Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders: What Is It & Why It’s Essential

Being a principal involves management of not only operations and curriculum, but emotions and relationships. Discover what emotional intelligence (EQ) is and why it's crucial for effective school leadership.
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Blog date - New Leaders Images
7/9/24
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We’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: the principalship is changing. What once was a role that was largely focused on operations, discipline, and curriculum is now a much more nuanced form of educational leadership. These nuances were especially noticeable during the pandemic, when school leaders had to draw on skills that are much tougher to learn and define. 

This Education Week piece says it best. School leaders “have had to learn to listen to the concerns of burned out teachers without feeling defensive about the policies and routines they helped create. They’ve walked the tightrope of parents’ competing expectations during an unprecedented time in schools. They’ve forced themselves to stop during busy days, making sure both adults and children feel heard during crucial moments.”

Plenty of research shows schools with emotionally intelligent leaders and teachers tend to have higher levels of student engagement and improved academic performance.

As school leaders who have worked to motivate staff and students both during and after COVID-19, you’ve likely entered a much more vulnerable place than usual—a place where understanding and responding to emotions, feeling and displaying empathy, and even addressing your lack of knowledge around specific parts of your role has become central to your daily work. In short, you’ve had to level up your emotional intelligence to a much higher degree than ever before.

But what is “emotional intelligence,” exactly? And, why is it so important for school leaders to pay attention to and work to increase their EQ as part of their leadership practice? We explore all of this below.

What is emotional intelligence?

Definitions abound around the term “emotional intelligence,” and we’re partial to this one from Robin Stern, PhD., co-author of Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders

“Emotional intelligence is being smart about your feelings,” she says. “It’s using your thinking to inform your emotional life, and using your emotions to inform your cognitive life.”

This thinking is two-fold. Not only is it essential to be able to express and control our own emotions, but it’s equally important to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. EQ experts and researchers say that there are four core competencies of emotional intelligence that are central to effective leadership: 

Not only is it essential to be able to express and control our own emotions, but it’s equally important to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others.

Self-awareness

The foundational component of emotional intelligence, self-awareness involves having a deep understanding of your own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations. It also means being aware of your emotional responses when you’re facing stressful situations or tough decisions. 

For example, think about the ways you experience baseline emotions of frustration, fear, or joy. Do you pay attention to how you experience these emotions, and how does your knowledge of your responses and actions factor into your decision-making? If you’re not sure, it might be possible that you’ve “turned down” your emotions. To build your EQ, it’s critical to connect to these emotions, accept them and your actions, and become comfortable with them.

Self-awareness is a fundamental part of EQ, but it’s also the most deceiving. According to research by organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, 95% of people believe they’re self-aware. In reality, only 10-15% actually are. 

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Self-management or self-regulation

Ignacio Lopez, educational psychologist and author of The EQ Way: How Emotionally Intelligent School Leaders Navigate Turbulent Times, says that self-regulation—the ability to control your emotions, behavior, and thoughts—is the core competency of which we’re least conscious.

Lopez says he often works with early- and mid-career principals in particular to improve their self-management. “New leaders are excited, energized, and motivated,” he says. “This often leads us to jump to answers or solutions quickly, overlooking feedback or suggestions from others around us.”

Self-regulation is especially critical when it comes to managing stress. If you’ve ever experienced a “flight-flight-freeze” automatic stress response, you know how tough it is to step back, clear your mind, and make a rational decision about what’s happening in the moment. Self-management gives you the tools you need to slow down, be present, and manage your feelings and impulses. 

For school leaders, regulating emotions starts with being aware that you have emotions that you need to manage in the first place. “Emotions are valuable for school leaders because they need to be aware of the impact they’re having on people when they walk through the door in the morning,” says Dr. Robin Stern. “Emotions are contagious. [School leaders] may be sitting with something that happened before they even walked through the door, like a fight with their daughter…or an uncomfortable call on the way to school from an angry parent. And yet, they have to do their job.” 

Social awareness

If self-awareness enables you to recognize and interpret your emotional cues, social awareness is what helps you acknowledge the cues of others. Our social awareness begins to develop during our childhoods as we learn to pick up on social cues and expectations from the family and friends that are close to us. As we get older, our social awareness continues to grow as we continue to engage with people and communities outside our circles and experience diverse perspectives. 

The key to social awareness seems simple—we just need to be present and listen more, right? That can also be tough for school leaders like you who are constantly being pulled in many different directions, but it’s critical for relaying that you care about the people in your school community. The multitasking we’re often doing means we can miss the subtle emotional shifts happening in the people we lead and interact with on a regular basis—shifts that might give us clues to what they’re thinking and feeling. 

The key to social awareness seems simple—we just need to be present and listen more, right? That can also be tough for school leaders like you who are constantly being pulled in many different directions, but it’s critical for relaying that you care about the people in your school community.

In addition, being aware of others’ behavior can help you connect with your own emotional state or responses. If you’re uncomfortable when someone expresses a viewpoint different from your own, it might prompt the examination of your own beliefs. 

Relationship management

This is where you use the awareness of your emotions and the emotions of others to manage interactions and building relationships.

As a school principal, your role is that of a “lead relationship builder,” and strong relationship management skills go a long way toward fostering collaboration, resolving conflicts, and creating a sense of unity and collective action within your school community. 

Think of relationship management like tending a garden. You might have a baseline understanding of what’s needed in the garden to grow vegetables or flowers—good soil, fresh air, sunshine, consistent watering. But it’s paying attention to the nuances of your garden—which plant might need more or less of those elements—that generates a healthy amount of veggies. It’s no different with relationships. 

As a school principal, your role is that of a “lead relationship builder,” and strong relationship management skills go a long way toward fostering collaboration, resolving conflicts, and creating a sense of unity and collective action within your school community. 

Why is cultivating emotional intelligence so critical for school leaders?

Brushing up on your emotional intelligence skills is critical for several personal and interpersonal reasons:

Enhancing academic outcomes

Plenty of research shows schools with emotionally intelligent leaders and teachers tend to have higher levels of student engagement and improved academic performance. When your principal and teachers understand you, it creates a sense of safety and belonging—both optimal conditions for learning.

Improving decision-making

School leaders with high EQ are better equipped to make balanced and informed decisions. In managing their emotions, avoiding impulsive reactions and taking the time to consider multiple, diverse perspectives before making decisions, it creates a more thoughtful approach that leads to better problem solving and strategic planning

Enhancing communication

As a school leader, you know that where there’s effective communication, there’s also trust, transparency, and strong relationships. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are able to convey their messages both clearly and empathetically, helping everyone in their school communities feel heard and understood. 

Creating supportive learning environments

It’s a snowball effect: when the people in your schools feel heard and understood, they’re going to feel safe and supported. It’s this supportive structure that encourages students, staff, and teachers to take risks, practice agency in their own learning, dive into professional development, and realize their full potential. That’s the kind of positive school climate you want to cultivate.

Avoiding burnout

Stress is part of the job for school leaders—but burnout doesn’t have to be. And, when stress becomes so frequent and overwhelming that you feel emotionally depleted and disconnected from your work, it becomes distress. Emotional intelligence—particularly our own self-regulation—can help get school leaders off the stress roller coaster and manage their emotions. 

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Emotional intelligence is an everyday skill

Emotional intelligence is a big concept. However, it’s the little day-to-day moments that give you a chance to display and increase your EQ skills: greeting students in the morning, walking through the hallway, conversing with teachers, staff, and parents. 

Emotional intelligence is a big concept. However, it’s the little day-to-day moments that give you a chance to display and increase your EQ skills: greeting students in the morning, walking through the hallway, conversing with teachers, staff, and parents. 

As successful educational leaders, your ability to understand and process your own emotions as well as the ones of those around you is not only an opportunity to model the behavior you’d like to see in your school community—but it’s something that can have a profound impact on everyone who walks through your school doors.

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