Exercising Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: Tips and Tools | Carrie Grimes | 9 Min Read

May 11, 2023

How can we build skills to become more emotionally intelligent school leaders?

This article is the second in a series, investigating the ways in which emotions serve as powerful forces within our school communities, and can be leveraged effectively by school leaders to contribute to organizational and individual outcomes. 

In a recent article, I shared my experiences and perspectives on theory related to emotionally intelligent leadership (EIL).  In my twenty-five years working in educational settings, as a teacher, counselor, administrator, and leader, I’ve come to experience the “schoolhouse” (whether in-person or virtual) and each classroom within it as spaces that are overflowing with emotions. The study of the social experiences and affiliated behaviors which are derived from these emotions occupies a vast array of scholarship; social scientists posit that our social emotions serve as a kind of “glue” within shared spaces, which has the capacity to drive phenomena such as collective effervescence (Durkheim, 1912; Collins, 1998), change, conflict (Turner, 2010), and one’s sense of belonging (Baumeister, 1997). 

The way our community members feel when they are at school has significant implications for school sustainability. Decisions to re-enroll, renew an employment agreement, refer other families to the school, and volunteer time are all correlated with the degree of feelings of satisfaction about the school.  In the domain of independent schools, we can extend these implications to wider social circles, given our multi-generational constituencies. Alumni, retired faculty, parents, grandparents, and alumni parents all embody various feelings about our schools. Cultivating a heightened awareness about the currents of emotion which may be undulating within the community can support strategic efforts related to managing important conversations and school communications.  These communications, in turn, have the capacity to influence stakeholder engagement decisions and loyalty behaviors, such as making a major gift or participating in important school events.  The research reveals “that emotions are, for better or worse, the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life”; hence, it behooves leaders to strengthen their skills in and understanding of EIL (Keltner & Lerner 2015).

In my last article, I provided an initial framework for building capacity for emotionally intelligent leadership by suggesting the adoption of the lens of an emotions scientist. At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, scholars such as Marc Brackett and David Caruso have proven the ways in which this kind of perspective-taking can empower leaders to better understand the tides which are shaping school climate. Practicing behaviors such as active listening, asking those around you how they’re feeling, and paying careful attention to others’ words and actions builds leadership habits that have been demonstrated, both one-on-one and in the aggregate, to contribute to an enhanced sense of trust, the amplification of empathy, and the nourishment of psychological safety for individuals and teams. (Brackett, 2020; Edmondson,1999). We can draw a direct line between these kinds of feelings and positive outcomes for our schools. 

How We Can Build Capacity in EIL

Salovey and Mayer (1990, 1997, 2002) identified four skills of emotional intelligence that are the bedrock for leading effectively: emotion perception, emotion facilitation, emotion understanding, and emotion regulation. Emotion perception involves accurately identifying emotions in oneself and others, while emotion facilitation refers to using emotions to facilitate thinking and shape outcomes. Emotion understanding involves interpreting the meaning(s) of emotions and understanding their connections to behaviors in oneself and others, Emotion regulation involves managing emotions to respond to environmental triggers appropriately and effectively.  As leaders, the facets of emotional intelligence show up in us through our interactions with ourselves (self-awareness and self-management) and through our interactions with others (social awareness and relationship management). 

Skill-building in EIL is no small task. The work begins with developing a working understanding of the science of emotions and extends with a personal commitment to cultivating one’s own awareness through reflective practice and perspective-taking. This foundation provides fertile soil for the growth of emotionally intelligent leadership skills and the affiliated behavior modifications, which ripple throughout the school environment, and its nested ecosystems. The evidence reveals a set of key practices that leaders can take up in their quest to cultivate their own emotional intelligence:

How are you feeling? 

Practice checking in with your own emotional state of being on a regular basis, and identifying how you feel.  Leaders who are able to identify how they are feeling—in a specific way—are more capable of interpreting the emotions of others and then using that data to facilitate behavior. They are also more skilled at regulating their emotions when that is what the circumstances demand. A useful tool for building this skill is the MoodMeter, which is available in the “How We Feel” app, or via the figure below (Brackett, 2023). This evidence-based tool enables users to cultivate greater emotional awareness by aiding in the recognition and naming of emotions and providing insight into the causes and consequences of one’s feelings. The app also integrates strategies to help leaders regulate feelings to achieve greater well-being for the self and others. 

(Brackett, 2020; https://howwefeel.org/)

Make time for Mindfulness

The benefits of mindfulness are well documented across all domains of health care and individual well-being, and include improved self-control, flexibility, concentration, and mental clarity (Davis, et. al., 2011; Adele and Felman, 2004). Regular mindfulness practice has also been proven to advance one’s emotional intelligence; specifically, the ability to relate to others and the self with kindness, acceptance, and compassion (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006; Brown et. al. 2007).  The concept of mindfulness has taken on significant gravity in the zeitgeist in the last decade, but what exactly is it? The accepted definition of mindfulness in the scholarly domains of psychology and cognitive science is “moment-by-moment awareness” (Germer et al., 2005) or “a state of psychological freedom that occurs when attention remains quiet and limber, without attachment to any particular point of view” (Martin, 1997). In this regard, mindfulness is a way of being and not a personal attribute, and it can be developed and practiced through specific activities. Meditation, breathwork, journaling, yoga, and walking are common mindfulness tools encouraged for all leaders, especially those seeking to advance their EIL skills.  Mindfulness practice strengthens your capacity to measure and manage the present moment and recognize feelings and emotions in order to keep them under control, especially when faced with stressful situations. 

Emotional Contagion is a Superpower

Research demonstrates that our emotions and moods transfer from one person to another, both consciously and unconsciously (Hatfield, et. al. 1994). Someone smiles, and you smile back. Someone frowns, and your expression changes; suddenly you feel happy or sad, but you can’t pinpoint why.  Harvard psychologists Goleman and colleagues (2013) found that of all the elements affecting performance in an organization, the importance of the leader’s mood and behaviors had the power to set off a chain reaction: this groundbreaking scholarship revealed that the leader’s mood and behaviors drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else in the community, and directly impact performance across the organization. The overwhelming impact of the leader’s “emotional style,” creates a certain culture or work environment through contagion. Recognizing that as a leader, your emotions are more contagious than those of others, is a critical step in strategically regulating and expressing your emotions for the greater good of the school community.  

Match Mood to Task

Picking the optimal time for personal engagement and effectiveness is a part of leading with emotional intelligence. The ability to pick the timing and mood that suits the task at hand is known as Mood Task Match (Caruso, 2008). Managing emotions in this way can make us more effective as leaders. It’s critical to match the emotion to the task at hand. You might ask these questions of yourself before convening with others. Then, regulate your emotional state to make a match. Is this the right time and place for this task? What are we trying to accomplish in this task? Are we in the right mood to achieve that goal? Where does the task fit on the “Mood Meter”? For example, a leader who is facilitating a team brainstorming activity might opt to engage team members with high energy, animated body language and an upbeat tone. Conversely, leading others in a data analysis activity might require a more subdued approach, and a quieter voice and demeanor. Leaders who can deliberately shift their mood to match the task are more likely to effectively connect with others, and enhance the productivity of the task. 

Engage in Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting refers to predictions of how we will feel about future emotional events (Wilson and Gilbert, 2003). Wilson and Gilbert identified four facets of emotional experience that one can predict: valence (whether the emotion will be positive or negative); the emotion(s) experienced (e.g., sadness, joy); the intensity of the emotion(s); and the duration of the emotion(s). As a leader, practicing affective forecasting about your community serves multiple objectives, all of which enhance emotional intelligence. First and foremost, it provides you with an opportunity to engage in perspective-taking and to consider how others may feel after receiving future news or announcements. For example, if you are planning on giving critical feedback to an employee, taking time in advance of the meeting to wonder about how the information will be interpreted and what other variables might impact that individual’s experience of the news equips you to enter into the conversation more effectively and compassionately. If you have to share difficult news with the broader community, taking time to sketch out and scenario plan the possible emotional reactions of others, and how you will seek to manage them, may be a critical step in mitigating unwanted outcomes, or even crises. Take time to predict how those in your community might feel about future events or news before taking action, so you are better poised to navigate the aftermath. 

The Work Never Ends

Emotionally intelligent leadership is a complex, interconnected set of skills that is never mastered. No workshop, class, textbook, or executive coach can certify you. Like most proficiencies in life, it requires key ingredients such as intention, commitment, and practice. Unlike most proficiencies, it also requires a willingness to gaze inward in ways that may sometimes feel uncomfortable, or reveal our shortcomings in a new light. This discomfort is a harbinger of growth, progress, and personal development. We are ever-evolving as individuals, and the school communities we inhabit are also constantly transforming in novel and unexpected ways.  There will always be new puzzles to solve and endless opportunities to grow these skills. Building one’s skills as an emotionally intelligent leader is part of the “infinite game” of leadership (Carse, 1986; Sinek, 2019)—an enterprise that has no end, no winners or losers, and an infinite horizon. It is part of the ongoing journey of seeking to become a better leader, and along the way, a better human.

Carrie Grimes

Dr. Carrie Grimes is an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations and is the Director of the Independent School Leadership master’s program at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Her research focuses on social identity and community within independent school settings and adult professional learning environments. Prior to her appointment at Vanderbilt, Carrie served on the faculties at Johns Hopkins School of Education and the University of Maryland College of Education. Carrie spent 20 years in independent school leadership, including roles in administration, teaching, counseling, and institutional advancement in schools and programs in California and Maryland. Carrie holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in Applied Psychology from New York University, and a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *