Why emotional intelligence is vital in modern leadership

A passing comment from a parent got this leader thinking about the importance of emotional intelligence in school leadership – and why current leaders need to model this skill for their successors
5th August 2022, 8:00am


Why emotional intelligence is vital in modern leadership

Balancing, empathy

In the unnatural heat of late July, I stood alongside numerous other Year 6 parents, applauding as my daughter Annie, in her de rigueur signed “Leavers 22” shirt, and her classmates took a last lap around her primary school campus.

As we watched the headteacher, no doubt exhausted from another stressful academic year, interact brilliantly with his colleagues and with parents, supporting very emotional children in both their happiness and sadness, one parent turned to me and said: “You cannot coach that.” 

It was an off-the-cuff comment but it was recognition, in that moment, of the huge reserves of compassion, empathy, patience and emotional intelligence that you need as a leader.

After all, you are tasked with managing often highly charged, difficult situations on an almost daily basis, from parental demand and staff issues, to accountability metrics and external events - while also being responsible for your own performance and wellbeing.

School leadership: the importance of emotional intelligence

There has rightly been a growth in awareness of the importance of emotional intelligence in leaders - but it was not always so. I recall once being told, in feedback from an internal interview, “not to be so emotional and empathetic”.

Thankfully such views seem a thing of the past and it is good to hear more school leaders now say very clearly “my compassion is not my weakness”.

The parent’s aside also showed that it’s something the community notices.

Yet the comment also suggests that we cannot teach these skills to leaders - they are either there or they are not. Is that true? The comment got me thinking.

Certainly there are a lot of differences of opinion about how emotional intelligence and compassion in leadership can be taught in training or passed on to future leaders through CPD. 

But while there may not be a specific course to become emotionally intelligent, it seems clear to me that there are ways leaders can approach this - especially if they are new to the role.

Time to talk - and to listen

For myself, whenever I entered a school as its new head or principal, the first thing I did was to talk to all the staff. And I mean all of them. 

I say talk, but perhaps listen is a better word. Listen and understand their concerns, how they feel about the school, what is good and what needs my focus. I then follow these threads with my daily interactions around the school with the students, staff and parents. This is, fundamentally, about finding a human connection with people.

It’s the subtitle of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard’s book Compassionate Leadership that explains effectively what leadership is about: ”How to do hard things in a human way.” 

As school leaders, we are being asked daily to take hard decisions and actions but ensure that we do this in a way that is both professional and compassionate, and in a way that means people understand why we are doing what we are doing.  

Simon Sinek made it clear in his “Golden Circle” theory that if we start with the “why” as leaders, not “what”, we are more likely to be effective leaders in the organisation and take people with us. 

In short, compassionate leaders use their emotional intelligence to focus on relationships. They don’t hide behind process or higher external authority. 

When school leaders are told not to send late-night or weekend emails, not to hide behind the desk in a closed-door office, to walk the halls and be highly visible for the school community and to be approachable, they need to do it. 

As a school leader, you need to say sorry when you get something wrong, and own it even if it is not personally yours to own. It’s also OK not to know everything in a meeting or a conversation, and a little humility and modesty goes a long way. 

Successful leaders do this daily.

A little goes a long way

These “little and often” actions by a school leader build relationships and allow a greater understanding of people.

School leaders need to know the names of their colleagues as a basic requirement - even if 200 people work in the building. It is important. 

Helping out front of house in school, shovelling snow, calling late students in from break, getting fans into hot classrooms, keeping watch on the bustle of the lunch queue, and saying “good morning”, “hello”, “good evening” and “great job today!” all builds this positive, caring culture in schools. 

One school leader told me once that he couldn’t afford to hold a grudge with anyone he is responsible for or be petty because it would damage the success of the school. 

That’s emotional intelligence.

It sounds simple but in the day-in, day-out toughness of running a school, it can be tough to live up to this every day.

Indeed, the past few years have never been more trying for leaders - the pandemic, heatwaves, political changes, media criticism and more. Being a leader in the 2020s is no walk in the park.

Yet by supporting and enabling people, it means they feel valued and they are much more likely to fulfil their potential to make a key positive difference and contribution to the school.  

Sinek also makes it clear that the greatest contribution of a leader is to make other leaders. The role model for compassionate leaders comes from the leader. That is where you learn it, you see it modelled in action - it’s almost an on-the-job apprenticeship, reinforced with CPD. 

Education’s next great challenge

I recently sat on a panel of outstanding school leaders for the British Council’s Education Exchange webinar series on wellbeing and leadership, and all my colleagues spoke about the necessity of the school climate and culture they set in school systems through policy but also through daily practical action.  

This is especially important given the difficult wider climate being faced around rising living costs, meagre pay awards and the ongoing high-stakes accountability. We are facing a retention and recruitment crisis in schools for teachers and support staff and we need a work environment that is not toxic to be in.

Compassionate leadership and emotional intelligence skills are what the TTF 2030/Varkey Foundation/Unicef School Leadership Global Network, which I am a member of, is focusing on heavily this year as international education priorities

As we face challenges ranging from future pandemics to more inequalities, war, conflict and climate change, this is the challenge of the 2020s for leadership. 

And it is a challenge that we must rise to, not only to make sure that we guide our communities forward through uncertain times but also to model for future school leaders the way to lead with confidence, compassion and emotional intelligence. 

Rob Ford is director of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova

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