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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6
Interview

Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

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    Key emotional intelligence skills can help any school leader be more effective and take care of their school community, says ASCD author Ignacio Lopez.

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    LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
    Interview: Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader
    Credit: Photo courtesy of James Richards
      Ignacio Lopez is deputy provost at National Louis University. He is an educational psychologist, author, and leader focused on helping educators and education organizations develop inclusive, emotionally intelligent, and culturally relevant learning environments. Over his 20-year education career, Lopez has been a high school teacher, administrator, college dean, community college president, district advisor, and elected school board member in Illinois. Lopez is the author of several books, most recently The EQ Way: How Emotionally Intelligent School Leaders Navigate ­Turbulent Times (ASCD, 2024).

      What two emotional intelligence skills would you say are most important for education leaders?

      Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence frames emotional intelligence into five buckets: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. I would look at your question in terms of early-career school leaders and late-career school leaders. I think for all leaders, self-awareness is the number one skill. We should always be getting better at that.
      The second most needed skill is tricky to say, but when I work with early- to mid-career principals, we always look at self-regulation as a skill to improve. Self-regulation is particularly key for new leaders because, in my experience, new leaders are excited, energized, and motivated. This often leads us to jump to answers or solutions quickly, overlooking feedback or suggestions from others around us. I often ask new principals to challenge ­themselves on “impulse control” or self-regulation, to ask themselves questions like, Have I listened enough before making a decision? Am I reacting ­impulsively or taking the time to consider other responses?
      An important EI skill for late-career leaders is different. I’ve been studying late-career leaders, trying to understand the emotional intelligence skills they need—and I think they need to develop or sharpen their skills around motivation. This involves a leader asking herself, Why am I doing this? Should I keep doing things this way or do I need to change it up to be effective? We’ve all worked with leaders who get jaded. They’re like, Ah, why am I still doing this? A leader needs to have a sense of motivation, of purpose, and they may need to rethink how they can refresh that motivation.

      You’ve written that self-regulation doesn’t get the respect it deserves as an emotional intelligence skill. What do you mean?

      Some people define leadership as the classic image of someone standing at a podium or up on stage—someone who’s talking at people rather than with them. But I think that sort of leadership persona shouldn’t exist anymore—and I would argue that it doesn’t work. For effective emotionally intelligent leadership, self-regulation is so important because it’s the skill of having your strength under control—and that can be hard to do. As leaders, we’re going to be in situations that can fluster us or make us angry, so how do we keep our tempers under control? How do we keep our emotions and reactions under control? I argue we do that through practicing self-regulation.
      I do think self-regulation doesn’t get the respect it deserves; it’s undervalued as an EI skill. Self-regulation—or lack of it—is often the first emotion people see a leader display. Self-awareness involves practices a leader might do in their office or reflecting on the way home. Self-regulation skills, on the other hand, are more visible; the principal is in a classroom or the boardroom and they’re reacting and everyone sees it.
      Self-regulation can also help us come into an understanding of our passion in action. A lot of us, as young leaders, lead with passion. But we also need to be realistic about whether something you want to set as a goal can be attained, and how you can ­delegate to make that goal attainable—as opposed to thinking, I’ll just keep leading with passion and things will work out. In education, we all have passion—and that’s great—but we need to be realistic about what can and cannot be done. Sometimes we need to lead with principles over passion and that takes a ton of self-regulation.

      Part of emotional intelligence is slowing down. If you’re in a room with teachers and other leaders or parents, put your phone away. Be present.

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      You’ve said good leaders need to slow down and acknowledge their co-workers’ emotions. How can a principal do this when there are many demands on their time?

      There’s a world of urgency when we work with children and families. But as a leader, you are a model for creating an emotionally intelligent culture. Part of that is slowing down. In terms of slowing down for emotions, I think about three practices. First, listen—but listen with your eyes. If you’re in a room with teachers and other leaders or parents, put your phone away. Put your laptop away. Be present. We tend to think that as leaders, we can multitask. But when you have families or teachers in the room and they notice you on your phone, it sends a message. And it’s counter to slowing down.
      Second, consider whether you’re truly building relationships with your teachers and staff. Are you slowing down to be real about the humanity behind these relationships? It goes beyond just asking, “How are you doing?” I think we can tell the relationships that school leaders have with their teachers and staff by the questions they’re asking them about their lives. A principal might ask, “How are you doing?” Or he might go deeper and ask, “Did you ever finish getting your car repaired?” Or, “How was your son’s soccer tournament?” We need to get better at human-related questions.
      Third, in building relationships, leaders must encourage healthy ­conversations about emotions. Like, it’s OK if we’re angry or anxious around a situation and people want to talk about it.

      Can you tell me about a time when you slowed down and made space for teachers’ emotions?

      A few years ago, I was an administrator at a school and our teachers were about to go on strike. There was a negotiation going on, and our faculty was concerned and anxious about this looming thing. Teachers were experiencing so many emotions, wondering how long they might be out of the classroom, worrying that maybe they wouldn’t get paid, and so on. So, there was an urgency to slow down and make space for these emotions. I had to figure out a way to be seen not just as an administrator, but as a person, so I offered “care conversations with Dr. Lopez” for anyone who needed them. If you needed to talk to me during this time after school, I would be there to take off the administrator hat, be in conversation with you, and listen. I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew I had to figure out how to bring folks under the banner of caring and relationship, to let folks know I was hearing them.

      You’ve said good leaders can get a sense of the “system anxiety” in their school during difficult times and know how to help staff feel safe. How can leaders do so?

      Emotionally intelligent leaders have a sense of when staff and faculty are really anxious about something. The more you’re seeing or hearing with your eyes, the more you’ll sense when staff are anxious, whether about big societal issues, like inflation, or around something connected to their teaching, like what grade level they’ll teach next year. There are system-level anxiety seasons in a school, such as when grades are due, and then there are unplanned things that happen in society—like COVID. In either scenario, good leaders know how to gain a pulse around that anxiety and ease teachers’ worries. They’ve surrounded themselves with a leadership team that’s got their ear to the ground, but they’re also walking the building, seeing folks in the hallways, in the cafeteria, and picking up on moods and trends.
      If you discover system anxieties, call them out and address them. Take any measures within your control (like letting staff know “We’ll get this key information out to you by Friday”) that can bring that anxiety down. When our teachers were going on strike, a teacher might’ve told me they were concerned about a certain aspect of the situation. I’d tell them, here’s what I can do to help, here’s where you can go get more information, here’s some resources available in the community. What I wanted to do—and I think some administrators might push back on this—was to communicate, “Listen, I recognize that I’m on the side of the administration. In a school system, you’re sort of on one side or the other, but that doesn’t mean we stop being human.” The contract pieces were out of my hands, but I still wanted to show teachers that I was there for them. People wore red to show support, so I put on a red pin in my meetings with teachers.

      As a leader trying to create a culture of emotional intelligence, I’ve had to lead with a sense of vulnerability and be open about that vulnerability.

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      If I walked into a school with an emotionally intelligent culture, what might I see?

      When I think about an emotionally intelligent school culture, I think about what does it look like, what does it feel like, and what does it sound like? In terms of what an emotionally intelligent school looks like, a visitor would see images of welcoming and also of celebration of diversity and inclusion. You would see fewer directional signs—like go that way, don’t do this, and do that—and more signs that communicate “We welcome everyone. We see our students.”
      For example, an administrative team that I was on years ago decided to put up motivational posters all over the school building to create motivation and inspire our students as part of an emotional intelligence focus. But when our students saw the generic motivational posters on the school walls—showing things like adults playing golf and abstract quotes about “challenge”—it was a total disconnect. One principal had the idea to replace those generic posters with posters that showed our students’ images. So, we had students create motivational quotes and used photos of our own students. We filled the building with images of our students beside their words about motivation.
      In terms of what you would feel, an emotionally intelligent school culture feels warm, it feels inviting, but it also feels safe and secure. If a stranger walked into the building, there would be politeness and welcome, but also some guidance on where to get ­assistance.
      As to what you’d hear—this is one of my favorites. What does emotional intelligence in a school sound like? I think you’d hear celebration. You’d hear students talking about how they’re feeling, and teachers responding to that, providing an accommodation if needed. In an emotionally intelligent school, students can share what their needs are, and teachers can share back in a kind and honest way.

      What strategies can leaders use to help a school culture be more emotionally intelligent?

      Self-awareness and reflection are key. In my experience as a leader trying to create a culture of emotional intelligence, I’ve had to lead with a sense of vulnerability and be open about that vulnerability. Self-regulation also comes into this, and social awareness, motivation, empathy, the whole combination of EI. I remember as a younger school leader realizing, Wow, I talk a lot. I used to hold instructional leadership team (ILT) meetings, but when I mentioned “our ILT meetings,” teachers would chuckle. I eventually found out that they talked about the ILT meetings as the “Ignacio Lopez talks” meetings. Then it became funny—because finally someone had the courage to say, we need to get our teachers more engaged in these discussions. At the time, I had a mission for de-siloing and de-privatizing teaching and learning, getting teachers into each other’s classrooms in a way that was about getting better, practicing non-punitive teaching, exchanging strategies—cool stuff. To make that happen, I needed to take a step back as a leader and think, OK, how can I listen more?
      At the end of that year, I gave my faculty and staff a survey that asked three questions: What should I stop doing? What should I start doing? What should I keep doing? That one strategy was life-changing for me as a leader, because it showed teachers that I was vulnerable, and it gave me effective feedback about my leadership. Their answers helped ground my next steps in creating a culture of emotional intelligence.
      Through that survey, it became clear that there were teacher leaders who wanted to do more, who said, “Hey, instead of you holding and leading all those meetings, why don’t you stop and let us do those meetings.” For me, it was an epiphany. I’d been thinking, I can do what’s needed to make change, so I’ll just do it. But I realized I had to trust my teachers more and recalibrate my passion and principles in terms of when this work would get done—and how and by whom. I still do that survey at the end of each year. Every leader should have some pulse check on their efforts.
      Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.

      The EQ Way

      A reflection tool for leaders navigating difficult times—and difficult emotions—in their schools.

      The EQ Way

      Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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