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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

Leading from the HEART

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For women especially, leading from the heart is a strength, not a weakness.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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"You’re too nice to be a principal!”
This is what a supervisor told Cristina—an aspiring principal who was training at Columbia University Teachers College—when they discussed her plan to enroll in a leadership program to become a school ­administrator.
Although Cristina knew she had room to grow in her leadership, she wrestled with this message and its implications—that school administrators, particularly those who identify as women, should not show emotions or care toward others if they want to be seen as effective leaders.
The belief that kindness doesn’t have a place in school leadership is not uncommon. Although women hold 57 percent of principal roles in U.S. K–12 schools (Taie & Lewis, 2022), in my work preparing aspiring principals at Columbia University Teachers College and supporting schools with social-emotional learning implementation, I have observed that school cultures are still influenced by traditional male leadership norms that value assertiveness, decisiveness, and competitiveness over collaboration, ­mentorship, and relationship building.

The Leadership Paradox

It is well documented (Ellemers, 2018) that gender stereotypes condition how individuals behave in the workplace, and women in leadership often face a double bind:
  • They may be criticized if they’re too assertive because that represents a violation of traditional feminine norms.
  • They may be criticized if they’re not assertive enough because that represents a violation of traditional male ­leadership norms. 
Many women in school leadership positions have probably struggled with this double bind—trying to figure out how to show up as leaders. Even though they tend to have higher levels of self-awareness and empathy compared with their male counterparts (Freedman et al., 2023), women might feel the need to mimic traditional leadership styles to meet the expectations in their district or school culture, and, most important, to be seen as competent.

The belief that kindness doesn’t have a place in school leadership is not uncommon.

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However, if those women in school leadership positions who are warm and nurturing always have to hide these qualities, how can they build trust and the positive relationships they need to lead effectively? In some cases, women in leadership may not realize that using their emotional intelligence and their natural ­inclination to lead with empathy and ­inclusivity is their superpower and the key to transformational leadership. 
Overcoming these internalized gender stereotypes may be difficult because they take root early on; gender is one of the first categories that infants learn. By the time children turn four or five years old, stereotypes equating men with traits such as tough or brave and women with traits such as gentle or kind may be deeply embedded (Neff, 2021).
Despite these challenges, women leaders can better understand their talents and unlock their full potential by increasing their emotional intelligence through adopting and practicing HEART skills. When women regularly use these skills, they not only address gender bias, but also reclaim their authentic voice and meaningful role in school leadership.
Of course, this is not to say that men can’t benefit from developing their emotional intelligence as well. They can. This article, however, speaks to women in school leadership who have yet to embrace their emotional intelligence and their ­inclination toward empathy as inherent ­leadership strengths.

Unleashing Your HEART Superpower

My research-based HEART in Mind model (Martínez Pérez, 2021) ­supports educators and school leaders in teaching, learning, and practicing essential emotional intelligence skills in their schools in view of becoming more socially and emotionally competent as leaders. I developed this model after 20 years working in education, first as a teacher and program administrator and now supporting educators in schools and aspiring principals at Columbia University Teachers College to grow their social and emotional capacity. These skills are represented by the acronym HEART and are organized to reflect an appropriate progression of skill ­development.
I describe the following HEART skills using verbs to indicate specific actions leaders can take. Focus on each skill for a week, practicing the tips suggested here and reflecting on what you’re learning along the way.

H: Honor Your Emotions

Honoring your emotions means naming, interpreting, and appropriately communicating feelings. To grow this skill, the first step is developing emotional literacy to better label what we feel. When leaders increase their vocabulary for accurately describing their ­emotions, they develop a more nuanced ­understanding of themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. It’s also an opportunity for the leader to reflect on any feelings they may be suppressing out of fear of being perceived as either too assertive or too tender. Emotional literacy also helps leaders identify the degree of intensity of different emotions so they can regulate their feelings more ­effectively.
For example, a school leader may encounter resistance to a new curriculum implementation from her staff; as a result, she might experience a blend of frustration and disappointment. Instead of just feeling “upset,” she might label her emotions as “frustration due to facing resistance from my staff” and “disappointment stemming from the lack of support from my educators.” By specifying accurate emotion labels, she can better understand and articulate her feelings and therefore use suitable coping strategies, such as opening dialogue with her staff and discussing their concerns.
Tips for Practice: Create some dedicated time during the day to check in with your emotions. It could be at the end of the day before you go home or during your lunch break. Take a few minutes to journal the emotions you experienced that day and reflect on why you felt this way. Such emotions might include frustration when faced with bureaucratic hurdles, anxiety about standardized testing, or pride about students’ growth. Naming emotions will help you see daily situations with more clarity because it requires introspection and an increased awareness of the connections between emotions and their underlying causes. If you’re having trouble coming up with more precise names for emotions, look for a list of emotions online to increase your vocabulary.

E: Elect Your Responses

Electing your responses means ­creating space to make constructive and safe decisions.
The inability to manage emotions constructively can have disastrous consequences for women in school leadership; these include losing others’ trust, making unfair decisions, and missing opportunities to build connections. 
Dealing with uncomfortable emotions, such as anger or embarrassment, is not an easy task, particularly for leaders who are under the watchful eyes of educators, students, and families. In my experience working with leaders, I’ve found one mindset change to be especially empowering: understanding that the goal of managing emotions is not to eliminate these feelings but to process them before we take action so we can create value through them. This means that we see emotions as allies and not as enemies we need to fight. In some cases, women in leadership will need to move toward their feelings so they can manage them in positive ways and create a different path ahead. 
For example, Cecilia, a school leader in California, used to avoid conflicts with her staff, which affected her ability to make sound decisions for her school. After practicing this skill and taking time to consider her behavior, she learned the root of her challenge: she was afraid to confront and upset people. She began to notice and name this fear, and instead of avoiding it, she started practicing assertive communication to clearly express her thoughts and feelings. 
Tips for Practice: To move out of autopilot and feel more in charge of our feelings, we need to identify triggers, those situations that cause intense emotions. Our nervous systems automatically respond to daily events based on different factors, such as past experiences or temperament. Interpersonal conflicts among staff members, criticism from parents, or lack of support from supervisors can be emotionally challenging. These triggers can make school leaders feel out of control if they let their feelings take over. 
Take out a piece of paper and write down the last few times you experienced strong emotions at work. Do particular situations or people evoke strong emotions? Do you observe any patterns in how you responded in these situations? Did you fight back, shut down, dismiss the issue, blame someone? Identifying these triggers and patterns can help you be more intentional next time you’re in a similar situation, enabling you to choose a better response.

A: Apply Empathy

Applying empathy means recognizing and valuing the emotions and perspectives of others, taking action to support them, and nurturing self-compassion. Empathy is being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, to feel with them. This can be challenging because of the many individuals who have needs and who require the principal’s attention. Nevertheless, empathy is the pathway to stronger and deeper relationships with staff, students, and parents. 

Women in leadership may not realize that using their emotional intelligence and their natural inclination to lead with empathy and inclusivity is their superpower.

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This ability to connect with others also means connecting to their pain and suffering—and this can lead to burnout when people are unable to manage their own emotions. For this reason, the HEART in Mind model also incorporates self-empathy. Women in leadership can become highly critical of their mistakes; their internal voice may be harsh and hurtful. Practicing self-compassion means that we motivate ourselves like a good coach, with kindness, support, and understanding (Neff, 2021). For example, Eva, a school leader, started to name situations that she found difficult. She would tell herself, “Today is really hard for me.” Then she would ask herself, “What do I need?” and she would give herself permission to answer this question. In this way, she was able to practice self-compassion during a challenging time.
Tips for Practice: The next time you make a mistake or feel overwhelmed, notice what you tell yourself in the moment. If it’s helpful, write it down. Some common messages might be: “I always mess things up,” “I should have known better,” or “I’m so stupid.” Then, think about what you would tell a friend in the same situation, and write that down. This message would probably sound very different: “It’s OK. We all make mistakes sometimes. You’re not alone in this,” or “Mistakes don’t define you; you’re still the capable, amazing person I know.” Now read these words back to yourself as though you’re giving yourself that same advice. How does it feel to acknowledge your humanity and treat yourself with kindness? 

R: Reignite Your Relationships

Reigniting your relationships means nurturing a positive and supportive network by using communication and conflict resolution skills and working cooperatively with individuals and groups. School leaders may experience isolation as a result of the hierarchical nature of their roles; the tough decisions they may need to make can isolate them from their team because, as a leader, they may wish to maintain a certain professional distance from their staff. 
For women in particular, feelings of isolation and burnout may increase in the absence of positive women role models or a network of peers that can support them through difficult situations and understand the unique challenges they face. Women in the principalship should not only build a sense of community within their school but also actively nurture relationships that can support them on their leadership journeys. 
For instance, one school leader, after receiving training in HEART skills, started to ask herself, “How am I building a sense of community?” before going into challenging meetings with parents, students, and staff. This guiding question made her more open to feedback and more willing to find shared solutions during these meetings. 
Tips for Practice: Positive relationships increase our well-being and can be a source of strength, support, and meaningful connection. Make a list of individuals whom you trust and support or who have supported your leadership growth. Reach out to at least three of them to say hello, offer gratitude, or schedule a time to reconnect. Notice how it feels to connect with others who understand you and are there for you.

T: Transform with Purpose

Transforming with purpose means using personal assets and interests to positively ­contribute to self and others. This is probably the most important HEART skill because it helps leaders align their daily choices with their purpose. William Damon (Damon et al., 2003), a professor at Stanford University who researches purpose, and his co-authors define purpose as a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (p. 121).
Purpose should not feel like an imposition, like something you do to make others happy or to seek validation. Purpose needs to be relevant and significant to the individual and, at the same time, it needs to contribute to others and the world in some way. As a school leader, Maria’s core purpose was to create an inclusive, nurturing learning environment in which every student felt valued, supported, and inspired to reach their full potential. This administrator was passionate about fostering a culture of equity, empathy, and academic excellence. Maria started her day by reviewing her purpose statement, reminding herself of her overarching goal. She actively built strong relationships by greeting students at the door and checking in with teachers throughout the day. When faced with decisions, she evaluated them through her lens of inclusivity and provided her teachers with professional development opportunities to enhance their ability to create supportive and inclusive classrooms for students.

Purpose needs to be relevant and significant to the individual and, at the same time, it needs to contribute to others and the world in some way.

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Tips for Practice: Purpose helps individuals maintain their motivation and a sense of hope for the future. It’s an internal driver to do good in the world. To clarify your purpose, take some time to reflect on the following questions:
  • Looking inward: What do you care about? What sparks your interest? Where do your talents lie? 
  • Looking outward: What local or global problems would you like to solve? Why are they a problem? Who benefits from this problem? Who is negatively affected by this problem
  • Taking action: How can you use your interests and talents (looking inward) to solve the problems you care about (looking outward)?
Once you’ve answered these questions, try to complete the prompt, “My purpose is. . . .” It may take a few trials before you come up with a purpose statement that feels right to you. In moments of challenge, read this purpose statement to yourself because it will help you remember why you do the work you do.

Practice Builds Mastery

Examining our own HEART skills can bring some unexpected insights. Consider Angela, whom I met when teaching a course for principals in New Orleans. After doing some work on emotional literacy and relationships, Angela realized that although students at her school generally liked her, she put less effort into developing relationships with adults, which affected her ability to be seen as an effective leader. She had a hard time acknowledging that adults had feelings, too, and that, as a leader, she needed to create space for those emotions in the relationship. Her preference was for adults to keep their feelings to themselves so they could focus on the work at hand. 
As we all probably know, we cannot escape our emotions or those of others. It took an enormous amount of courage for Angela to leave her comfort zone and try out new behaviors. Before meetings, she started holding individual check-ins with educators, asking each of them, “How are you feeling today?” Then she waited for teachers to answer before addressing the agenda for that meeting. When she created space for teachers to share their feelings, she was able to build more positive relationships with educators, and she ended up leading more effectively. 
Developing and practicing these HEART skills will help school leaders—particularly women—gain new insights, make better decisions, and find joy in leading with care, kindness, and authenticity. Several schools and county offices of education, both in the United States and in Spanish-speaking countries, have formed communities of practice to support the development of HEART skills with great results. In a training I recently held in California, one participant shared, “This model dives deep and really helps you reflect on your inner person and, in turn, ­prepares you to better serve students and families.” 
The HEART in Mind model gives you the tools you need to grow your social and emotional capacity and to become the leader you want to be, as well as the leader your community needs.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Is kindness integral or peripheral to effective school leadership? Explain your thinking.

➛ Is emotional intelligence part of your leadership? How do you use it in your role?

➛ If you are a woman leading a school, have you experienced that "double bind" as you try to balance assertiveness and empathy?

References

Damon, W., Menon, J., & Cotton Bronk, K. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied ­Developmental Science, 7(3), 119−128.

Ellemers, N. (2018). Gender stereotypes. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 275−298.

Freedman, J., Miller, M., Freedman, P., & Choi, D. (2023). State of the Heart 2023: New data on emotional intelligence, ­wellbeing, and the human energy crisis. Six Seconds. 

Martínez Pérez, L. (2021). Teaching with the HEART in mind: A complete ­educator’s guide to social emotional learning. Brisca Publishing. 

Neff, K. D. (2021). Fierce self-compassion: How women can harness kindness to speak up, claim their power, and thrive. Harper Wave.

Taie, S., & Lewis, L. (2022). Characteristics of 2020–21 public and private K–12 school teachers in the United States: Results from the National Teacher and Principal Survey First Look (NCES 2022–113). U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics.

Lorea Martínez is the founder of HEART in Mind, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate social-emotional learning in their practices. She is a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in emotional intelligence. She is the author of Teaching with the HEART in Mind: A Complete Educator’s Guide to Social-Emotional Learning (Brisca Publishing, 2021).

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