Convergence of Positive Psychology, Emotional Intelligence and Coaching To Expand Leadership Capacity and Wellbeing in Districts

Christopher Nagy,
Superintendent of the Northern Valley Regional High School District in Demarest, New Jersey


 Christopher Nagy

In my first meeting with the Board of Education as the new superintendent in July, a local resident and Vietnam Veteran stood up and asked the question that I will never forget: “Excuse me, I am a Vietnam veteran and am concerned about our young people today that they be given an opportunity to be people of character and be future role models of character and citizenship. I have taken the time to look across your district and respective two high school websites and found no reference to character education. Can you tell me where I can find the district’s focus on character education?” I remained stolid and confidently responded that we do not have a specific focus on character education, but do take opportunities across academic disciplines to address character education. I said that I would look into this and get back to him. The rest of the journey of discovery and call to action is a welcomed response to one simple observation and question and undoubtedly will change the students and staff in the district for years to come and perhaps will be a call for action among other school districts across the country.

As a new superintendent, I had an entry plan and engaged in conversations with a variety of stakeholders including administrators, directors and supervisors, Board of Education members, community members, union officials, local community service organizations to name a few. In the back of my mind, I had the nagging question posed by that Vietnam Veteran…character education…where, when and maybe how? In many of my conversations, one of the common concerns expressed focused on the need to look at allaying stress levels among students. With a heavy emphasis on academics and competition, student stress is at an all time high. But how could I address this? Was there something more than offering homework free nights?

A Culture for Learning
Being an avid reader of educational leadership issues, business connections to education and a holder of a personal commitment to wellness and balance, I embarked upon a journey to reflect on the literature. With this literature, I considered my upcoming conversations with constituents in the district, preparation for a two-day retreat with my administrative team, and my first day remarks to all staff in the district. Over and over, I would reflect back to the Vietnam veteran’s words. Then the light bulb went off one day when my Director of Curriculum and Instruction introduced me to a positive psychologist and graduate of our school system – this individual wanted to pay it forward. In a conversation that expanded for hours, the vision, connection and energy created by the conversation provided me a valuable connection to my reading, early conversations and then– the value of positive psychology. A month later, a local executive coach wrote an article about me as a “visionary leader” who was looking to introduce business concepts into the educational system and expand capacity for leadership across the entire organization. I was honored and humbled. Enter the executive coach with an expertise in character education. The vision was now clear to me. Build a character education platform; focus on the wellbeing of staff and students. The energy created by the experiences could support a call to action, balance, and focus on paying it forward within the community and across the district.

Lunch and Learns for Leadership Teams
Building capacity for learning and leading begins with the leadership team. Pivotal to the success of any initiative rests in the articulation of the vision to that team. At the summer administrator and supervisor retreat shortly after I started, I summarized key literature that supported this vision - lifelong learning, balance and wellness, expansion of emotional intelligence, promotion of mentoring and coaching, and a call to action. I saw the potential to tap hidden talent among students and staff. I witnessed staff that were starving to be heard and who had pent up energy without options. I knew that if I could provide staff opportunities to understand their respective potential to make a difference, and be linchpins to students, one another and the community, the capacity for leadership would grow exponentially. The journey began with the importance of the following key works or authors:

1. Switch by Dan and Chip Heath (balance of the rational, emotional to direct a path)

2. Drive by Daniel Pink (intrinsic motivation to be part of something bigger)

3. Linchpin by Seth Godin (be the go to person that adds value to the work and organization)

4. Take the Lead by Betsy Meyers (7 selected characteristics of leaders) – book read and discussed as an administrative team

5. Selected leadership articles – jig saw executive summary provided by self-selected groups

6. Selected works of Seligman, Goleman and Lyubomirsky on Happiness and Flourishing

7. Harvard Business Review Jan/Feb 2012 journal dedicated to happiness in the workplace

Over the span of the first nine months of my superintendency, I had the opportunity to explore, discuss, apply and provide opportunities for professional exchanges during administrative lunches. The goal is to build the capacity for leadership and to sharpen the focus and application of the literature and the vision. Consequently, the participant groups took turns to provide lunch – a first for the district. It stated with the superintendent. Key to the interactive conversations was the assistance of an executive coach who facilitated challenging sessions to get the team to think differently, multi-dimensionally and globally while being risk takers. to lead, create new paths and allow others to share and try new ideas. In essence, what was being created was an incubator for uninhibited professional and personal growth within the organization. 

Generosity – Energy of Flourishing
A plan was devised to bring in other members of the school community. Numerous learning lab opportunities with the positive psychologist touched the lives of staff and students – the result - a visible difference within the buildings. Excitement followed with a yearning to be part of something big, a movement, a new direction, a future of co-creating an environment of happiness and wellbeing. The result of the labs acted as an incubator to unlock or more specifically, provide the permission to unleash energy to do something positive and creative while adding value to the community. Here enters the character education platform.

Sessions were planned and administrators, directors and supervisors participated in learning labs with a positive psychologist and executive coach. Staff and selected students also attended separate sessions. Teachers, students and staff clamored to get involved – to be part of something big – to be the next linchpins. As a result, we have a website for character education, an active committee that is coordinating efforts of service among student clubs. Furthermore, students have been challenged to create the new logo for the website, school stationary and tee-shirts to spread the word…21st century skill development does not get any better than this…a spirit of generosity leads students to be entrepreneurial and staff to be linchpins for growth and experiential learning.

Who benefits?
Over the past nine months, emotional and social leadership capacity was developed and is ongoing. Balance was experienced and is being sustained for many, and according to testimony, stress levels have changed and are being handled differently. And yes, students, staff and the community all benefit in the end. I find it refreshing to see that the Harvard Business Review sees the value of creating value within the workforce as a motivational factor that ultimately creates an environment of wellbeing and happiness which in turn provides satisfaction in the workplace and high productivity. A parallel can be made in education as well. Welcome to the convergence of social and emotional wellbeing in a climate of co-creation for the benefit of many. And to think, the first linchpin was the Vietnam veteran who asked a simple question that changed a district! 

Christopher Nagy is the superintendent of the Northern Valley Regional High School District in Demarest, New Jersey. Nagy is an assistant professor at Rider University and is an author of a book and articles on topics on educational leadership and alternate routes to education. E-mail: