The Importance of Emotional Leadership

In about my sixth year of teaching, I remember sharing a story about my dogs with my grade 9 students.  As I was on my own in a small town where I didn’t know many people, the dogs were a HUGE part of my life and this wasn’t the first or last time I would talk about them.  They were and are like family to me.  When I was really getting into the story, one of my students shouted out in the middle of the class and said, “We don’t want to hear another story about your stupid dog.”

Years prior, I probably would have asked her to leave, got frustrated at the comment, and would have shown anger before anything.  This time I didn’t.  Instead, I said to her, “Those dogs are a huge part of my life and when you say something like that it really hurts me.”  Her facial expression and demeanour changed quickly, as did several of others in the class.  I was no longer simply a “teacher”, but a person, with real feelings and emotions.  After that moment, I felt a real change in how I was treated by students and, in all honesty, how I treated them.  It changed a lot for me.

As a principal, it would have been easy to fake emotions and represent that nothing had bothered or stressed me out, but in reality, I was never like that.  When Kobe (my first dog) had died, I struggled at school.  I spent a lot of time in my office and would often cry to my staff when they shared their condolences.  To many, this would be sign of a weakness, but in reality, I would say the exact opposite.  To be able to show who you are and share emotion is strength. Denying it and pretending I was feeling something else would not be true to myself.  We show our true strength when we accept that that we are vulnerable.

As a speaker, it is not easy to cry in front of people, but sometimes by showing emotion, I feel it is what makes me relatable.  Although I talk a lot about education, it is often the stories of my dad passing away, moments with my family, and my dogs that I often hear resonated most with others.  Every single person you have met has dealt with hardships in their life, and when they see someone being able to talk about similar experiences and share what they have learned from them, that is often what sticks with them.

This is not to say you need to share every part of your life, as I, like many educators, value my privacy as well.  But there are parts of YOUR story that will make an impact, and showing that you are having a rough day is showing that you are a person.  I spoke the following week after my dad died, and the day after I lost Shaq.  I cried profusely in front of people as I shared those stories with them.  The hugs that I received after both of those talks went WAY beyond people learning “stuff”, but went into deeper connections, for the audience and most definitely myself.  Think about it…if you were going to be vulnerable in front of any profession in a world, wouldn’t the best group to do that in front of be a group of educators where being loving and caring is an unwritten part of their job?

Yet I have seen many people walk into new roles and put on a tough demeanour and move away from who they truly are.  They implement the “don’t smile until December” rule and stick with it.  They constantly put people at arm’s length as they act as if showing emotion would be a sign of weakness.  Ironically with many, their emotion, their passion, and their story, which they have shared with me, is the exact reason that I have connected with them in the first place.  I talked to one new principal this week and he said his main focus for the beginning of his time at a new school was not about implementing a bunch of different things, but connecting and learning about his new staff while they learn about him. That focus on “connecting” was perfect and why I know that he is going to be successful.  Life is often a roller coaster ride with many ups and downs that we are all experiencing and asking for help is showing much more strength than simply giving up.

So as many people go into new roles next year, and try different things, my advice would be to show and be true to yourself.  Emotional leadership, showing humility, and being genuine, are not only sharing pieces of who you are, but they also show confidence, which is vital to successful leadership.  You and your colleagues will have ups and downs, as will your students.  Getting back up only happens when we fall down in the first place; they are both important parts to the story..  When we are in a field that is focus on developing people, no matter what your role is, showing your “human side” is vital.

Telling stories is often the best way for people to move forward, but don’t forget to put YOU into that narrative.  That is often the most important part.

As I wrote this on the plane, when I landed I read this post by Nicholas Provenzano, this one from Leah Whitfordand this one by Amber Teamann that are powerful examples of what I tried to articulate in this post.

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