature of current practices focusing on EI in the workplace and within a military setting found a number of recent results regarding the US military in the media. The lack of EI in the British military has been documented clearly.7

There are many views on the characteristics of those who join the military and the concept of a fighting force;7 ,8 some like Einstein were quite scathing describing ‘the man who enjoys marching in line and file’ as ‘the odious militia’,9 while Gibbs and Dixon believe as a result of this prejudice, there was an inability to attract emotionally intelligent individuals to military careers.7 ,10 Military leaders often failed as a direct result of their interpersonal flaws and their inability to relate to others.10 Dixon7 described that the apparent intellectual failings of some military commanders were not due to lack of intelligence, but to their feelings, and said, ‘The susceptibility to cognitive dissonance, the tendency to pontificate and the inability to adjust the riskiness of decisions to the real situation are a product of such neurotic disabilities as extreme anxiety, under stress, low self-esteem, nervousness, the need for approval and general defensiveness’.7 These qualities resulted in leaders who were unable to make decisions and who were unapproachable to their subordinates. He believed that these factors influenced military decision-making and the resulting leadership failures, and his study highlights one perception of how a fighting force has previously failed due to the lack of their leaders’ EI.7 Such a conclusion clearly points to the need for EI within an effective fighting force.

EI in the military

An ex-naval commander believed that like many high-risk professions, the military tends to prioritise technical ability and training11 over self-awareness and EI. The traditional methods used to train military personnel focus on known areas of combat, teaching them how to approach a variety of complex scenarios, using drills, repeated until they knew exactly what to do and how to react;11 EI has not been seen as an essential asset.11 Leaders did not want their soldiers to question things or to be emotional in the heat of the battle7 as they wanted them merely to obey orders.12 Over the past decade and two Middle Eastern wars, perceptions have changed13 as the lack of EI has been identified.14 Soldiers are being tasked with missions only to discover that the boundaries between the conflict and humanitarian assistance are often blurred, forcing them to make unprepared decisions. Having EI and self-awareness makes this decision-making process slightly less challenging.

In terms of leadership, it has been shown that many leaders currently lack the EI to be able to have constructive relationships with their subordinates.15 This lack of EI affects the individuals involved and also the organisation,15 and all commanders at all levels should be more self-aware. Some leaders may not express themselves clearly to their subordinates, leading to a blurring of messages and what may appear to be a lack of interest. With no one willing to give these leaders feedback on their communication skills, they are often unaware of any confusion or distress that they are creating.12 Unfortunately, the military rank structure often prevents subordinates from vocalising their concerns up the chain, leading to a quiet collusion, which only exacerbates the issues.12

EI in the media

The media have highlighted a number of US military leaders who have allegedly found it more challenging to deal with personal issues relating to their subordinates,11 suggesting a lack of EI. In the US Navy, a number of commanding officers have had their contracts terminated for poor performance, which included bad judgement, unprofessional conduct and creating a substandard command environment, rather than for technical inability or tactical failures.11 In 2010, 18 naval commanders were relieved of their duties for what were described as fundamental flaws in their self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, self-control and ability to adapt to dynamically changing working environment.11 There were obvious gaps in the leadership training that they had received throughout their careers;14 mentoring, supervision and coaching seemed to be lacking, linked to a lack of EI14 (Box 1).

EI psychology

The psychologist, Daniel Goleman,16 suggested that the ability to control one's emotions and certain emotional qualities, such as ‘initiative and empathy, adaptability and persuasiveness’, are essential criteria for a successful work environment.16 Lackey14 believed that Goleman's examples of EI correlate well to what the military refers to as ‘situational awareness, common sense, maturity and the “whole person concept”’. As these qualities are not easily identifiable in an individual, the military seeks currently to recruit leaders who are ‘flexible, adaptable and persuasive’, to be successful in the ‘fast-paced and ever changing environments of operations’.14 In other words, military leaders need EI, and Goleman's interpretation of EI may be exactly what a fighting force needs to incubate, promote and foster.14

EI in the workplace

Dr Cary Cherniss17 supported Goleman's theory that EI ‘can help people be more effective at work’, believing that it ‘influences every aspect of organisational effectiveness’, and for it to have a positive impact, it must be integral in all working relationships and supported by the culture and the ethos of the organisation.17 For EI to be successfully employed throughout a fighting force, support for the concept needs to become part of the culture and the relevance it has to a fighting force must be explained. The sheer enormity of implementing such an education programme into the military would require senior leaders to be involved from the outset.14

EI testing

Employees who recorded higher levels of EI when tested were rated as ‘easier to deal with, more interpersonally sensitive, more tolerant of stress, more sociable, and with greater potential for leadership than those with lower scores’.18 ,19 Having the capacity to deal with the complexities of military life, the social pressures and personal issues that arise uniquely from being within the military would assist all parties involved in a variety of situations both at home and on the battlefield.20 The importance of teamwork is emphasised from the start of military training, in the classroom and on the training field. The bond that such teamwork creates reinforces trust among the recruits, which fosters courage in the face of life threats on the battlefield.15 The military is an organisation, which expects its personnel to engage fully.3 Having the ability to be more outgoing would stand any military person in good stead, enabling them to feel more at ease in a variety of social settings.3 Tests such as the Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test19 (Box 2) could be introduced as part of the recruitment process to assess an individual's suitability to join the military in the first place. However, if research showed that EI could be taught, this testing would not be necessary, and an education and training programme could be introduced instead.

Box 2

The Mayer–Salovey–Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT)19

The MSCEIT has eight tasks: two to measure each of the four branches of emotional intelligence.

Branch 1. Perceiving emotions.

Participants are asked to identify emotions in faces and what emotions are conveyed by pictures of landscapes and designs.

Branch 2. Using emotions to facilitate thought.

Participants are asked to compare emotions with tactile and sensory stimuli and identify which types of emotion best facilitate a type of thinking.

Branch 3. Understanding emotions.

This tests a person's ability to know how one emotional state changes into another, for example, frustration into rage, and what circumstances cause emotional intensity.

Branch 4. Managing emotions.

Participants are asked how they would feel in different hypothetical situations, and how they would manage others.

EI in healthcare

When people are ill or distressed, they need help, and this is paramount in the military setting due to the type of work being undertaken, especially on Operations, when the need is for ‘someone who is useful, not simply well-intentioned’,21 recognising the person's feelings because of what is being heard or seen.21 In healthcare, problems are usually identified using science, and it is often not until this has been assessed that the professional will attempt to fully understand what is actually happening for the person.21 Having EI as a medical professional is essential.21


This paper has explored the definition of EI and discussed its relevance to a fighting force. Analysis of the concept of a fighting force and the types of personality that the military attracts concludes that historically, military personnel were not required to possess EI; it was not a prerequisite to joining. Military leadership failed on numerous occasions as a consequence. The benefits of having increased awareness by introducing training programmes and education have been evaluated. It was suggested that if the military were to introduce EI into the training programme, it should be commenced on entry to the military and then continued all the way through with the support of the leaders from the top. For military medical personnel, this paper raises issues that may well be relevant to their own practice while dealing with the casualties of conflict and within their own changing role. The author concludes that EI is indeed relevant to today's fighting force—one might say a sine qua non.



  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.