Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Emotions and Educational Leadership

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_244



In the last two decades, there has been growing research challenging the binary between reason/emotion embedded in mainstream literature on educational leadership. For many years, emotions were characterized as irrational, and as such, they were not considered to have a legitimate place in the workplace (Ashforth and Humphrey 1995). But research on emotions in the workplace, including educational organizations, started to flourish in the early 1990s after it gradually became evident that emotions were influential in decision-making, motivation and behaviors in organizations, administration, and leadership. Although the importance of researching emotions for understanding educational leaders is realized, the literature on emotions and educational leadership is still limited (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). In addition, there is still considerable conceptual work to be done in relation to the theoretical approaches that are mobilized to explore emotion in educational leadership.

The aim of the present entry is to review findings and methods about the emotional aspects related to educational leadership during the last two decades. This is not a comprehensive review of specific literature but rather a broad sketch of the landscape to provide an overview of the field. The entry begins by showing how and why emotions are relevant to understanding educational leadership. Next, it discusses the different theoretical approaches of emotion that have been utilized in educational leadership research; it is also suggested that theoretical assumptions about emotion have relevant methodological implications in terms of how emotions are studied. Then, the entry summarizes some of the most important findings in the study of emotions in educational leadership, outlining the major themes emerging from research. The entry concludes with the implications of these findings for future research about emotions and educational leadership.

How and Why Emotions Are Relevant to Educational Leadership

In the last two decades or so, there have been calls for balancing logic and artistry in leadership (Deal and Peterson 1994), for leading with teacher emotions in mind (Leithwood and Beatty 2006), and for passionate leadership (Davies and Brighouse 2008). Moreover, empirical work has indicated that emotions are powerful forces in school leaders’ lives warranting attention (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). There is also growing evidence in the research literature that the affective world of school leaders is both complex and intense (Samier and Schmidt 2009). School leaders are confronted on a daily basis with a variety of emotions that are inextricably linked to personal, professional, relational, political, and cultural issues.

The school leaders’ emotional struggles have significant implications for their decision-making, well-being, and overall leadership style. School leaders are constantly engaged in emotion management processes, often with serious implications not only for their emotional health but also for their professional effectiveness (Blackmore 2011); at the same time, however, research also documents how mechanisms of emotion management help school leaders promote their own agenda, survive the high emotional demands of school leadership, and bring meaningful changes to their school (Beatty and Brew 2004). School leaders’ handling of the emotions in their own reflective practices and in their relationships with parents, students, and faculty shapes and reflects the climate and culture of their schools (Leithwood and Beatty 2006).

In general, it has been suggested that emotions are asserted for understanding educational leaders in four ways (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). First, emotional experiences and their displays in educational organizations are manifestations of leaders’ visions, desires, and fears. For example, positive emotions may indicate the fulfillment of a desired goal, while negative emotions may be indicative of the opposite. Second, educational leaders’ behaviors have an impact on the emotions of those with whom leaders interact. For example, teachers’ negative emotions may indicate unfavorable leadership behaviors; on the other hand, teachers’ positive emotions may be indicative of favorable leadership behaviors like transformational and supportive leadership behaviors. Third, it has been suggested that leaders’ affective abilities (or “emotional intelligence”) are more likely to promote desired organizational outcomes, because leaders are enabled to control their own emotions or direct the emotions of others toward desired goals. Fourth, educational leaders’ emotions may be influenced by macrofactors and social structures that have made educational leadership work to become more conflicted and political. Thus, economic, social, and political conditions influence the work of educational leaders and their emotional lives, and, therefore, their desired work outcomes.

Approaches in the Study of Emotion in Educational Leadership

Generally speaking, the study of emotions in educational leadership has followed three major approaches: the psychological approach, the sociocultural approach, and finally the feminist and critical approach. The strongest influence has been from psychological theory, management theory, and brain science, particularly Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence; the influence from feminist social theory, critical organizational theory, the sociology of emotions, and critical pedagogy has been less, yet it seems to gain considerable ground in recent years (Blackmore 2011).

The psychological approach treats emotions as individual, private, and autonomous psychological traits and states. The influence of this approach has been mostly evident through Goleman’s notion of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is being mobilized in educational leadership to urge teachers and leaders to handle the emotions of themselves as well as those of others and to develop emotional literacy. The notion of emotional intelligence has been translated into the educational leadership literature as a new source of leadership strength (see Blackmore 2011). Therefore, it is argued that emotional management is important for the success of organizations, including educational ones; in fact, emotional intelligence is linked to the success of one’s leadership style. For example, for those who are able to express and manage their emotions appropriately, it is suggested that they are more capable to achieve influence over others and be more effective in creating a productive professional environment. The methods of data collection grounded in the psychological approach are usually questionnaires and emotional intelligence tests; the epistemological assumption embedded in these methods is the notion of emotions as individual, psychological traits.

The psychological approach has been critiqued because it focuses on the leader as an individual and fails to address the limits and possibilities arising from the contextual and situated relationships in which the leader works (Blackmore 2011). Furthermore, the social and organizational cultural dimension of emotions is taken as given with the assumption that leaders work within the frame of existing social and organizational conditions. There is no theorization of the relationship between agency and structure, no theory of how power works in organizations, and little discussion of the emotional economies of organizations; instead the organization and the leader (with his or her individual emotions) are treated as universal concepts, without specific histories or identities formed and negotiated through complex social relations (Blackmore 2011).

Recent studies on emotions and educational leadership are following the growing trends in educational leadership research toward a social and organizational cultural approach (Zorn and Boler 2007). This approach moves beyond a focus on leaders in specialized roles and toward seeing both emotions and leadership embedded in a social and organizational environment (e.g., see, Leithwood and Beatty 2006). Additionally, this is a departure from the view of emotions through individualist and psychological terms toward a perspective that also recognizes the sociocultural dimension of emotions. Research following this interactionist view of emotions and educational leadership emphasizes that emotions and leadership are influencing each other, and thus, there is an interrelation between emotions and their social and organizational setting.

The sociocultural approach has also been critiqued (see Blackmore 2011; Zembylas 2009) for conceptualizing emotions and social settings as individual forces that act upon each other (Zorn and Boler 2007). That is, there is still a dualistic view of educational organizations in which individuals experience private and autonomous emotions which act upon and are influenced by organizational culture. Even Beatty’s social and organizational analysis of emotions in educational leadership through a social constructionist lens (see Leithwood and Beatty 2006) makes the problematic assumption that organizations are either constructed or pregiven (Zorn and Boler 2007). Her approach assumes that emotions are still perceived as private experiences located in the psychological self (e.g., successful leadership is associated with personality characteristics), thereby failing to really take into account the power relations and the role of social and political structures in forming feelings in teachers, learners, and leaders.

Recent work in the social sciences (including cultural studies, feminist studies, sociology, political science, and communications) increasingly recognizes emotions as part of everyday social, cultural, and political life (Zembylas 2009). Emotions in leadership, therefore, are not only a psychological matter but also a political space in which school leaders, teachers, students, and parents interact, with implications for larger political and cultural struggles for change. In the emergent new approach, the social and political dimensions of emotions are recognized, offering important insights in educational leadership, organizational change, and school reform literature. As a theoretical construct, the notion of emotions as relational and contextual – which also implies a move from psychological methods of study to sociological and anthropological perspectives – highlights how culture and politics relate to emotions. This theorization of emotion contributes to a different understanding of educational leadership in which issues related to the social and political factors influencing leaders’ emotions, the leaders’ emotional practices and their impact on school culture, and the “affective economies” under which educational leadership is enacted become the center stage of interest.

Major Findings of Research

Following the above approaches, there are three core themes emerging from findings on emotions and educational leadership in the last two decades (Berkovich and Eyal 2015; Blackmore 2011): (a) how leaders express their own emotional experiences; (b) what the effects of leaders’ emotional experiences are on others; and, finally, (c) whether emotions and leadership are understood as abilities or as social practices that arise within particular social, cultural, and political settings. Each theme is briefly discussed below.

In relation to the first theme, research findings indicate that there are three kinds of factors that influence leaders’ emotional experiences and their displays: (a) contextual factors at the macro- and microlevel, (b) leadership role factors, and (c) mission-related factors (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). Contextual factors concern issues of sociocultural power relations at the macrolevel (e.g., gender, race, social class, poverty, ethnicity, and age) that shape emotional norms within a society or an educational organization and influence leaders’ emotional expressions and displays. For example, neoliberal educational policies promoting accountability and competition influence leaders’ emotional experiences, evoking negative emotions that have an impact on leaders’ work (Blackmore 2011). Similarly, the lack of professional autonomy or sufficient organizational support and positive climate at the microlevel evoke unpleasant emotions in leaders. Furthermore, leaders’ emotions may be influenced by several key characteristics of the educational leadership role such as structural isolation and workload (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). Finally, factors that are relevant to the mission of leadership in itself – e.g., resistance and obstacles in the pursuit of social justice and equity – seem to be associated with leaders’ negative emotions; on the other hand, positive emotions are evoked when there is some success in overcoming resistance and obstacles. Leaders seem to develop a variety of strategies for coping with the emotional and structural dimensions of mission-related leadership.

In relation to the effects of leaders’ emotional experiences on others, findings show that leaders’ emotionally supportive behaviors (high or low) appear to be particularly important because they affect others’ emotions (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). Thus, relationship-oriented behaviors focusing on supporting others and promoting their needs have a positive impact on others’ emotions. These behaviors influence the emotional climate of the school, although there is no evidence whether they directly or indirectly influence the learning outcomes. On the other hand, mistreating behaviors by leaders (e.g., aggressive, controlling, or abusive behavior) seem to have harmful effects on teachers’ emotions. The methods used to study the effects of leaders’ emotional experiences on others are both quantitative and qualitative, but given the emphasis on behavior, most of the studies are influenced by behavioral and social psychology.

Finally, in relation to how leadership and emotions are understood and enacted as social practices that arise within particular social, cultural, and political settings, there seem to be two different directions followed. On the one hand, there is a focus on leaders’ emotional abilities – grounded in the exploration of emotions around the concept of emotional intelligence (see Berkovich and Eyal 2015). Studies are primarily quantitative (e.g., using self-reports) and show that leaders’ general emotional intelligence abilities are correlated with transformational leadership behaviors. Qualitative studies also indicate that leaders acknowledge the significance of empathetic abilities for the leadership role; empathetic abilities are also valuable for mission-related factors such as social justice transformation. It is suggested that empathetic abilities can make a difference in the organizations climate and professional relations and that such behaviors can be developed by training. Moreover, it is shown that educational leaders use a variety of strategies to regulate their emotions. As such, self-regulation of emotion is considered an important ability in enacting the leadership role in order for the leader to appear in control of himself or herself and the situation.

On the other hand, feminist and critical leadership literature is concerned with how leadership is entangled with emotions as gendered and racialized practices (Blackmore 2011; Zembylas 2009). For example, there is evidence how women have often been pathologized for their emotional expressions, being positioned as emotional and weak and not effective leaders but natural carers/teachers of young children. Emotions, then, in this body of educational leadership literature, are theorized as sites of both social control and power. This perspective challenges the body of work that sees emotions as just located within the individual, but rather recognizes that educational leadership is embedded in social and political structures and unequal power relations. Research that is conceptually grounded in this perspective shows how emotion is displayed, perceived, and understood differently according to the gender, racial, cultural, and political positioning of the leader and the norms of the organization or society. The tensions that arise as a result of the “politics of emotion” within a particular setting also highlight the deeper ethical struggles for those concerned with social justice and transformational leadership.

Conclusions and Implications

This entry focused on findings and methods about the emotional aspects related to educational leadership during the last two decades. The discussion showed that the field is still in its early developmental stage (Berkovich and Eyal 2015). Although the emotional dimensions of educational leadership are widely recognized in the literature, the dominant approach does not draw from feminist social theory, critical organizational theory, the sociology of emotions, or critical pedagogy, but rather from psychological theory (Blackmore 2011). However, recent work into the “politics of emotions” creates new openings for enriching our perspectives about the dynamics of affective relations in the political landscape of the school culture. These openings have to do with a critical understanding of the role of emotions in the constitution of power relations in educational organizations, how emotion discourses are formed and mobilized, and what their political implications are. To study emotions in educational leadership within this theoretical framework allows the exploration of spaces that move beyond theories that psychologize emotions and treat them as internalized (e.g., psychoanalysis) or structural theories that emphasize how structures shape the individual (e.g., Marxism). In this sense emotions are neither private nor merely effects of outside structures. The role of power relations in how affective economies are constructed directs attention to an exploration of emotion discourses and the mechanisms with which emotions are “disciplined” and certain norms are imposed and internalized as “normal.” This kind of theorization allows educational leaders first to identify such discourses and then to destabilize and denaturalize the regimes that demand certain emotions be expressed and others disciplined.

The contribution of new approaches in researching and theorizing emotions in educational leadership amounts to an intervention in a much larger debate about subjectivities in school culture, in which concepts of affective elements of consciousness and relationships, community, and reform are slowly being reexamined (Zembylas 2009). This sociopolitical dimension of emotions in educational leadership creates the difference between possible and real transformation, and it is this difference that constitutes the power of the more recent theoretical ideas presented here as critical “tools” to challenge contemporary discourses about emotional intelligence in educational leadership – discourses which are caught in the obsession for performativity, efficiency, bureaucratic rationality, cultural assimilation, moral self-control, and normalization of “emotional skills” (Blackmore 2011). The need for a deeper conceptualization of this sociopolitical character can guide future research on emotions in educational leadership in whatever locality, research informed by a genuine search to understand the power and the limitations of the political merits or demerits of any affective economy within an educational organization.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Open University of CyprusNicosiaCyprus
  2. 2.University of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa