By Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein
Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time!” With these words, Coach Herb Brooks—as portrayed in the film Miracle1 —inspired an unproven U.S. ice hockey team to pull off one of the greatest upsets in sports history, beating the Soviet team in the 1980 Olympics.
For many of us, stirring speeches like this one seem synonymous with leadership. Films, sports, and history are replete with examples of leaders rallying followers to dig deep and overcome insurmountable odds. Such speeches make for good drama. But research suggests that effective leadership requires a quieter, more subtle form of communication—namely, dozens of small, everyday interactions driven less by rhetorical talent than by keen emotional intelligence.
An Essential Leadership Trait
For decades, researchers have explored ways that noncognitive skills contribute to success. In a seminal study, Salovey and Mayer (1990) observed wide variations in individuals’ ability to detect others’ emotions, understand their own emotions, and use this information to guide their interactions with others. They labeled this ability emotional intelligence.
A few years later, Daniel Goleman (1995), a science journalist with the New York Times, popularized a four-part model of emotional intelligence that included self-awareness; self-management; social awareness (or empathy); and relationship management. In subsequent work (1998/2004), Goleman highlighted a strong link between emotional intelligence and leadership ability. He noted,
Emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.
According to Goleman, emotional intelligence enables leaders to keep emotions in check, to think before acting, to demonstrate passion for their work, to pursue goals with energy and persistence, and—most relevant to communication—to persuade others by finding common ground and building rapport.
Emotional Intelligence and School Leadership
Following in the footsteps of Goleman and other business researchers, a growing number of studies have documented a strong link between school principals’ emotional intelligence and their schools’ performance (Labby, Lunenburg, & Slate, 2012). In 2005, Stone, Parker, and Wood examined a sample of 464 principals and vice principals and found that those whom teachers rated as having “above-average” leadership abilities also scored higher overall on an emotional intelligence survey. In particular, the most effective principals demonstrated high levels of self-awareness; self-actualization (the ability to engage in self-improvement); empathy; interpersonal relationship building; flexibility; problem solving; and impulse control. A more recent study of 48 school administrators in three southeastern states (Maudling, Peters, Roberts, Leonard, & Sparkman, 2012) found that emotional intelligence accounted for nearly 38 percent of the perceived variance in leadership abilities.
Hanlin (2014) examined the extent to which the emotional intelligence of 66 high school principals predicted their ability to fulfill 21 responsibilities of effective leaders that had been identified in a McREL meta-analysis (Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003). Her study found a strong positive correlation (r = 0.74) between emotional intelligence (in particular, the domains of self-monitoring and relationship building) and a number of key leadership responsibilities. Notably, these included many communication-related behaviors, such as keeping goals at the forefront of everyone’s attention, conveying strong convictions, regularly discussing best practices with staff, reading undercurrents in the school, advocating for the school with external stakeholders, being accessible to teachers, and keeping the lines of dialogue open.
A Tale of Two Principals
A case study of two neighboring schools in South Africa, one high-performing and the other low-performing, offers a revealing glimpse of how school leaders’ emotional intelligence affects their schools (Bipath, 2008). The principal in the low-performing school was anxious and insecure, with little control of his emotions; he was mired in ongoing adversarial relationships with his teachers. He also lacked goal-directedness and didn’t take responsibility for his students’ learning or well-being, an attitude that was mirrored throughout his school, where teachers and students arrived late and left early and no one seemed to notice or bothered to repair a gaping hole in the perimeter fence that students regularly used to leave the grounds without permission.
In contrast, the leader in the high-performing school maintained a calm demeanor; connected well with teachers and parents (for example, arranging school meetings on Sundays after church services, when parents were most likely to be available); and maintained the school’s steadfast focus on its common vision. He also sent a strong message to everyone about his commitment to the school and students, arriving at 6:00 a.m. and leaving at 11:00 p.m. and driving past the school “at all odd hours” to make sure everything was OK. “People here think that I am mad,” he told the researcher. “But I do this for the sake of learners in my school” (Bipath, 2008, p. 60).
Implications for Communication
The research on emotional intelligence suggests that effective leadership is not a dramatic, one-time event, but rather an everyday affair that requires the “ability to communicate, listen intently, and maintain an empathetic disposition that builds trust and understanding” (Maudling et al., 2012, p. 25). A moving speech or a well-penned newsletter article is all well and good—but to influence school performance, it must be backed up with effective, ongoing relationship building and communication.