Emotional intelligence has been an area of interest of ours for a while and the topic is catching fire among more and more of our partners. Several principals we work with are reading and applying to their school leadership one article and book in particular: “Primal Leadership” by Daniel Goleman and two co- authors.
In more than one school, our National Equity Project coach was hired to work with the principal and team on instruction, but found that more basic needs had to be addressed first, namely the poor relations between the principal and many of his or her staff. This is extremely common and can torpedo any efforts to improve instruction or student outcomes. The principal was new and had quickly set about establishing ambitious instructional targets for the school, many of which were explicitly tied to equity and the performance of students of color, but soon realized that many teachers, who had of course been there much longer than this principal, were not adopting the new practices. The principal was demoralized by this “resistance” and the attitude among some teachers that their job was to teach students who were ready to learn, it wasn’t their job to deal with students who were “resistant” to learning. A lot of so-called resistance being dealt with by shutting down, anger, frustration, dismissal, etc.
Our coach began by introducing the work of Kegan and Lahey from their book on How We Talk Can Change the Way We Work and “moving from the language of complaint to the language of commitment.” (An important text in our work.) Then the principal decided to work on her own tendency to default to a language of complaint, and to improve the way she deals with others who are using that language, and our coach recommended the Goleman work on emotional intelligence.
The central idea in Primal Leadership and Goleman’s other work is that the leader’s mood deeply affects the workplace – “mood contagion.” It seems surprising that the effects are so strong and consistent but it also seems perfectly obvious. In schools serving high-poverty communities, the stress level for principals and all staff is extremely high. But we know, and there is research backing it, that a principal who is depressed or anxious and displays this in her interactions with others will exacerbate the already great challenges of her school. And conversely, an optimistic (but not falsely ‘chirpy’) and supportive principal can reduce school stress and help everyone cope and grow.
Sounds a lot easier than it is in practice, and in fact Goleman recommends practicing your “EI” on a daily basis. Coaches can help you integrate such practice into your organization. Primal Leadership also identifies the qualities of a “resonant leader” who “displays moods and behaviors that match the situation at hand [ie, empathy]…but also model what it looks like to move forward with hope and humor.”
Goleman et al writes: “As effective as resonant leadership is, it is just as rare. Most people suffer through dissonant leaders whose toxic moods and upsetting behaviors wreak havoc before a hopeful and realistic leader repairs the situation.” It makes me grateful for our leadership at the National Equity Project.
Now the bonus. I found a free set of Harvard Business Review articles on emotional intelligence including Primal Leadership, enjoy: