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Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders

Developing emotional intelligence in school leaders is critical to meet the needs of a staff that is engaged in developing a common vision for their school, maintaining a focus on high achievement for all students, and creating a school culture of trust and respect. An overwhelming body of research is clear that school culture and ethos can increase engagement, productivity, and accelerate student learning. Great school leadership and positive school culture matter. One is not more important than the other, nor can either exist independent of each other.

Over the past decade, we have called for principals to be instructional leaders, lead learners, learning leaders, managers, data gurus, and hiring experts, among many other duties. However, the field of education has been slow to recognize the importance of emotional intelligence as a key skill for principal success. Michael Fullan, one of the leading authorities on educational leadership, has indicated that the future of the school administrator in the 21st century appears to be tied more closely than ever to establishing successful and harmonious relationships. Well, the future is now! We can no longer ignore the importance of emotional intelligence for school leaders and the impact that leadership has on school culture.

Emotional intelligence, or EI, can be defined as an “ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p.189). Fullan (2001, pg.74) stated, “In a culture of change, emotions frequently run high,” and added that emotional intelligence, creating successful relationships, and leading change will be the responsibility of all future principals.

Since 2007 I have been supporting, coaching and working with school leaders and emotional intelligence. Recently, I had the opportunity to facilitate a Leadership Academy in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and a Principal Conference in Austin, Texas focused on emotional intelligence and school leadership. During the workshop school leaders shared challenges they have faced, explored strategies for dealing with emotions and participated in role play of introducing a new initiative. Here are five key strategies and takeaways from the day that can help all school leaders improve their EI:

  1. E + R = 0. This success formula, inspired by the work of Jack Canfield, is one of the most important strategies to apply every day at work and in your personal life. The E stands for Event, the R for Response and the O equals Outcome. We can never control or change the events in our life. However, our outcomes will depend on our responses to these events. Some responses are disciplined, purposeful and thoughtful that lead to great outcomes. Other reactions (not responses) are impulsive and irrational and lead to poor outcomes. What is even more alarming, as leaders our responses or reactions become others’ events! We need to be in more control and not let our emotions hijack us to get the outcomes that we desire.
  2. Demonstrate and communicate empathy. Empathy is one of the most important dispositions of successful leaders. The ability to demonstrate and communicate empathy is a skill. When presenting to groups of school leaders, I usually show a short clip of President Reagan’s speech to the country shortly after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. The “Great Communicator” speaks slowly, sincerely, displays empathy, and connects with the millions of Americans who were watching in their living rooms that evening. His mannerisms, gestures, voice, and tone communicated nothing but empathy for the families of the astronauts, NASA, and all Americans.  
  3. Differentiate between opinions and feelings. If a principal asks her staff, “How do you feel about the new school schedule?” she’s likely to hear opinions—it cuts into instructional time, there is not enough time for teacher planning and collaboration, etc. An emotionally intelligent school leader probes further, encouraging staff to share their emotions about the situation and why they feel that way. Educators may feel afraid that the new schedule won’t allow them to be as effective, or sad that they weren’t teaching their favorite class anymore, or angry that their individual planning time had been reduced. Leaders with strong EI are able to differentiate between opinions and feelings, and empathetically and specifically address each person’s concerns. Emotions can be intense, disruptive, de-motivating, motivating, exhilarating, positive, and negative, and they can challenge the leadership abilities of any person.
  4. Identify “triggers” that can hijack your emotions and prevent you from being your best. We all have things that test our patience. It is only human. When a leader is aware of those triggers, they are better prepared to control their emotions and behaviors. We coach school leaders to be prepared to “respond” to events and not “react” to them.
  5. Separate logic from emotions. Debate and question. Pause before acting. People are not creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion. Imagine that you get an unexpected message from the superintendent or a school board member requesting that you call them back immediately. The emotional part of the brain responds quickly, “What’s wrong? Did I not handle something properly? What problem am I going to be asked to take care of?” Our emotional response is meant to protect us, but it can also challenge our ability to stay under control in stressful situations. We have all probably regretted hitting “Send” on an email that was written quickly in an angry or anxious state. This goes back to E = R = O. Press pause, get control of your emotions and take some time to think logically about the situation and your response. This pause, coupled with an appropriate response will help reduce the potentially negative consequences of acting on emotion. 
  6. Balance patience and persistence. Be empathically assertive. Richard Dufour once shared, “If you wait for everybody to get on the school improvement train, that baby will never leave the station.” We have also learned that to go fast, go alone, but to go far, go together. Balancing patience and persistence is an art for the emotionally intelligent leader. It’s important for school leaders to know when to nudge, push, pull, pause, and change course, if needed. Skillful leaders constantly have their hand on the thermostat and know when to turn the temperature up or down in leading school change. Some leaders mistakenly think they have high EI because they are sensitive and have feelings. Rather, emotional intelligence means being attuned to the feelings of others. 

Emotional intelligence is a critical skill for school administrators to build trust, increase staff engagement, and create a culture where teaching and learning thrive. For leaders to navigate the complex environment of education today, they need feedback and support to not only improve their skills as instructional and learning leaders, strong collaborators, and effective communicators, but also how to deal with the emotions of others as well as their own.

There are as many emotional intelligence frameworks as the number of emotions a student or teacher experiences during a typical school year. But, for the purposes of this blog, I would like to highlight the six core skills of emotional intelligence from Genos International.

  1. Self-Awareness: What limits our ability to overcome challenges? Deal with change? Manage conflict? Reduce stress? Improve our leadership effectiveness? The answer is our self-awareness, or the skill of perceiving and understanding one’s own behaviors and emotions. Our emotions drive our behaviors. Leaders’ behaviors influence culture, which impacts results and the performance of others.
  2. Awareness of Others: How do leaders know when to slow down or speed up when implementing change? How do they understand different working styles, when to dig deeper for more feedback, or how to explore what people are thinking and feeling? Those who have a skill in perceiving others emotions can navigate the challenges associated with school improvement. These leaders are usually skilled at listening, affirming people’s thoughts and feelings, and helping them feel valued. 
  3. Authenticity: Despite good intentions, some leaders may come off guarded, blunt, or appear that they will do anything to avoid conflict. This can lead to a culture of mistrust and artificial harmony. Leaders skilled in emotional expression are effective at giving feedback, fostering trust, and expressing their thoughts, opinions, and feelings at the right time and in the right way.  
  4. Emotional Reasoning: Leaders skilled in emotional reasoning have a talent for not only analyzing facts and technical information, but also considering their feelings and the emotions of others when making decisions. Feelings and emotions play a key role in the decision-making process. A leader’s ability to understand the questions, concerns, and their staff’s commitment level before launching a new initiative will likely determine its success. 
  5. Self-Management: One of the seven principles of positive psychology identified by Shawn Achor in his book, The Happiness Advantage, is called the Zorro Circle. Research suggests leaders must be able to control everything within a small circle around themselves first before they can expect to have a positive impact on their organization or culture. Leaders who are skilled at self-management have a positive impact on culture.
  6. Positive Influence: Successful leaders must be able to influence the moods and emotions of others in a positive way, and create a work environment where people can find productive ways of responding to challenges and obstacles. These leaders are empowering to work with and easily motivate those around them.

We have all heard that culture trumps strategy. To cultivate a thriving culture, we should focus on developing the emotional intelligence skills of our school leaders and provide them with the tools and resources needed.

 Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination,  Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.

About the Author Bobby Moore has spent more than 25 years in education as a teacher, principal and superintendent. As a President & CEO of EPIC Impact Education Group, he partners with schools and professional associations across the country to implement high-growth strategies, professional learning for leaders, strategies for creating high performing and positive cultures, as well as keynoting at conferences and school districts. Please contact him at Dr.BobbyMooreed@gmail.com, Epicimpactedgroup.com, or follow him on Twitter @DrBobbyMoore.


Bobby Moore