The Head's view - How to win hearts and change minds

17th October 2008 at 01:00

Once again, the recent televised presidential debates showed US democracy at its best, with candidates battling for hearts as well as minds.

Elections are won and lost in these debates. It's where George W Bush mocked Al Gore's impressive grasp of statistics as "fuzzy math", winning hearts, against Mr Gore's appeal to minds. It's where Michael Dukakis blew a 20-point lead by trying to reason against a "heart over head" challenge as to whether he would seek the execution of someone who murdered his wife. It's also where an unwell and shifty-looking Richard Nixon lost to heart-winning John F Kennedy, though he had better arguments.

There are lessons in this for school leaders. Drew Westen's book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation is being thumbed by politicians struck by his argument that the traditional lines have been Democrat appeals to facts and reason, opposing Republican appeals to the emotional brain. Democrats win when they manage to marry mind with heart, which is why Barack Obama stands a chance. But the Republicans present a strong challenge in the form of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

What is both enlightening and alarming is the degree to which Westen, a psychologist and neuroscientist, draws on experimental results to demonstrate that: "In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins."

It makes me think of the degree to which I use facts and reason to move things forward in my school. By nature, I am more comfortable with reason, but Westen picks apart the brain and shows how we are naturally wired to be led by emotions. His message to politicians is that people vote in a direction that elicits the right feelings. As I read, I found myself pondering the micro-politics of school leadership.

Westen highlights identification as crucial to giving leadership: people follow individuals or causes with whom, or which, they identify. President Bush is the folksy leader who takes his own pillow on his travels, squidges the cheeks of people he meets and can make light of "fuzzy math", even when it is attacking him. People like that - to a degree that means they can forgive his botched foreign policy. Westen's phrase for it is "emotional resonance" and it is the stuff of lipstick-wearing hockey mums who want to win.

To get people following your lead, you need to connect what you are proposing with their emotions. It makes me contemplate how rarely I enter a meeting thinking how something I am proposing will resonate with the feelings of those on the receiving end.

One strategy for this involves the issue of branding. When Republicans called inheritance estate tax the "death tax", they affected emotional resonance from the name onwards.

Maybe it is worth taking things such as school behaviour strategies or development priorities and finding a name that will affirm their message. I know I was thrilled when I realised our five priorities for improving teaching could jiggle to create the acronym "Spice". "Spicing up" teaching certainly resonates better than just "improving" it. It's about finding the emotional connections that win hearts as well as minds.

Huw Thomas, Headteacher of a Sheffield primary school.

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