The emotional labour of leadership

The emotional labour of leadershipDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 325KB)

  • Prepare your responses to emotional staff members.
  • Avoid reacting emotionally.
  • It is likely to be the emotional load that’s making you feel busy.
  • Know your emotional SuperPower & Kryptonite.
  • Be like an emotional scout – prepared!

In my attempts to be a thoughtful leader, I’ve reflected on the types of conversations I’ve had recently with school leaders all around the country. As part of my preparation for these articles, I make dot points about what school leaders say their current challenges are.

The one that comes out on top every single time is busy-ness. If you ask any school leader how they are, busy has become the answer that, while it might be quite true, they are now socially conditioned to provide.

When I delve a little deeper into the conversation though, I find that busy-ness isn’t the greatest challenge of the contemporary school leader. Busy-ness isn’t responsible for keeping them awake at night, for distracting them  from their families or for finding them meandering through the available jobs in a more palatable climate of the country. In fact, busy-ness is often revealed as merely a symptom of something far more high-impact and fundamental.

Busy-ness is a perception. It overwhelms leaders, causes them to believe that peripheral or personal accountabilities are affecting their capacity to stay focused on core business. What are these peripheral and personal issues that get in the way?

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them and to dominate them.”
– Oscar Wilde

They are emotions. The emotional labour associated with being a school leader is significant and largely neglected in terms of our own improvement agendas. It is emotion that keeps leaders awake at night, distracts them from their families and tempts them to respond to interstate selection criteria. Dealing with the emotional baggage of others in a way that is sensible, rational and consistent is something that all leaders strive for – and yet the experience of strong emotions in others can make them react emotionally.

The challenge is to respond (using the neo-cortex of the brain with reason, logic and strategy) rather than to react (using the limbic system of the brain with a range of emotions from sympathy through to anger and sadness). Responses, by nature, are planned in advance. Reactions are spur of the moment.

Two key emotional reactions elicited by staff members, when confronted about their performance or behaviour, are likely to have leaders either avoid the situation or manage it badly. Most leaders are comfortable with one while the other makes them recoil in terror. A useful frame that I often refer to is to identify both school leadership SuperPower and Kryptonite. Have a plan and an awareness of both.

Emotional Trap No. 1 – Anger

Angry people try to place as many people as possible between themselves and the problem. This allows them plenty of targets to blame as a way of avoiding a reality or problem that seems unpleasant to them. When confronted by an angry person:

  • Stay calm whilst being firm. Don’t change the message.
  • Keep your voice volume beneath that of the other person – you can’t win a volume based tennis match.
  • End the conversation until everyone is calm.
  • Recognise it doesn’t make sense – don’t take their rant personally. It’s just the limbic system letting off steam.
  • Safety first – don’t put yourself at any physical or professional risk.


Emotional Trap No. 2 – Crying or Sadness

  • Allow the crying – you don’t have to stop them.
  • Offer tissues as an empathic gesture.
  • Avoid the “It’s ok” trap. If it’s not going to be ok, don’t say that it is. Despite the crying, they are still hearing you.
  • Silence is ok. Wait. Resist the need to fill an awkward silence with useless platitudes.
  • Express empathy – not sympathy. Empathy = “I can see this is having an impact on you” (that is, it’s about them). Sympathy = “I know how you feel. I got fired once too – it was awful and I just stayed in bed for a week!” (that is, it’s about you).

The best managers of staff emotions are like scouts – they’re prepared. Are you?

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