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October 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 2

Heart and Head: A Principal’s Essential Tools

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Perhaps the best tools for school leaders are ones we already possess inside ourselves.

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Leadership
Illustration of a heart inside a human head's silhouette
Credit: Vipul Umretiya / iStock
I once read an exposé in which renowned chefs from around the world were asked to explain their most essential tool. "A sharp knife," several chefs said, while others pointed to their set of utensils or a trusted pan. There were mentions of an immersion blender, a sourdough starter, an electric mixer, a garlic press, a sous-chef. But one chef's answer felt like the truest of truths. His essential tool, he said, was simple: His hands.
As tools go, his hands were trusted, adaptable, and skilled. They had the sensory ability to feel, shape, and mold each dish served in his restaurant. His hands could manage the temperature of meats and transform vegetables into a perfect dice. They could knead bread, sprinkle salt, and fry flounder. They could pick out the most perfectly ripe avocado, place a produce order, crack eggs, and clean greens. This chef had a kitchen full of gadgets, a room full of cookbooks, an entire internet with tips and shortcuts, all of which were helpful—but it was his hands that were essential.
In my years as a teacher, principal, and now deputy superintendent, I have seen countless school leaders face challenges and celebrate successes. I have seen these leaders, much like a chef with a kitchen full of gadgets, masterfully pull from a wide array of tools and resources. I've written extensively about many of these tools: Know your building. Know your staff. Build a network. Connect with the community, with families, with other leaders, with technology. Share leadership. Build systems and processes. Build a team. Build trust.
Yet, also like a chef, the most essential tools we have as leaders are already part of who we are. Of course, our hands are valuable, literally and symbolically—an outreached hand can create strong connections with the people we serve. However, we have two other "essential tools" that come together to address all the challenges faced by school leaders. First, emotional intelligence can help us understand people, recognize what motivates them, and help them be their best. Second, intellectual knowledge can help us process information about instruction, policy, and leadership. Combining the two is where we find our most success in leadership. Said differently, we need to use both our emotion—our hearts—and our intellect—our heads. Let's look at some of the reasons why.

Emotion and Cognition

Being called upon to make decisions—large, small, fast, deliberate, and everything in between—is the core of a principal's work. According to psychological research on how people make decisions, there are two distinct approaches—using our emotions and using our cognition. For some decisions, we typically use just one approach; for example, many people choose a life partner based on emotion, but they choose where they live based on cognition. But in many cases, such as school leadership, using just one approach leads to missteps or imbalance.
If, for example, our decisions are made exclusively from emotion, we are essentially allowing our current situation, feelings, or mindset to determine our course of action. When things get really intense, an emotion-only approach clouds our rational, logical minds. Emotion drives instinct, which kicks into overdrive when we feel angry, disgusted, or unfairly treated.1 That's why emotional decision making may be swayed by frustration, favoritism, bias, impulsivity, and fear.

Combining emotional intelligence and intellectual knowledge is where we find our most success in leadership.

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I recall an incident three years ago in which my school had gone into lockdown after an armed robbery occurred at a gas station across the street from our building. In an after-event review with my team, we discussed what we would do differently if there were a repeat of the situation. Our students and staff were fine, but even so, I was suddenly overcome with emotion—an understandable response, given the intensity of what we'd just been through—and I found myself criticizing everything we had done. I began making irrational, large-scale suggestions for adjustments to our safety plan. One of my colleagues stopped me by saying, "Let's not make sweeping changes right now. We need to come back together when our minds are clearer and we aren't feeling so fragile." It was great advice; almost everything we had done during the lockdown had been in line with our training, with guidance from law enforcement, and with the safety of the students in mind. Upending everything because I was in an overemotional state of mind would have been a mistake.
Yet, a solely cognitive approach can be problematic, particularly if we unknowingly make decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Many times, I have regretted a decision I'd thought was intelligent, thoughtful, and thorough, only to recognize, later, that I hadn't dedicated enough time to consider all the facts, details, and viewpoints. We can't make a smart decision if we don't have the right information.
A cognition-only approach can also fail if we think we are thinking clearly or rationally but don't account for ambiguity, pressure, or unregulated thought. As an example, a principal recently contacted me for advice. He had worked through a discipline situation and was proud of the care he'd taken in sticking to a clinical, distanced approach. In his mind, it had been a perfect process: He identified a student's infraction, determined a consequence, and then communicated his decision to the student, the student's parent, and all involved staff members.
"And now they're all mad at me!" he said. "Everyone! I don't understand—I did everything right!" When I asked why they were upset, he said, "I don't know! I don't understand!" He said the parent had raised her voice and called him, among other things, an uncaring robot. This seemed to be especially bothersome to him.
"Let's consider each individual perspective," I suggested. What was the student's point of view? The teacher's? The parent's? Why were they all turning on him? Why did they feel he was uncaring and robotic? After a long discussion, he said, "I suppose they don't think I considered the precursors to the behavior or that the student felt immediate and authentic remorse. They felt I wasn't treating the situation with enough humanity." He sighed. "And I guess they are right." By relying exclusively on cognition and detaching completely from emotion, he appeared to others as indifferent, impersonal, and unsympathetic.

A Dual Path

The best approach, then, is a dual path that uses both our minds and our hearts. Relying on emotions leads to decisions that are instinctive, reflexive, and natural; using cognition leads to decisions that are controlled, reflective, and analytical. We can monitor and regulate our emotions by deliberately tapping into our cognitive attention, and we can check our cognitive responses by activating empathy, compassion, and morality.

Being called upon to make decisions—large, small, fast, deliberate, and everything in between—is the core of a principal's work.

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What does a dual approach to decision making provide for our teachers, students, and communities? Let's think about how it looks, in practical terms, for those we lead.
When we make decisions using our hearts, others will know:
  • My principal likes me, respects me, and believes in me.
  • I add value to this school community.
  • I will make mistakes, but they do not define me as a person or a professional.
  • My principal is gracious and empathetic.
  • Expectations and goals are set because they are attainable, reasonable, and will make us better.
When we make decisions using our heads, others will know:
  • Decisions are made using data, knowledge, and stakeholder input.
  • My principal knows the policies, guidelines, laws, and mandates of our school and system.
  • My principal understands my contract and negotiated agreement and implements its language in a reasonable and fair way.
  • My principal knows what I teach and can provide helpful feedback so I can continuously improve.
  • There are protocols and processes to ensure a fair, equitable, and inclusive environment.
  • Best practices are implemented, and we evolve with the needs of our students.
A few years ago, my assistant principal and I met with a team of teachers to talk about revamping one of our school's flagship events, an annual arts night where we invited the community to the school to enjoy displays of student work, music performances, and collaborative art projects. We met about this on the very last day of school. The teachers had carefully planned each of their points and were eager to appear proactive and helpful. But it had been a very long year, and I was exhausted. As they began talking, I felt ambushed, as though they were criticizing me and all my previous work. To me, it seemed they were demanding a seismic change in practice and asking me to do all the heavy lifting. I heard myself getting defensive and snappy. My assistant principal stepped in and saved me, suggesting we revisit the ideas in a few weeks over Zoom. After they left, she said to me, "You weren't your best self right there," and smiled gently.
We had a strong relationship built on mutual respect and admiration, and I knew she was correct. I was being too emotional.
When I applied cognition to the situation, it balanced my emotion. The teachers were right—the event did need a refresh. But I wasn't all wrong, either: this was a big change to consider, and though I could lead the work, I knew I couldn't—shouldn't—do it all myself. Later, when we met with the team on Zoom, we discussed how we could improve the event through a task-force approach, thus dividing the ideas, planning, and communication. The teachers were happy, I didn't feel as overwhelmed, and my assistant principal was wise to hold me accountable to leading with both my head and my heart.

We Already Have the Tools

Last summer, I worked with a group of new principals in the northeast part of the country. We discussed some of their worries and talked about developing a problem-solving process to meet the needs of their students, their teachers, and their communities. The conversation felt heavy and overwhelming. They were anxious about making mistakes. Several times, they asked me to recommend a particular book, strategy, or resource—"Even a magic trick?" asked one of the principals.
"You already have the magic," I reminded them. I told them about the chef and his precious, valuable hands. "Sometimes the most essential tools are ones we carry with us everywhere we go," I said, lifting my hands to point to my head and my heart. "It's all right here."
End Notes

1 Luo, J., & Yu, R. (2015). Follow the heart or the head? The interactive influence model of emotion and cognition. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 573.

Jen Schwanke, EdD, is a longtime educator who has taught or led at all levels. She is the author of three previous books: You're the Principal! Now What?, The Principal ReBoot, and The Teacher's Principal. She has written for Educational Leadership Magazine, Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator.

Dr. Schwanke is a cohost of the popular "Principal Matters" podcast and has presented at conferences for ASCD, NAESP, Battelle for Kids, RRCNA, and various state and local education organizations. She has provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. An adjunct graduate instructor in educational administration, Dr. Schwanke currently serves as a deputy superintendent in Ohio.

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