Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Educational Leadership, the Emotions, and Neuroscience

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_243



Discussions of the emotions have recently become prominent in educational leadership research which advocates the belief that emotions are important for leadership to be effective. A central part of this research is the common sense concept of emotion that underlies the empirical studies of emotion and leadership. This notion, however, is part of folk psychology which, as a failed empirical theory, is unable to answer some of the most fundamental questions raised in the education and leadership literature: how emotions are generated, what they are, and how they are shared between people. This entry presents an overview of why emotions are believed to be important for leadership in education, how emotions are understood in the education literature, what is known about the history of the concept of emotion, and what the neurosciences can tell us about the nature and origins of “emotion.” The entry concludes by indicating in which ways new neuroscientific knowledge contributes answers to the questions raised in the educational leadership literature.

Leaders and Emotions

Unlike the fields of organizational behavior and general leadership studies with their established research literatures, the turn to the emotions as integral, and hence legitimate, components of leadership in education is relatively recent. At the same time, however, philosophical treatments of emotion have had a long and controversial history (Solomon 2010). Two features of emotion continue to shape the contemporary discussion: the view of emotion as primitive and dangerous, therefore in need of control by reason and, secondly, the very distinction between emotion and reason itself as constituting two different and opposing “natural” kinds. The emphasis on emotion as nonrational has been a characteristic of traditional, rational decision-making theory, prominently represented in educational administration by Herbert Simon, while the renewed focus on emotions and leadership represents a response to the predominant cognitive orientation in leadership and organization studies generally.

The discussions of emotions in education accept implicitly the nonrational – rational distinction as a true characterization of both emotion and reason – but focuses on one side of the dichotomy by investigating the emotional experiences of teachers and principals, without questioning the dichotomy itself. General themes in the empirical educational (leadership) literature are the presumed impact of teacher/leader emotions on students, educational outcomes, and teacher education programs. Topics include the emotional aspects of teachers’ lives, emotions in teaching, and emotions and leadership more generally where emotions and leadership are considered as shared influence (Zorn and Boler 2007). A strong theme running through educational leadership discussions is the assumption that emotions are situated in social–political contexts, are therefore more than an individual’s personal psychological property, and thus need to be investigated from within a social–political framework. In addition, there is a strong emphasis on gendered power relations that are said to shape the emotions of leaders, in particular women leaders, who are forced to adjust their emotions to the dominant rational, male administrative culture. Such adjustment requires emotional labor, which means suppression of genuine emotion or inducing emotions not felt in accordance with the requirements of the workplace. Further to the empirical studies conducted on emotions and leadership in education, the concept of emotional intelligence provides a theoretical framework based on the belief that the emotional skills of leaders are imperative for effective leadership. Although the meaning of emotional intelligence remains ambiguous, its definition of emotion is that of folk psychology.

In the empirical literature, four reasons are offered in particular to support the claim that emotions are relevant for understanding leaders in education (Berkovich and Eyal 2014). (1) Emotional experiences and their displays express leaders’ reactions to social reality and how that reality relates to their goals; (2) leaders’ behaviors affect the emotions of teachers and others with whom they interact; (3) leaders’ affective abilities are precursors of their emotions and behaviors, and as such, of desired work outcomes; and (4) leaders’ emotions are also influenced by societal factors that have contributed to making administrative work more complex and political in unstable and competitive environments. The emotions referred to are generally those we describe in words such as fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness. Explicit definitions of emotion are rare in the educational leadership literature, and where they occur, they are in keeping with folk psychological theories of emotion as in Berkovich and Eyal’s account (2014, pp. 2–3) who describe emotions as affective experiences that include individual emotions such as fear or joy, and can be accompanied by bodily expressions, and sometimes lead to action.

The current state of knowledge of emotions in the education and educational leadership literature is descriptive in nature and largely presents phenomenological studies of how emotions are seen and experienced in teaching, learning, and leading contexts. Questions considered important for future research, raised but not addressed in the current literature, concern how agents manage to transmit emotions, or “catch” the emotions of others, as in emotional contagion. Above all, the current literature takes for granted the common sense understanding of emotion. While it is true that principals and teachers (and everyone else) have developed their own repertoires of how to deal with their own emotions and those of others, given their general understanding of how the language of folk psychology and the meaning of its concepts works in everyday life, when these repertoires break down, as they often do, predictions of expected behavior can go badly wrong, with sometimes devastating consequences. This problem cannot be solved within folk psychology as emotions are not identical with the words we use to describe them. What we call emotions are mental states generated by and instantiated in biological brains and bodies. They are thus amenable to scientific investigation, as has long been recognized by Darwin. Recent work, especially in emotion science and affective and cognitive neuroscience, has contributed much to a better scientific understanding of the nature, origins, and functioning of emotion and what we call the emotions generally. It helps clarify whether or not, or in which sense, emotions can be said to be important for leadership to be effective. But first it is necessary to get an idea why folk psychology presents a false theory of mental states.

Folk Psychology and the Ambiguity of “Emotion”

Following Dixon (2012), the term “emotion” has not become applied to the systematic study of mental phenomena until the mid-nineteenth century. As we now use the term, it subsumes two distinct categories of mental states that had held sway since Aristotle and St. Augustine: troubling desires and passions on the one hand and the milder and less dangerous affections and sentiments on the other (Dixon 2012, p. 339). This distinction became blurred through the works of the moral philosopher Thomas Brown (cited in Dixon 2012) whose conception of “emotion” comprised quite diverse mental states. Ever after, “emotion” was treated as a significant theoretical category for the systematic study of the mind but remained difficult to describe, with a view of emotion as vivid feelings, on one hand, and emotion as expressible in bodily motion, on the other. This ambiguity has plagued emotion research to the present day. It is a source of contention in contemporary accounts of emotion theory as the meaning of “emotion” changes depending on the theoretical frameworks adopted by psychologists. For folk psychology, however, this does not matter. As the oldest framework that purports to explain our mental phenomena, it is pervasive, deeply rooted, and denotes:

the prescientific, commonsense conceptual framework that all normally socialized humans deploy in order to comprehend, predict, explain, and manipulate the behavior of humans and the higher animals. This framework includes concepts such as belief, desire, pain, pleasure, love, hate, joy, fear, suspicion, memory, recognition, anger, sympathy, intention, and so forth. It embodies our baseline understanding of the cognitive, affective, and purposive nature of people. Considered as a whole, it constitutes our conception of what a person is. (Churchland and Churchland 1998, p. 3)

Debates about how to appraise folk psychology’s nature, what functions it has, and whether it can evolve have crucially centered on the question whether it is like an empirical theory or merely a social practice whose generally shared vocabulary makes possible a myriad of social activities such as the ones referred to in the above quote. Its purpose was said to be normative rather than descriptive, and unlike empirical theories its general sentences or laws were not seen to lend themselves to causal explanations. Delimited in this way, folk psychology was said to escape the kind of scrutiny to which every empirical theory can be subjected and which could in principle lead to its rejection, reduction, or even elimination.

It is now generally accepted that our common sense conception of mental states is theoretical in exactly the same way that the physical phenomena of science are, with the propositional attitudes (…believes, desires, fears that p) showing the same semantic structure as scientific theories (Churchland and Churchland 1998). Crucially, as folk psychology makes claims about the nature of mental states as representable in linguistic form, in light of both evolutionary knowledge of the late development of language propensity, and recent knowledge of actual brain architecture, functioning, and information processing, this claim has turned out to be unjustified. The basic units of human cognition are not sentence-like structures, but patterns of excitation levels across a large population of neurons. Information processing does not consist of deductive inference between sentences but synaptic firings across activation vectors that transform them into yet other such vectors. None of the above comments deliver a fatal blow to folk psychology. But it does follow that if folk psychology is as theoretical as other theories of science, then mental phenomena, including our emotions, are a proper subject for scientific investigation. On the other hand, the folk psychological understanding of emotion/s continues unabated in everyday life.

Emotion Naturalized

While the study of the nature and origins of emotion is a common goal of both folk psychological science (the new emotion science) and affective neuroscience, the historical tension and definitional ambiguity more clearly affect the former. Emotion science is concerned with specification and classification of emotions, a difficult enterprise due to unstable shifting definitions. It focuses on such questions as how many emotions there might be and what emotion is anyway so that it can be measured. Affective neuroscience, on the other hand, is interested to explore the underlying neural substrates of emotion and is therefore primarily concerned with causal rather than definition or classification issues (Panksepp 1998). Affective neuroscience can be said to have evolved from the second view of emotion as embodied, drawing on Darwin’s theory of emotions, and continued by James and Lange, whose combined views have become known as the James–Lange theory of emotions. In brief, the theory maintains that emotions are embodied. Commenting on the everyday view that emotion comes first and elicits bodily expression second, James says “My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.” (James 1884, pp. 189–190). According to James, there is no ephemeral substance “left over.” The common sense sequence, described by James, of “we meet a bear, are frightened and run,” is simply the wrong order. Expressed more formally, as Prinz (2004, p. 44) puts it, “… emotions are perceptions (conscious or unconscious) of patterned changes in the body (construed inclusively).” But as emotions have also been characterized as cognitive appraisal systems, a more comprehensive account integrates both perception of body states with cognitive appraisal of the person’s overall situation, so that an emotion can be described as “a pattern of neural activity in the whole system … including inputs from bodily states and external senses.” (Thagard and Aubie 2008, p. 817).

This broad definition is based on a recent and still controversial conception of brain organization as rather more fluid than previously assumed, being better characterized by dynamic affiliation of neural systems than modularity. Because of such dynamic organization, emotion circuits and cognition circuits are so closely interlinked that it is more appropriate to speak of the cognitive–emotional brain. The traditional, philosophical dichotomy between reason and emotion, on this account, is no longer defensible. When applied to that traditionally most rational of activities, decision-making in educational administration, as elsewhere, this particular result implies that rationality de facto depends on emotion for rational decisions to be possible at all (Lakomski and Evers 2010). The most influential argument supporting this claim is Damasio’s (1996) somatic marker hypothesis which in essence claims that positive or negative body signals such as gut feelings and hunches subconsciously “presort” how to appraise and thus respond to a stimulus. By signaling a positive or negative valence, the body (racing pulse, sweaty palms, increased heart rate) indicates how to respond to a situation and thereby reduces the potentially infinite decision space. If this thesis is generally correct, then emotions are indeed integral to decision-making and are part and parcel of all the neural machinery that enables humans to make choices and survive. Understood naturalistically, emotions are rational.

Given that emotion is embodied and its definition expanded as indicated, the question asked in the educational leadership literature on how emotion “travels” between people, or is “caught,” central to the claim that leader emotion affects or “influences” other persons, and work outcomes, can in principle be answered by neuroscience. Unlike folk psychology, it investigates the origins, nature, and mechanisms of emotion and emotion transmission. The most basic form of transmission is known as emotional contagion. It refers to the human tendency automatically to mimic another person in regard to facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements. This tendency has been studied especially in regard to empathy, also mentioned as fundamental in the leadership literature. It was found that humans do not empathize all the time and that an emotional connection and response is subject to an appraisal process and thus not merely automatic. Whether the actual neural mechanisms that generate empathy are primarily mirror neurons, as has been suggested, is still a matter for debate. However, there seems to be scientific consensus that human brains are hardwired for emotional, or broadly, social connectivity, regardless of what the actual neural mechanisms are that make this possible.


The discussion of and recent emphasis on emotion in education and educational leadership has rightly drawn attention to a neglected domain of human behavior. As mental phenomena, emotions are described in the language of folk psychology as this is the oldest and most deeply rooted language we have in which to express them. The acknowledgement that emotions, whether positive or negative, have an important role to play in education and educational leadership opens up a new dimension for research. While the phenomenological descriptions of emotion in leadership and classroom studies will continue to be necessary, and while the emphasis on social, cultural, gender, and power frameworks adds important dimensions to understanding emotions in broader contexts, these descriptions do not tell us what emotions are, why they work, or fail to work the way they do, how we can read or misread them, and how emotions get shared in the first place. The language of folk psychology is not fit for this task, and is likely to be replaced, step by step, by the language of neuroscience that offers a causal account of the nature and origins of emotion and the mechanisms that make sharing between humans possible at all. The investigation of emotion sharing, from neurobiological perspectives to social–political environments, has barely begun. But the better we understand how brains and bodies produce emotion, the better we will be able to understand human behavior in its complexity, including what is referred to as “influence,” a feature commonly believed essential for leadership. The neuroscientific evidence we have so far about biological brain architecture and how brains actually work has already contributed to the elimination of one highly influential philosophical dichotomy, that between reason and emotion, that has underpinned education and educational administration theory and practice. Rational decision-making, it turns out, is not possible in the absence of emotion. Whatever effective leadership may turn out to mean, understanding the causes of such human mental phenomena as emotions is an indispensable prerequisite.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher EducationThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia