Why Hong Kong school principals need high EQ to cope with change

Change is stressful for teachers and pupils, who need a principal's wisdom and guidance to get through it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 6:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 July, 2015, 6:10am

In recent years there has been increasing recognition of the role of emotion in learning and leadership. Students need a secure environment, in both physical and emotional terms, to learn well. As psychologist and author Daniel Goleman says, students who are angry, frightened or depressed do not learn.

In the same vein, to bring about change - especially deep change - in mindsets and behaviour, people need a sense of security that comes only from knowing where to go, how to get there and why they should go. Again, emotions matter as change means learning.

The massive education reform we are undergoing means tremendous changes ranging from the academic structure to the mostly recently instituted career and life planning for students. This has caused lots of emotional instability for school stakeholders, particularly teachers.

When coupled with school closure, or the threat of it, the instability can escalate into upheavals, or even crises. School heads bear the brunt of this, having to cope with different problems such as teacher stress, burnout, depression, or suicides.

Other serious issues may include opposition, sabotage, internal rivalry, and even litigation, involving not only teachers, but also students and parents.

On the more positive side, school heads also have to find ways to motivate and mobilise teachers and students to embrace and make change for the better. Such demands can exact a toll in the form of mental stress or more serious health problems. In this era, leaders need a high emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) to cope with all the demands placed on them.

To achieve a higher EQ, the leader can do more inner work, like introspection or meditation, which enables him to understand, accept and forgive himself better, and also become firmly anchored in sound values and beliefs when facing change and uncertainty.

With better emotional strength, he can perceive change more objectively, regarding what it is, why it should be so, and how it can be made. Handling himself better emotionally can help him handle others better. Relationships matter much if a school has to be effective and productive, and the leader needs to be adept at fostering and maintaining them in times of change.

School heads have to find ways to motivate and mobilise teachers and students to embrace and make change for the better

He has to be able to read moods and emotions, and understand their origins and strengths, especially the negative ones, like the fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. Knowing staff's anxieties arising from change, he is in a better position to help them learn new things and relearn or unlearn ineffective ways.

This is essential if they are to internalise and institutionalise new educational values or pedagogical innovations, which are the part and parcel of education reform.

Understanding that people need a security platform from which to operate, an emotionally mature and proficient leader will perform the roles of mentor, encourager, comforter, adviser, or praise-giver as circumstances demand. Doing so will foster in and among his staff positive emotions, such as optimism, a sense of belonging and high spirits, which are so important for making big changes. The ability to embrace learning by trial and error and pioneering is also a prerequisite for success.

After years of hard work, the reform to date can be described as complete in form but still short on substance or spirit. This can be partly attributable to the insufficient exercise of emotional leadership on the part of school and system leaders. When merely giving instructions or managing by issuing memos, leaders achieve little beyond the superficial.

Recently, I saw a teacher's contemptuous post on her Facebook page about how her principal lost control of himself at the final staff meeting of the year. Leaders who are not emotionally intelligent or disciplined enough are very likely to lose the respect of their followers.

Conversely, those who are attuned to how emotions work in themselves and others are more ready to gain influence among people and effect change through them. This is what Goleman calls resonant leadership. We need it badly.

Robin Cheung is a retired Hong Kong school principal