The Fulbright program is essentially concerned with fostering the leadership skills of grantees and alumni. In his classic text “What Makes a Leader,” Daniel Goleman (1996) observed that what distinguishes great leaders from merely good ones is emotional intelligence, characterized by qualities such as self-awareness, empathy, and ability to accept failure. This blog post explores how the Fulbright program enhances emotional intelligence and why that matters more than ever.

The Fulbright award is a recognition of exceptional talent and success. As grantees and alumni, we have every reason to feel special and proud of ourselves.

At the same time, Fulbright activities are unique in ways that they expose us to other brilliant minds, helping us to recognize the limits of our own capacity. As award-winning reporter David Carr (2011) wrote of his work at The New York Times: “If you can’t find somebody smarter than you at The Times, or somebody who can help you think a matter through in an altogether new way, you are not looking very hard.” I believe this same holds true of the Fulbright community. 

For instance, my Fulbright Gateway orientation, organized by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in Jackson, Mississippi in 2013 brought together grantees with vastly different backgrounds. Among them was a genius Swiss astrophysicist, a prized author and women’s rights activist from Jordan, a Nigerian medical doctor involved in breakthrough cancer research, a famous South African jazz artist, and other highly skillful individuals. 

Throughout the one-week Gateway, representatives of the IIE urged us grantees to interact with each other over dining tables, bus trips, workshops, and other activities, rather than confining ourselves to people and ideas we had already familiarized with. 

The importance of unprejudiced dialogue

Such open communication has also been strongly encouraged by the Fulbright Finland Foundation. Thanks to this extraordinary environment, I have experienced epiphanies in each of the countless Fulbright events I have attended over the years, while my networks have expanded to encompass the entire globe.

Moreover, what most Fulbrighters I have met in these activities have in common is that they do not like to boast about their own accomplishments. Instead, they are genuinely keen on getting to know different people, coming up with thoughtful questions and listening carefully to the answers. 

While such humility and curiosity may be innate qualities, I believe this behavior at least partly results from the Fulbright program’s insistence on the importance of unprejudiced dialogue across spheres. There seems to be consensus among us Fulbrighters that, regardless how path-breaking or successful we are in our own careers, we are never “too knowledgeable” to learn new and unexpected things from different people.

With this blog post, my aim is to demonstrate that what the Fulbright program does to us, actually, is enhance our emotional intelligence. 

In his classic text, Daniel Goleman (1996) described emotional intelligence as consisting of high levels of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, motivation, and social skills. According to Goleman, people characterized by high self-awareness know and feel comfortable talking about their limitations as much as their strengths. 

Empathy manifests as ability to listen and as sensitivity to other people’s different backgrounds. Motivation reflects as seeking out creative challenges, loving to learn, and eagerness to explore new approaches. Socially skilled people tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances, managing to find a common ground with people of all kinds. 

"According to Goleman, high levels of emotional intelligence create climates in which information sharing, trust, fairness, and learning flourish. My experience of the climate in all the Fulbright events I have attended coincides perfectly with this description."

According to Goleman, high levels of emotional intelligence create climates in which information sharing, trust, fairness, and learning flourish. My experience of the climate in all the Fulbright events I have attended coincides perfectly with this description.

Emotional intelligence in great leaders

The Fulbright program is concerned with fostering the leadership skills of grantees and alumni. Goleman (1996) finds that what essentially distinguishes great leaders from merely good ones is, precisely, emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligent leaders are characterized by strong performance, while being able to speak accurately and openly.

Recent examples show how the emotional intelligence of leaders matters now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic presented the world with an unprecedented, complex challenge. There were no clear antecedents about how this virus would transmit, mutate, what the economic and psychological consequences would be, and what kinds of measures, medicines and vaccines could help control and cure the disease.  

Political and academic leaders with high emotional intelligence were likely to respond to the pandemic by publicly recognizing the limits of their own knowledge ahead of this new threat. Such leaders would rapidly reach out to experts and leaders across fields and nations, eagerly forming coalitions in effort to bring brilliant minds together to come up with best possible solutions. 

Rather than feeling like turning to other highly skilled people for help would compromise their own excellence, leaders characterized by high self-awareness would look forward to learning in the process. 

The primary motivation of emotionally intelligent leaders would be to come up with creative and sustainable solutions to the problem per se, rather than being to prove that they have all the answers to themselves. Emotionally intelligent leaders would also be able to feel and express empathy – towards people who have fallen ill or lost beloved ones or who have suffered because of the economic consequences alike.

Goleman observes that leaders with high emotional intelligence are also known to be frank in admitting to failure. Despite serious efforts, many countries and regions have failed in their measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. By admitting the mistakes made in the past, self-aware leaders have been able to move on, patiently trying new options and best practices developed in different parts of the world, while remaining open to constructive criticism from colleagues and the public. Motivated scientists, who did not allow to be taken aback by setbacks and kept incrementing their knowledge and networks, were eventually able to create functional vaccines, which will now prove fundamental for the humankind.

Back in 1996, Goleman had lamented that many training programs consider the building of leadership skills, especially emotional intelligence, a waste of time and money. In his words, “senior executives don’t often give self-awareness the credit it deserves when they look for potential leaders. Many executives fail to give due respect to employees who openly acknowledge their shortcomings. Such people are too readily dismissed as ‘not tough enough’ to lead others.” 

Such reluctance seems to reflect the reality that academia, just as the art world and other sectors of society, is a meritocratic system where we are forced to constantly compete with others – over funding, positions, titles, and other types of tribute (see Saxén 2020). 

As numerous scholars have pointed out, highly competitive systems can easily provoke the need to prove our assumed superiority to ourselves and to others, while perceiving our colleagues as rivals, rather than as potential collaborators (e.g., Bourdieu 1984). 

Academia is also characterized as consisting of tribes and territories, often not sufficiently open to learning from the ideas and breakthroughs outside their own territory. Meanwhile, our societies have become increasingly polarized, with information bubbles allowing people to ignore any facts or perspectives that challenge their pre-existing knowledge or assumptions (see, e.g., Becher & Fowler 2001; Powers & Russell 2020). 

"As Fulbrighters, we realize that our own achievements are not compromised by recognizing those of others."

For all these reasons, it is more important than ever to build on the emotional intelligence we have gained from the Fulbright program. As Fulbrighters, we realize that our own achievements are not compromised by recognizing those of others. Quite the contrary – we will excel much more if we openly accept our own limitations and actively strive to broaden our horizons through empathetic and motivated engagement with others.

References cited:

Becher, Tony & Paul. Fowler 2001: Academic Tribes and Territories. The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre 1984: Homo Academicus. Stanford University Press.

Carr, David 2011: Print is Dead: Long Live the New York Times. In: Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism, edited by David Folkenflik. New York: Public Affairs.

Goleman, Daniel 1996: What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review (reprint in 2015).

Powers, Matthew & Adrienne Russell (eds.) 2020: Rethinking Media Research for Changing Societies. Cambridge University Press.

Saxén, Heikki 2020: Demokratia meritokratian ikeessä. Book review: Michael J. Sandel (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books. Review (in Finnish) available at

This blog post is the second part in a series by Kirsi Cheas. With this series of blog posts, she hopes to invite Fulbright alumni and grantees to share their own thoughts about failure, success, empathy, and resilience in our Fulbright community at large. Read also the first part "Can a Fulbrighter Fail? Rethinking Resilience in Times of Pandemic".
ASLA-Fulbright Alumni Association's President Kirsi Cheas
Kirsi Cheas
2013-14 ASLA-Fulbright Graduate Grantee

Kirsi Cheas is currently a postdoctoral researcher focused on collaborative investigative journalism across the U.S.-Mexico border. She is also past chair of the ASLA-Fulbright Alumni Association, founder and chair of Finterdis - the Finnish Interdisciplinary Society, and international liaison of the U.S.-based Association for Interdisciplinary Studies.