Untapped Potential
The use of emotional intelligence in coaching school leaders
/School Administrator, September 2019

Matthew Taylor (left), CEO of the Noble Story Group in Washington, D.C., leads a coaching session.
Corey is a second-year manager of principals who was promoted to the role after six years leading one of the highest-performing schools in his midsized school district. He’s good at most parts of his job, but, like all of us, he feels inadequate in performing a few aspects of his work.

In our coaching, which he requested and the district willingly provided, Corey asked to focus on a specific relationship with one principal. This secondary school principal, a relatively strong performer, was missing deadlines that Corey knew were important for the school’s long-term success.

Corey had talked to the principal about the missed deadlines, but the behavior didn’t change. After several months, Corey was baffled and embarrassed that he could not get this principal to prioritize these particular deliverables. He felt as if he had hit a brick wall as a manager.

Invisible Obstacles
We’ve all been there. We just can’t figure out why we don’t do something (delegate, hold people accountable, etc.) that we deeply want to do and that we’ve been trained to do. Or we tell ourselves a story that some growth areas are a fixed part of our identity (“I will never be good at conflict”).

We’ve all been there as managers, too. We coach a school leader to develop a skill set and, when they don’t grow over time, we assume there’s something getting in their way that can’t be taught.

When we hit the wall, we make these assumptions because we can’t see the obstacles to growth. They’re not visible skills or knowledge gaps. These obstacles are hidden inside of us or below the surface, and they are personal. So even when we’re teaching new professional skills and knowledge, we’re not doing what we really need to do to uncover the real obstacles. Doubling down on studying or practicing at this point yields no growth.

A Next Level
The good news is that there’s another level of leadership that resides within us and the people we manage that we can tap into and allow to surface. I found this new level in the emotional intelligence theory of Daniel Goleman. His model includes four basic dimensions: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

» SELF-AWARENESS, in a nutshell, encompasses our connection to our values and intuition as well as our awareness of our internal obstacles residing “below the surface.”

» SELF-MANAGEMENT is our ability to leverage our values and intuition and manage our internal obstacles.

» SOCIAL AWARENESS, in Goleman’s model, means turning the focus from self to others. Social awareness is our ability to understand, to really see, other people and groups by leveraging empathy.

» RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT is the culmination of the dimensions that precede it. Once I am managing myself, I can focus with empathy on others to figure out where they are and where they could be. At that point, I am ready to think about what leadership actions they need from me to move forward.

Missing Development
Goleman’s framework turned my leadership development approach on its head. Before discovering emotional intelligence, most of my leadership training was focused on skill building to engage others.

For example, my courageous conversations training would introduce a protocol with an agenda and sentence starters. After modeling leadership engagement strategies in a simulation, I would have participants practice in a role play with a case study. Seems fitting, right? My session built knowledge and allowed leaders to practice skills they could apply in real conversations.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was teaching exclusively to relationship management — only 25 percent of the emotional intelligence model. At no point did I ask leaders to think about their inner obstacles — their triggers, emotions, limiting stories about themselves or others — that might get in their way. Without this self-focus, my workshop session participants were likely to continue playing out self-limiting patterns of behaviors no matter how many trainings around courageous conversations they attended.

Awareness Coaching
The same would have been true of Corey, our intrepid manager of four building principals. In the past, I would have supported Corey to plan for a courageous conversation (with goals, messages, a back-pocket agenda and key questions to ask) almost exclusively in the relationship management dimension. We would have practiced, and my feedback would have been focused on delivery.

I have come to understand this is not coaching in the pure sense of the word. It’s consulting and teaching. Coaching is supporting someone to uncover their internal obstacles and to learn how to manage them. We coach when something deeper than skill and knowledge gaps are the primary obstacles to performance.

When I realized that Corey’s growth challenge was about what was below the surface, I stopped teaching skills and started asking questions. We dissected specific times when he was holding back, and I asked him how he was feeling and what was going on in his head in the moment.

We discovered Corey’s frustration was triggered by his principal’s lack of follow through. This principal flustered him, but Corey also was unsure of himself and afraid of permanently damaging their relationship. There was a line of difference at play that Corey realized was leading him to question his actions.

As we unpacked his emotions and the internal stories getting in his way, we got to Corey’s root obstacle: If I push too hard, this principal will feel like I am judging him, and the relationship will suffer. When the principal’s underperforming behavior came up, this assumption led Corey to default to “feedback lite” or silence.

This new self-awareness helped Corey see that he was holding back the principal from growing by enabling underperformance. Further, the emotional energy he was expending, along with his implicit lowering of expectations, was likely poisoning the relationship.

Armed with this self-awareness, we shifted to self-management — building inner strategies to manage his self-limiting belief and leverage his values. We focused on three key strategies:

» CREATING SPACE. Corey planned to take three deliberate deep breaths when he felt himself getting triggered, to create a space between his trigger and his response.

» PLANNING AHEAD. Aware of his patterns, Corey could plan for them. He crafted two questions and two statements he would ideally deliver when his principal showed up empty-handed.

» USING VALUES-BASED SELF-COACHING. Corey reflected on his values by asking himself this: Why do I care about holding this principal accountable? He immediately connected to his passion for developing leaders and his personal mission to fight against structural racism. Corey leveraged these values in a powerful message to himself in his moment of trigger: If you really care about this leader and you care about fixing this country, then you need to challenge him to get better. He deserves this chance. That’s why you are doing this work.

Using these strategies, Corey engaged his principal with this message: “You’re not following through. I know you care. What’s going on?” Contrary to Corey’s limiting stories and fears, his principal thanked him for not shying away from sharing where they had differences of opinion and not shying away from showing him his blind spots.

After several months of self-managing to hold his principal accountable, the principal had turned 180 degrees. The school’s organizational health dramatically improved over the previous year.

Long-Term Behavior
We don’t replace brick walls with clear pathways overnight. Corey and I worked together for months, deliberately practicing his self-management strategies and approach to principal feedback across lines of difference.

While emotional intelligence coaching starts with building self-awareness, building self-management is a long process of replacing deep, limiting habits with new productive habits. Brain research shows this is a process of creating new neural pathways. When we practice a new behavior, we create a tenuous new pathway. Changing habits is about choosing this new pathway over and over again, instead of the neural superhighway we’ve been traveling most of our lives. Deliberately traveling the new path makes it stronger and the old path weaker.

Coaching to build self-awareness and self-management breaks down our leaders’ brick walls by shifting behaviors they thought were fixed traits. Emotional intelligence coaching not only improves measurable outcomes, but it also reduces personal anguish, sparks new hope and helps people thrive in their work and their lives.

Organizational leaders who have experienced this coaching are much more likely to coach others in similar ways, which dramatically impacts the conditions for professional learning across their organizations.

MATTHEW TAYLOR is CEO of the Noble Story Group in Washington, D.C.