Emotionality as strength in leadership

What is emotionality?

Lots of people I speak to say, 'emotionality? Is that a thing?’ Their question is usually accompanied by a sceptical look that is really saying, ‘why don’t you just use the word emotion? Why are you making up pretentious, academic-sounding words?’

Emotionality is a thing. And a word. There is a dictionary definition, but I prefer to reference Norman Denzin’s 1984 work On Understanding Emotion. Denzin used the term emotionality to describe culturally situated and interrelated emotions. In other words, the range of emotions that are experienced within organisations, between people and in response to situations. This is different to a perspective of emotion which is purely psychological and inherently personal. Emotionality is not only about the emotions you feel privately inside you, it is about the emotions that you feel as a result of and during interactions with other people. It is about the emotions you consider, use and are moved by when you are working with people. This strikes me as a perfect word, therefore, to describe the emotions one feels as a headteacher, or indeed any school leader, because your principal role is in interaction with others. Dr Brenda Beatty also used the word in her 2000 work Breaking the Silence where she described it as “our emotional meaning-making system.”

You can’t be a headteacher!

Although emotionality is something I have only come across as a term in recent years, I realise it has been a key part of my leadership style for a long time. Let me explain.

When I was a head of English fourteen years ago, an aspiring head of English shadowed me for the day. She came with me into my lessons, into the lesson of a struggling teacher I observed that day, and to the feedback session I gave afterwards. She came to the impromptu talk I had with a distressed parent who was making a complaint about one of my team, and to the subsequent talk I had with the team member in question. She also sat in on an incident I dealt with at lunchtime when my NQT had a meltdown and she tagged along when I had a tough meeting with the Deputy Head about progress. Finally, she came into the department meeting I was chairing after school where I broke the news that we were having an internal inspection next week.

When all of that was over, we sat down together and reflected on the day. It was great, she said. She learned a great deal. She then asked me what my career plans were. I said (like I say to anyone who asks), ‘I want to be a headteacher.’

She laughed. Actually laughed. Which threw me, I have to admit. Was it so preposterous that I wanted to be a headteacher? Why was that so ridiculous? I gathered myself together enough to say, ‘why is that so funny?’ To which, she replied, ‘you can’t be a headteacher, you’re too nice!’

Too nice. Oh dear. I reflected on what that meant. Firstly, it was a reflection of what she’d seen me do that day; I had comforted, supported, listened, empathised, encouraged, explained and placated. The difficult situations had been approached with candour, kindness and clarity. I hadn’t raised my voice at any point, I hadn’t used a stern tone, I hadn’t been dismissive, or cold, or belligerent. I had been me. Warm, connected, human.

Secondly, it was a reflection of her perception of what a headteacher should be. Clearly, her ‘prototype’ of a leader was the complete opposite to me. It knocked me, I have to admit, but it prompted me to examine leadership in a much more critical way – which kick-started my fascination with emotionality. So thank you, aspiring-head-of-English-who-laughed-at-me. I’m afraid I don’t remember your name.

Is emotion unreliable?

My warm, human, empathetic approach is intrinsically emotional. It is because I am an emotional person that I relate to people the way I do. My emotionality underpins the decisions I make, the strategies I adopt and the words I use. I have never considered my emotionality to be unreliable, because it is, as Denzin says, “the truth that touches the heart …the truth that lies at the inner core of the moral person …the truth that connects us to the world and society.” My emotionality is driven by my values, and why wouldn’t I want my leadership approach to be a product of my values?

Turns out I am quite unusual. During my master’s degree reading I realised that emotions have historically been regarded as unreliable, primitive, animal-like. I learned from Lazarus, who in Cognition and Motivation in Emotion (1991), explained that from Aristotle, through mediaeval religious dogma, to the Enlightment, and into dominant Western culture, reason has been enthroned as God-like and that cultural biases have perpetuated the completely accepted binary between emotion and reason, where reason is given primacy and emotion is seen as a “pesky interloper” (words borrowed from the great Brenda Beatty – more on her later).

When you position yourself as someone in opposition to the whole of the history of humankind (that’s how it felt – I know it’s an exaggeration), it knocks your confidence. You start to question yourself. Maybe I am too emotional to be a headteacher? Maybe my emotionality does make me weak? Perhaps I’d be a rubbish headteacher? Despite the feelings of self-doubt, augmented by reading about emotion as an “ever-present ghost of cultural disdain” (Boler, 2007) I kept coming back to what Sachs and Blackmore (1998) said about the discourses of schooling privileging head-work over heart-work. I wanted to be a headteacher who did the opposite.

To be or not to be… a headteacher

The opportunity arose to apply for a headship, so I did. I was feeling motivated by the prospect of authentic, values-driven leadership, but I was also feeling complete and utter terror. Honestly, I was terrified – of the interview, of not getting the job and of getting the job. I had just recently become aware of the WomenEd movement (I was only just getting to grips with Twitter) but I didn’t really know what it was. I had read a few brilliant tweets from some headteacher called Hannah Wilson. I didn’t really have a clue who she was, but she had a nice face, so I thought I would be really cheeky and ask her for some advice. I sent her a DM thinking that she would probably ignore me, and quite right too – why on earth should she respond to a request for advice from someone she didn’t know?

Here is my DM:

Hello Hannah,

My name is Carly. I’m a Deputy Head in Northampton and I’m going for a Headship interview this week. I wonder if I might ask your advice? I’m struggling to manage my fear. Deep down I know I can do this, but self doubt is ringing in my ears. Do you have any suggestions for how I might stop the fear turning me into a quivering wreck? The interview is Monday. I realise I am asking you this over the weekend, which is precious time. Please only respond if you have a moment to spare and don’t worry if you don’t.

Many Thanks,


What she gave me was so much more than I could ever have expected. The generosity she showed floored me. And her advice? Amazing. Here it is:

Hi Carly

Arianna Huffington wrote a book called Fearless Females for her daughter. Lots of great advice.

She challenges us to consider butterflies of fear as butterflies of anticipation.

Turn the negative into a positive.

I know affirmations help – write down how you want to show up & be seen e.g I am a confident, competent courageous leader.

Look in the mirror & say it ten times out loud in morning, before bed for next few days.

If you can’t say it & believe it then they won’t.

For inspiration watch the Amy Cuddy TED talk on power poses – also brilliant for mindset shift & confidence boost. Do it in the shower the next few days.

I find writing things down helps me – make a list of all your fears – then counter each one with the leader you are, the impact you have, the vision you have.

If you have a loud inner critic voice give it a name and tell it to pipe down!

Each strategy seems trivial but collectively will make you feel empowered.

If you are a nervous speaker make bullet point noted to take in with you or read before.

Ultimately be you, but be the best version of you. Be confident you have been shortlisted. Celebrate that. Not many get their first one so see it as a learning experience – get from it what you need to develop & grow.

Believe you will get the job, talk with affirmation about our school etc mirror their language/ ethos/ values back but ultimately know it is about fit – you are interviewing them too – how will they support you.

And if they offer you it – negotiate!!

What training, support do you need? Go higher than you are prepared to accept. Then you won’t feel short changed.

Sorry for brain dump – hope that helps. Good luck!! Xx Ps come to WomenEd Leicester on 24/6?

My reply:

Blimey! Messaging you was a great decision! This is just what I needed. Thank you. So grateful for such an inspirational brain dump! I already feel better. I will do all of those things and I will be the best version of me. Thank you.

24/6 – if I can, I will.

Hannah then finished with:

DM if you have a wobble. But best of luck

She really has got such a lovely face! But also, what a lovely person. How incredible, to receive DM after DM after DM – each with brilliant nuggets of advice. (I am thrilled that I finally got to meet Hannah in person at the WomenEd Unconference on 30th September. I wanted to shake her hand – instead I got a huge hug!)

So, armed with Hannah’s advice, I wrote down my fears, I talked at myself in the mirror, I named my inner voice Doris and told her to take a hike and I watched the Amy Cuddy TED talk. I did power poses in the shower on the morning of the interview and all the way there in the car and in the loo when I got there. And I can tell you, I was ON FIRE! I was SO good. I was answering every question brilliantly, I was getting fantastic feedback from everyone, my lesson was amazing, the panel discussions were electric, I talked about my values and my vision, I got through to the final three; I enthused, I inspired, I emoted out of my skin and then...

I didn’t get the job.

I was devastated. The Chair of Governors spoke to me afterwards. His feedback? I was too passionate. Too passionate. I’m still unable to articulate in words what that did to me. What I can tell you is this: they appointed a middle-aged white man to replace the middle-aged white man that was leaving. And I want to assure you, I have nothing against middle-aged white men – I am married to one.

The metaphors of school leadership

Whilst all this was happening I was completing my master’s research. I was interviewing headteachers to explore whether they felt constrained or enabled to be emotional in their role. A number of the headteachers I spoke to talked about school leadership using the metaphors of warfare. Common words and phrases included: under siege, in battle, in combat, on the offensive, on the defensive, under fire, bombarded, under attack and on the front line.

The warfare metaphors symbolised a lack of emotionality. One of the participants talked about emotionality as a chink in their armour that, once exposed, would be exploited as a weakness. What became clear was that many headteachers (not all) felt that they had to be cold, distant, unemotional – exactly the kind of headteacher that the aspiring-head-of-English from long ago had regarded as a ‘prototype’. The current educational climate was to blame: the neo-liberal agenda, performativity, high-stakes testing, pressure from the DfE, from Ofsted, from parents, from MAT trusts, from Governors, from every angle it seemed. I started to feel glad that I hadn’t got the job.

Free to be my imperfect self

Whilst analysing my data and writing my conclusions, I reached a personal and professional epiphany. I am myself and that is good enough. If I am passionate, and emotional, and warm and empathetic, that does not make me any less of a leader. Dr Brenda Beatty, in her incredible research, found that open and shared emotionality makes you a better leader – a more human, connected leader who can operate with authenticity because you know that everything you do is driven by your values. Research into Wounded Leaders by Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski (2004) told me the same thing: that the non-negotiable that I come back to most often is being true to myself. I am free to be my imperfect self.

A reconfigured view of leadership

And so, in my research, and in my WomenEd presentation, I offer up this: a reconfigured view of leadership. One which does not blame the educational context, but instead prioritises the agential responsibility of headteachers to set the emotional tone of a school, to open a space for vulnerability, and fallibility and feeling – and not see them as weakness, but as strength. I see it like this: if you are unemotional, you risk not communicating your values, and what can be more important to a school community than shared values?

A lot of leadership is performance and, for some, that performance is cold, distant, over-rationalised, mechanised and unemotional. Interestingly, the headteachers I interviewed recoiled from the concept of performance; as if admitting you ‘performed’ meant that you were admitting you were pretending or offering something false or superficial. My reconfigured view of emotional leadership embraces the idea of performance, but asks leaders to disassociate it with the idea of ‘acting’ and see it more as ‘accomplishment’ (as we do in sport or music); to see it less as artifice, and more as artistry. Emotionality gives you the agency to do this.

Final word

If you have made it this far, I salute you.

I ended my WomenEd presentation by sharing my risky career decision. I decided to leave my wonderful job as Deputy Headteacher of a fantastic school (Northampton School for Girls) and go freelance. I am now an independent education adviser, coach and trainer (I still can’t bring myself to use the word consultant, but that is, in fact, what I am). I have not abandoned my goal to be a headteacher, but I need to spread my wings and get more experience. Also, if I am to be a headteacher, I need it to be in a school that embraces my vision for leadership, that can accept me as a passionate, emotional human being and see that as my great strength. If that means I have to wait, so be it. Perhaps I will set up my own school. We will see.


Thank you to everyone who attended my session and for those of you who tweeted or who spoke to me afterwards. I cannot tell you how much your support means to me.

In the session, as part of our shared reconfigured view of leadership, we rejected the warfare metaphors and composed new ones:

  • Leadership is a team sport: with a manager, coaches, medics, publicists, players and supporters – where everyone is working toward a common goal.
  • Leadership is about being naked, being prepared to be seen for who you truly are – an authentic human being.
  • Leadership is a river running down a mountain, fed by tributaries, but flowing into a never-full sea of potential. There may be whirlpools and eddies on the way to the sea, but the water always finds its way, nourishing the land as it goes.
  • Leadership is a garden, which we nurture and grow. There may be weeds, and they may be beautiful, but they need to be dealt with. We can deal with them by removing them or surrounding them with flowers. We would not use weedkiller, because that can contaminate the soil and cause destruction, so we will treat them gently, but firmly and they will either become part of the garden, or have to go.

I may not have faithfully represented all the ideas that were offered – so please feel free to comment and expand on them.

Final word – I promise.

I had intended to use music in my presentation, but I couldn’t get the tech to work.

I was going to include snippets from the following songs:

Perhaps we can start to compile a WomenEd soundtrack!

Share this article: