When you think of the best principal you’ve had in your teaching career, what comes to mind? You might describe someone who is calm, even when faced with high levels of stress, and encouraging of your work. This person might have great relationships with staff and an open door policy, while keeping high expectations for their work. Or maybe this person is able to pause and consider all the facts and emotions involved, before making a decision. These are competencies of someone who has a good dose of emotional intelligence (EQ).
The development of leaders’ EQ is widely accepted as essential to effective leadership in business, thanks in part to the work of authors like Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis and organizations like Six Seconds. Unfortunately, to educators, the concept of EQ within school leadership is still new. Due to this gap in the literature, a group of Six Seconds colleagues and I conducted a study to explore how principals engage EQ to support their leadership practices, and identify the factors that enable o hinder principals’ use of their EQ skills. On May 1st, 2017 I presented this research at the 2017 Annual Conference of the American Education Research Association (AERA), along with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Pennsylvania State University.
The study followed a group of principals in an urban school district in California for one school year. The research included assessments of emotional intelligence (the SEI) and a leadership self-report (the Leadership Vital Signs), along with 4 interventions and 4 focus groups. If you are interested in learning more about this study, please get in touch to get a copy of the paper or learn more about professional development opportunities for leaders in your district.
Key Findings in Principals’ Use of EQ
1. What role do emotions play in principals’ understanding of their leadership skills?
At the beginning of the study, 75% of principals were focused on rational data while 25% were focused on emotional information. Through the interventions and focus groups, principals started harnessing emotions as a strategic resource. Principals expressed recognizing the power of emotions to solve problems and create opportunities. They started a process of opening up, by listening and connecting, accepting vulnerability and empowering others around them.
“It’s helping me with knowing my own emotions, which makes me more effective in working with other people at the site – parents, teachers and children.”
2. How do principals use emotional intelligence to support their leadership at school?
Principals in this study had a practical drive, with problem solving and commitment being their top talents. These leaders found EQ helpful in envisioning their schools. They were able to connect with their own purpose through self-reflection and communicate a vision with shared language. Through this study, principals started using EQ data to gain concrete tools. They expressed being able to use empathy to get others on board and identified an increased sense of confidence for shared ownership with their staff.
“[EQ means] allowing myself not always to be the answer.”
3. What factors at the school level enable or hinder the use of emotional intelligence by principals?
Intrinsic Motivation and Having a Noble Goal (two key competencies in the Six Seconds EQ model) were these school leaders’ top self-identified skills, while Emotional Literacy and Empathy were the lowest. Principals expressed being challenged by the practical demands of the job and the experience of challenging emotions. They identified EQ as essential to enable coping and achieving wellbeing, and placed a high value on relationships to enact meaning for themselves and others.
“Leveraging strengths in motivation and optimism to increase empathy and improve consequential thinking.”
These findings illustrate how EQ skill acquisition is an important component in the development of effective school leaders. The study suggests the need to embed EQ in pre-service and professional development for school leaders. In addition, increased opportunities at the district level should be provided so principals can learn and practice these competencies to become more aware, more intentional and more purposeful.