Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

On October 18th 2015, I was laughing along to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which happened to fall on the day before the Canadian elections. That was until a couple of comments about Justin Trudeau, one of the candidates in the Canadian election, made me sit up and take notice. 

Justin Trudeau’s emotional intelligence

The programme included footage of newsreaders who commented that Pierre Trudeau (Justin Trudeau’s father and a previous Prime Minister) was considered intellectually brilliant, while Justin Trudeau has an emotional intelligence that his father did not have. For the original clip, click here.

John Oliver’s reaction: “Ouch! Emotional intelligence. That is the kind of made up quality that you might find on the report card from a Montessori school. Well done Zaden- you got a squirrel on emotional intelligence! But on actual intelligence, you got a frowning walrus, which is an F.

Emotional intelligence as a ‘made up quality’?

Hang on a minute. A ‘made up quality’?! The thought of emotional intelligence as a ‘made up quality’ is alarming given that I only recently finished my doctoral thesis on emotional intelligence after many years of studying. Having left teaching, I now work as a consultant, trainer and coach specialising in emotional intelligence. My experience as a primary school teacher has given me clear insight into the importance of emotional intelligence.

Emotions in academic learning

Emotions play a huge role in academic learning. One aspect of this emotional influence is that learning something new can often result in uncomfortable feelings, such as frustration or annoyance. Guy Claxton suggests that resilience is defined as ‘the ability to tolerate certain kinds of feeling’ (p.37). It follows that the process of supporting children to become resilient learners involves teaching them to recognise their feelings of discomfort and to understand that these feelings are a normal part of the learning process. I’ve had exactly this conversation with my pupils and the impact is incredible—children verbalise their frustrations and share their feelings with peers while voicing their determination to ‘be resilient’ and move their learning forward independently. Secondly, children simply cannot learn effectively if they are in fight or flight mode. Something an adult may regard as trivial, such as a disagreement with a friend, is enough to create this emotional state for some children. Whether a child shows their feelings or hides them, you can bet that their attention will not be focused on learning until their emotions have been addressed and resolved. Teaching children how to navigate through such emotions is a powerful tool for ensuring they are ready to learn. However, it’s also vital in social interactions, which of course extend far beyond a classroom context. As a teacher, I’ve seen the value of focusing on competencies like self-regulation and empathy—they are key in building meaningful, reciprocal relationships. To my mind, emotional intelligence is the most important element of education.

Addressing John Oliver’s comments

Let’s just say it’s fortunate that my superior skills in emotional intelligence allowed me to navigate through my intense reaction to the thought of emotional intelligence being a ‘made up quality’. I’m delighted to be able to put my knowledge to good use in addressing John Oliver’s comments, particularly in the light of Justin Trudeau’s decisions since he was elected.

Emotional Intelligence

The concept of emotional intelligence was first conceptualised by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. It was popularised by Daniel Goleman in his book, ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ’. This book stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for eighteen months and has sold five million copies worldwide. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to Daniel Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence which focuses on emotional intelligence at work. According to Goleman, ‘our emotional intelligence determines our potential for learning the practical skills that are based on its five elements’ (p.24). These elements are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Within each element, there are a number of competences which shows ‘how much of that potential we have translated into on-the-job capabilities’ (p.24).

How Justin Trudeau engages emotional intelligence

The overview of Justin Trudeau’s first decisions as Prime Minister by Althia Raj demonstrates just how comprehensively he engages his emotional intelligence. He promised gender parity in his cabinet and delivered on this, establishing trustworthiness: a competence within the ‘self-regulation’ element of Daniel Goleman’s model. Within Goleman’s element of social skills, Justin Trudeau drew upon his competence of collaboration and cooperation with the following comment: ‘Government by cabinet is back… We are going to sit down, around the cabinet table, and talk about the solutions (we) need to put forward, what’s in the best interest of Canadians, and how we’re going to deliver on the promises Canadians quite rightly expect us to keep.’ This is in direct contrast to Stephen Harper, the previous Prime Minister, whose leadership style was viewed as a ‘one man style of leadership’. Furthermore, it would seem that Justin Trudeau displays a knowledge of his strengths and limits. This is categorised as the competence of accurate self-assessment under Goleman’s self-awareness element.


Justin Trudeau’s empathy, specifically the competence of leveraging diversity, is evident in his new appointments. His cabinet ministers have a diverse set of skills and experience, which equips them well for their new roles. For example, the new minister for sport and persons with disabilities is Carla Qualtrough, a legally blind paralympian. The new defence minister—Harjit Sajjan—is a decorated veteran of the armed forces and Jane Philpott—the new health minister—is a family doctor.

Justin Trudeau’s empathy was also evident in his personal welcome for the first plane load of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada. This showed his understanding of others (a competence under the empathy element), where he took an active interest in their concerns.

Wrapping up

To conclude, in the words of Daniel Goleman,: ‘Emotional intelligence counts more than IQ or expertise for determining who excels at a job—any job—and… for outstanding leadership it counts for almost everything’ (Goleman, p.13). So the end of term reports from this particular ex-teacher are in. John, unfortunately I have no choice but to award you a frowning walrus for your knowledge of the key role of emotional intelligence in leadership. On the other hand, Justin Trudeau’s squirrel level clearly means that he is engaging his superior emotional intelligence when making decisions which many people have commended. Perhaps we should all aim for a squirrel level of emotional intelligence in the big old Montessori school we call life. What a wonderful world that would be.


Claxton, G. (1999). Wise Up: Learning to live the learning life, Stafford: Network Educational Press Ltd.

Goleman, D. (2009). Working with emotional intelligence, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Raj, A. (2015), Trudeau’s Cabinet Filled With Fresh Faces and Achieves Gender Balance, The Huffington Post. 4th November 2015. Available from:- http://www.huffingtonpost.ca. Accessed 31st January 2016.

The Guardian (2015). Trudeau welcomes Syrian refugees but Canada may not reach target, The Guardian, 23rd December 2015. Available from:- www.theguardian.com Accessed 31st January 2016.