Leading in higher education with emotional intelligence


Organizations thrive when they learn to ask HOW before WHAT.

When I first joined the leadership team at a top-tier business school, eager to apply my skills as a graduate of the MBA program and a brand consultant in the corporate world, I discovered that our strategic goal was to become the best public business school in the United States.

It was a laudatory aspiration to be sure. Who could argue with it? However, I soon realized the plan was heavy on things we would DO to gain that goal, but very light on HOW we would do it. In an academic environment, with its fiefdoms and diversified management perspectives, this encouraged a focus on the productivity and results of our individual programs and departments, rather than the broader school or the university.

“We Will Be the Best!”

That outcome-focused approach did not encourage the sharing of resources or information. If the undergraduate program gained deep insight into the consumer behaviors of Millennials, there was little incentive to share that insight with the MBA program, and no process or expectation that such sharing would happen.

As a school-wide brand builder, I witnessed how counter-productive it was to engage in this siloed thinking. It isn’t that we didn’t have very skilled and motivated leadership or that we weren’t very courteous with each other in meetings and in the hallways. I’m simply talking about the missing element that could have lifted us to the next level, and that is a focus on HOW we would go about pursuing our common strategic goals.

Finding the Missing Motivation Through EI

A few years after joining the school leadership team, I was asked to join a leadership growth program. Frankly, I was less than enthusiastic. I believed that I already had good leadership skills, my department was productive, turn-over was low, etc. The course seemed like a bit of a waste of time, but I went along out of a sense that it might be good for some of the other people who needed that kind of thing.

I was pleasantly surprised. The program encouraged me to dive into the book Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. As we discussed the authors’ insights, I began to see the potential to lead our organization to an exciting HOW of our goal achievement. The book’s emphasis on exercising leadership with emotional intelligence (EI), not only for individuals and small teams but across entire organizations, opened my eyes to the potential of the school to truly stand out among business schools, both public and private.

“Gifted leadership occurs where heart and head—feeling and thought—meet.”

I recognized that developing a school-wide team—deans, faculty members, and front-line staff members alike—operating from a basis of healthy EI could revolutionize HOW the school operated, which would naturally lead us to the WHAT and WHERE of any strategic plan.

The Great Irony of the Business School

We teach important business principles in the classroom and explore deep questions of business productivity, yet business schools are entrenched in the academic environment, and often our operational practices are creaky and sluggish. The sort of transformational culture that has led great companies such as Apple or Whole Foods to bloom and prosper, through diverse business cycles and competitive pressures, often seems out of reach for the more traditional players in higher education.

What if we could capture that transformational leadership culture within the school’s operations, not just teach it in our classrooms? Suddenly, the goal of becoming the best public business school would take a new twist. What if our goal were to create the most vibrant and innovative business learning and knowledge creation environment in the world?

A key element of that culture would be the emotional intelligence exhibited by leaders, teams, and the organization as a whole. It would require departments to break out of their self-inflicted boundaries and to look at the environment we are creating as a whole, not an individual silo. It would demand creativity and collaborative leadership rather than specialized focus and turf-protection.

Such a goal would not require new facilities. It would not require new disciplines. It would not draw resources away from any sector of the school, nor would it cause anyone to feel left out.

A Transformation in Thinking

Rather than picking a particular destination in the future and saying, “Here is where we are going,” this new approach identifies a certain WAY we will be.

“If we can become this, we will naturally arrive at a destination that is worthy of us.”

The authors of Primal Leadership point out that many companies have been successful in these kinds of transformation, but that it is not easy. It isn’t about running a few people through a leadership course or even just exhibiting effective EI leadership at the top level. It requires a culture change, shifting of leadership styles, acceptance of new behaviors, and the institution of policies and operating procedures that are in harmony with the vision. The vision itself must draw upon the individual aspirations of team members, and constant attention must be paid to maintaining a culture that encourages the display of emotionally intelligent behaviors.

Building such a culture requires leaders and followers to draw upon a new set of skills, looking at things differently, allowing for experimentation, and rewarding freshness rather than the status quo. That’s a tall order. How many deans or CEOs can talk about creativity and discovery within their organization with the same authenticity as Steve Jobs talking about innovation at Apple?

How to Begin

Applying the principles outlined in Primal Leadership, a business school dean or a CEO could begin with the following steps, modified to his or her organizational peculiarities.

  • The CEO (Dean) works on emotional intelligence leadership, including a 360-style leadership style evaluation, one-on-one with an external (for objectivity and confidentiality) executive coach. He prepares to engage the organization in his broad vision and solicit their involvement in formulating the plan. He makes it clear that what is being asked for is not only incremental improvement but a transformational change in operating culture.
  • Top leadership is also coached on EI leadership and given opportunities to practice the principles under one-on-one guidance from mentors and coaches. Emphasis is placed on the leadership styles of visionary, coaching, affiliative and democratic. Pacesetting and commanding modes are used sparingly.
  • Stakeholders are engaged in the assessment of strengths and weaknesses and are led through a “safe” process of brainstorming on potential areas of improvement. Specific attention is devoted to evaluating the gaps in EI resonance-building leadership. Change agents are identified.
  • Cross-disciplinary teams help identify ways to move from talking to action. Processes and procedures are created that help people get out of their boxes and begin to consider the wider vision of the organization.
  • On-going attention is paid to culture and EI leadership.

This approach does not force anyone into uncomfortable behaviors or activities. Aligning personal visions and organizational vision is an important part of the process. So a faculty member would not be drawn into a process that compromises his or her academic mission but would be challenged to consider how that mission can enhance the overall innovative learning environment of the school. This leadership culture change provides more opportunity for individual contributions, not less.

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“Gifted leadership occurs where heart and head—feeling and thought—meet,” write the authors. Leading with emotional intelligence does not supplant operational goals, but rather invigorates and inspires their execution.

The tagline for our school is Human-Centered, Future Focused, describing an educational philosophy that enables agility, persistence, and confidence in facing an unknown future. To me, that sounds a whole lot like “Determine the HOW, let the WHAT follow.”


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