‘My emotional journey to the heart of headship’

TES, 28.05.16, the idea that leaders should never show their feelings is a fallacy – but heads should learn to understand the power of emotion, writes HMC member Ian Munro, Headmaster of leading independent Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow.

A few months ago, on taking on the headship of Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow, I became the youngest serving headteacher in the worldwide Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) group of independent schools, which sparked some interest in my own understanding of leadership.

Leadership is bound by context. It is practised by different people in different situations at different times. Within schools, it can mean empowering colleagues, handling pastoral concerns, leading staff reviews, overseeing building works, being visible in the playground and teaching lessons.

All of these tasks are essential in setting the right conditions for learning. Consequently, I don’t think leadership, let alone successful leadership, can be easily defined. However, a few powerful themes have emerged throughout my journey, a primary one being the function of emotion.

Historically, there has been suspicion in Western cultures that there is something wrong with emotion. I have worked with colleagues who have mistaken kindness for weakness, and who have been scared to show emotion throughout decision-making for fear of appearing irrational.

It is my experience that those leaders who delegitimise emotions because – to their mind – they are perceived as irrational do so at their peril. At the heart of school leadership lie precious relationships with pupils, parents and colleagues – and these relationships are strongly influenced by emotion.

It would be disingenuous to claim that suspending a pupil, learning that a colleague is seriously ill, discovering graffiti in toilets or dealing with teacher competency issues don’t provoke an emotional response.

Raising awareness

Emotions can and do have a part to play in good leadership decisions, and I believe that school leaders must be aware of the influence and function that emotion can have.

Recently, interest in this component of leadership has been ignited through the popularist concept of emotional intelligence (EI). Indeed, in England, EI is now listed by the National College for Teaching and Leadership as one of the required competencies within the National Professional Qualification for Headship. “Emotionally intelligent leadership” has appeared as a theme in the education leadership programme run by Wellington College.

The EI approach should be applauded for propelling emotion firmly into the leadership discourse, but it does have its limitations. Perhaps the biggest risk to school leaders is that the complex relationship between emotion and leadership has been devalued to yet another prescriptive, competency-based tick-box exercise. School leaders do not need even more hoops to jump through, and Goodhart’s law – “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – serves here as a useful warning.

Through EI, there is perhaps a danger that we value what we (think we) can measure, as opposed to attempting to better understand the complex relationship between emotion and leadership.

A deeper awareness of the function of emotion is valuable to school leaders, not only in terms of understanding leadership itself but also with regards to their own practice and effectiveness. For example, many leaders will relate to the concept of “emotional labour”. This is a term used to describe the management of emotion through the simulation or suppression of feeling, so as to present an outward appearance that gives rise to the required emotional state in others.

The idea of emotional labour was derived from observing flight attendants working for the American airline Delta, who seemingly were able to manage their real feelings in order to present a constantly pleasant demeanour that ensured passengers felt welcome.

How many school leaders, when confronted with bad news from a colleague, have wanted to throw their hands up in anger or despair, but chose instead to rein in these emotions to protect the wellbeing of others?

However, while the management of emotion is undoubtedly useful to school leaders, it also presents risk. It has been argued that emotional labour can lead to the loss of the capacity to listen to our own feelings, or even to feel at all. It also creates even more labour, or work, for already busy school leaders. Yet, I would suggest that this sort of work is integral to successful leadership.

As a new headteacher, I find myself considering how we can best prepare future heads. Aspirant school leaders should reflect on the function of emotion within schools, and perhaps they should look beyond EI. We need to emphasise the different ways in which emotion runs through all of our organisational processes and theories.

Managing feelings

My own interest in the field was given structure by reading Megan Crawford’s excellent book Getting to the Heart of Leadership. I found case studies focusing on how headteachers feel and manage emotion to be extremely useful. Emotion should be understood as being something that is inherent in school leadership, as opposed to being an object separate from it.

Rather than asking all prospective school leaders to score themselves on an EI test, we should encourage them to better understand emotion from a range of perspectives.

It is certainly true, for example, that emotion can have a dark, manipulative side that we should be wary of, but which is often glossed over: the reading and management of the emotions of others can be used to suit an individual’s Machiavellian interests.

Sociology, psychology and biology have much to offer the school leader who recognises the importance of emotion. However, I have ultimately come to know emotion in school leadership by listening to stories of experienced headteachers. Being aware of the feelings of those around you, and challenging perceived rationales through an emotional lens, will always provide the foundations of successful headship – despite this not being quantifiable by any test.

Ian Munro recently became rector at Glasgow’s Kelvinside Academy, making him the youngest head – at 34 – in the global group of more than 300 private schools affiliated to the HMC group

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