Evidence and Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Myaamia Leadership

Setting the Scene

Sitting at our Annual Meetings and Winter Gatherings over the years has been an interesting experience as a Psychologist, Myaamia Community Member, and researcher for the Myaamia Center all at the same time. Each year, we gather as an entire myaamia community on only a few occasions.  As a community member, I feel the energy in the air as everyone says ‘aya’, catches up on one another’s lives, and embodies our cultural practices.  This is something many of us don’t get to do on a regular basis. The resulting experience? Emotions!  We all feel something, whether that be excitement, curiosity, respect, love, hope, nervousness, overwhelmed, or any number of other emotions.  Most often, these exist outside our awareness, but are directing our behaviors behind-the-scenes.

2019 Annual Meeting General Council, Photo by Doug Peconge

Yet, as I sit and observe the formal portions of the events, I notice there is one person who openly displays emotions on a public scale.  Akima shows a wide range of emotional responses to the many incredible things that are going on within the community – demonstrating his emotional intelligence!  These emotions seem to range from disappointment over wrongdoings, sadness over losses in the community (literal and metaphorical), happiness about achievements/births/positive events, pride for those doing great work, and hope for how current endeavors will pay off for future generations. This emotional range sends an important message: it is good and healthy to allow ourselves to show all of our emotions.  

Akima, Chief Lankford, displaying happiness regarding a recognition within the tribal community, Photo by Karen L. Baldwin.

Emotional intelligence is critical in leadership, for reasons I’ll dive into later in this post, but particularly because of the many stereotypical ways that Native people are portrayed in the media.  Native people are stereotypically portrayed as stoic and not expressive of our emotions.  As a result, the emotional intelligence and resulting expression of emotion by tribal leaders is necessary to show our community that feeling one’s emotions is an important component of living well.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) has been a topic of much interest dating back to research in the early 1920’s when it was claimed that some people use a “feeling function” to understand the world; in essence, they think with their hearts.[1] Myaamiaataweenki reveals a similar sentiment within the myaamia community as we refer to thinking. For example, I could say iišiteehiaani ‘I feel thus in my heart’ or I could say eeleelintamaani ‘I think of it in such a way’ when talking about my thought process. The former is a form of the word ‘heart’, suggesting that we have a way to discuss thinking with our heart/emotions; whereas, the latter is talking about thinking as a cerebral process.

Within the Psychological literature, EI has been defined as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”[2] EI develops throughout our lives, and helps us navigate our social contexts. This level of development, however, varies from person to person and results in varying levels of competency with four distinct, but related skills that govern how we manage our emotions.[3]

Perceive Emotions

The first is our ability to perceive the emotions that we are experiencing as well as the emotions others are exhibiting.[4] When we interact with others, there are many emotional cues they give off (tone of voice, facial expression, physical gestures, etc.) and our ability to pick up on those is a core component of this first skill.  Also part of this first skill is our ability to then effectively express the emotions we are having.  Being congruent in what emotion we are experiencing and the emotion we are expressing is critical.  For example, rather than laughing when we are uncomfortable (common experience), demonstrating our discomfort through our facial expression and behaviors is important for others to pick up on it. This helps others know when and how to interact with us in our everyday lives.

Use Emotions

The second ability is our ability to use those emotions to promote effective thought processes.[5] Since emotions are one communicator of needs, this ability concerns how an individual uses those emotions to meet the needs that the emotion is communicating.  Sometimes, we ignore our emotions (and therefore our needs) in order to either (1) compartmentalize so we have the energy to carry out other daily tasks or (2) to avoid the negative emotions altogether. Regardless of the reason, this ignoring of emotions means our needs are not being met.  As such, an emotionally intelligent person is able to “sit with” their emotions and problem-solve how to meet their needs. 

Understand Emotions

The third skill is our ability to understand our emotions, both understanding the ways we represent our emotions in our language, but also the ability to recognize the relationship between our many emotions.[6] Because emotions are layered, we often experience emotions in reaction to other, more core emotions.  For example, anger is considered a reactive emotion.  When we feel hurt or betrayed at our core, we often then experience anger on top of that. This third skill is the ability to recognize the interplay between the betrayal and anger, so that we can act out of the core emotion (rather than acting out of the anger, which tends not to help us).

Manage Emotions

The final skill is our ability to manage our emotions.[7] An individual who is effective with this skill has the ability to manage their own as well as others’ emotions. The first step with managing our emotions is to accept them for what they are.[8] Beyond that acceptance, this skill requires the individual to determine the unique ways to cope with the emotion over time. This is highly individualized as something that enables catharsis and stress relief in one person could cause stress in another.  A person high in this skill also possesses the interpersonal and communication skill to help others with the management of their own emotions. 

Emotionally intelligent individuals are shown to have greater mental health, can communicate and discuss their emotions, have parents who are socio-emotionally sensitive, cope with emotions effectively, and are generally non-defensive.[9] So, what is the connection between this idea of Emotional Intelligence and our community?

Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

For the Myaamia community, we have both formal and informal positions of leadership that operate within our cultural ways of being. However, in the academic world, leadership is defined as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”[10] Leadership is an inherently “emotion laden process.”[11] As a result, EI is critical for effective leadership; in order to be successful, an effective leader must have the ability to perceive, use, understand, and manage emotions in self and others.[12] A leader who displays EI can significantly impact the emotions of the people they lead.[13] In organizational settings, high EI in leaders can lead to increased responsibility in those they lead as well as greater senses of respect and warmth/support within the organization as a whole.[14] For Myaamiaki, we often look to our leadership for answers to communal problems that are also inherently emotion laden, which means tribal members, at times, look to tribal leadership with regards to how to display emotions about a given situation. For me, this does increase my sense of personal responsibility to contribute to my tribal community and contributes to my sense of overall support and warmth from the community.  The display of genuine emotions that we see in many of our tribal leaders communicates to me that I am allowed to have my own feelings and share those with the people with whom I have established trusting relationships. 

Akima, Chief Lankford, displaying a sense of pride in a myaamia youth at the 2019 General Council Meeting, Photo by Karen L. Baldwin.

Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

Individual-Level Benefits

Though folks at the Myaamia Center, including myself, are currently working on a Myaamia model of living well or health and well-being.  To conceptualize the impact of events on our individuals lives, we use the concepts of keehkaapiikasici ‘breaking’ and pilakioni ‘mending’ as a way to define a process for life and overall health maintenance. This breaking and mending is a normal part of the process of living well as myaamiaki. A large driver in this mending process is our emotional intelligence; how can we use our emotions to guide our behavior in ways that help us to live well as Myaamiaki and as citizens of a global community? These emotions will help us to develop meaningful social relationships, increase our productivity and success in our occupations, improve physical and mental health.[15] In sum, emotional intelligence can have a ripple effect on all the facets of our ways of living, contributing to our well-being. 

Community-Level Benefits

However, the benefits are not solely on the individual level.  Because we are, at our core, an interconnected community, the well-being of our community as a whole is dependent upon the well-being of all individuals therein.  Connected initially through our kinship ties, we possess a sense of connectedness as a community that means we all feel the impacts of the ups and downs experienced by each individual. The more Myaamiaki that demonstrate high levels of EI, the more others feel the impact of that EI on their own lives, ultimately strengthening the community as-a-whole. 

2020 Winter Gathering Stomp Dance, Photo by Jonathan M. Fox


Just like most other facets of our life, EI is something that can change and grow over time. As a result, the display of EI on behalf of tribal leadership promotes its growth in individual tribal members and ultimately growth in the entire Myaamia community.  Though records of emotional expression of tribal leaders historically are sparse, I like to imagine that this is a thread that has promoted the continuance of our people throughout time.  EI might be yet another factor in the incredible resilience of our people, a factor that unites and strengthens us all.


[1] John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence?” in Salovey & Sluyter (Eds), Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Implications for Educators (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 3-31.

[2] Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer, “Emotional Intelligence,” Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, Vol. 9, (1990), 189.

[3] Peter Salovey and Daisy Grewal, “The Science of Emotional Intelligence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 14(6), (2005), 281-285.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (New York: Bantam, 2004).

[9] Mayer and Salovey, “What is Emotional Intelligence?,” 3-31.

[10] Martin M. Chemers, An Integrative Theory of Leadership (United Kingdom: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).

[11] Jennifer M. George, “Emotions and Leadership: The Role of Emotional Intelligence,” Human Relations, Vol. 53 (8), 1027-1055.

[12] McCleskey, “Emotional Intelligence and Leadership: A Review of the Progress, Controversy, and Criticism,” International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol. 22 (1), (2012), 76-93. Salovey and Grewal, “The Science of Emotional Intelligence,” 281-285.

[13] Janaka Gooty et al, “Leadership, Affect and Emotions: A State of the Science Review,” The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 21(6), (2010), 979–1004.

[14] Maamari, B. E., & Majdalani, J. F. (2017). Emotional intelligence, leadership style and organizational climate. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 25 (2), 327-345.

[15] Salovey and Grewal, “The Science of Emotional Intelligence,” 281-285.

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