The Emotions of Leadership: A Conversation with Daniel Goleman

Type: Article
Topics: Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine, Social Emotional Learning

October 01, 2021

Thought Leadership Series
Daniel Goleman1
The author of The New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman co-directs the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University.

In the 10th installment of the School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series, we feature the insights of Daniel Goleman, an internationally known psychologist and a former science journalist who reported on the brain and behavioral sciences. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, remained on The New York Times bestseller list for 18 months with more than 5 million copies in print in 40 languages. He also has written books on creativity, self-deception, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.

A co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, now based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Goleman co-directs the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University.

Goleman recently was interviewed by Julie A. Vitale, superintendent of the 16,500-student Oceanside Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif., since 2018. The two discuss Goleman’s concepts of social-emotional learning and emotional intelligence. The author shares strategies for effective organizational leadership and developing empathy in a digital world.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

JULIE VITALE: In your groundbreaking work, Emotional Intelligence, you share that, when our emotions are too muted, they create dullness and distance. But when our emotions are too extreme, they can become overwhelming and immobilizing.

As superintendents, we’re constantly working to keep our emotions in check, especially during unprecedented times such as we’ve experienced for the past year and a half. And, I will add, also during school board meetings. What advice would you have to maintain the right balance?

DANIEL GOLEMAN: I think the answer to emotional balance lies in making certain key distinctions between disturbing emotions, those are the ones you want to manage, and positive emotions, the emotions that motivate you, that give you enthusiasm, that engage you in what you’re doing. Those are what you want to marshal.

So I don’t lump emotions as one thing. They are many different things. Some of them help us. Some don’t. If you’re a leader, like a superintendent, your emotions are contagious to other people. You can’t help it. It’s just the nature of how groups work and systems work and social status and all of that. So it really is incumbent, particularly on someone in that kind of a position, to not let disruptive, distracting, disturbing emotions take you over and to, on the other hand, keep your goals in mind, stay optimistic, and, in other words, cultivate more positive emotions. For one thing, it benefits you. And, for another thing, it will benefit everyone you contact.

VITALE: Yes, absolutely. Staying optimistic, I think, is definitely a key in cultivating that positivity. And you’re right about the contagion of our emotions. What we feel is what our cabinet level feels and that is then brought to our principals and, ultimately, to our teachers.

GOLEMAN: It looks like this. In the group, it’s natural to pay most attention to what the most powerful person in that group says or does. So, as a superintendent, you’re in that position. Which means your emotional state gets magnified. And lots of research shows this, but emotions are contagious, particularly from the most powerful person in the group outward.

VITALE: For those who are new to your work, share your thoughts on how superintendents might most effectively leverage EQ to inform and influence their organizations.

GOLEMAN: The idea of emotional intelligence has to do with being intelligent about our emotions. There are four different ways we can be intelligent about emotions in my model.

One is knowing what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it and how it shapes what we think and what we do and say. That’s self-awareness. The second is using that awareness to better manage our emotions, to notice, for example, that we’re getting angry right now or that we’re being completely distracted or we’re tuning out the person in front of us. It’s important to notice that so you can do some-thing about it, you can manage how you act and how you feel.

Julie Vitale
Julie Vitale, superintendent in Oceanside, Calif., sees value in applying emotional intelligence to her work with school board members. PHOTO BY DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE VIA ZUMA PRESS

And emotional management entails not just lessening disturbing emotions but maximizing positive ones. Like having a growth mindset, seeing not dismissing people as they are, but seeing, like your students in schools, that people can change and improve. You can also stay optimistic yourself. That’s all part of self-management. You can be adaptable. As challenges come, you could find ways to manage things to work with them.

The third part is empathy, tuning into other people, knowing what they’re feeling without them telling you in words. Because you can tell this in tone of voice, facial expression, not in words usually.

Then, putting that all together, to have effective interactions in relationships.

When it comes to your direct reports as superintendent, that’s where the relationship aspect of emotional intelligence comes in. Are you able to notice simmering tensions and surface them and settle them in a kind of win/win way? Are you good at leading a team? Can you inspire people? Can you motivate them? Can you persuade? Can you influence? That’s all part of the superintendent’s job. And it all comes from within the domain of emotional intelligence.

VITALE:Yes, you know what you made me think of when you were talking earlier about our teams and having me describe our structure? As superintendents, we all work for school boards. And school boards are elected officials, generally made up of groups of five, seven or nine members in school systems. What I find is, often as superintendents, we directly are impacted by how school board members are behaving or acting or feeling or emoting. I’m sure you’ve seen this with other organizational leaders. They work for various boards, as well. What advice would you offer to us to help our board members become more in tune with their own EQ, self-awareness, self-management, empathy in relationships?

GOLEMAN: Sure, I would say this: It’s very difficult, even touchy, to try to manage up, to try to change the people you work for. For a top leader, that’s your board. Instead, I would try to marshal two aspects of emotional intelligence. One is empathy, understanding that person’s perspectives and their feelings. The second is self-management, managing your own reaction to that person so that you can make the best decisions, you can relate to them in a way that is going to be most effective. I would not try to change the emotional intelligence of a school board member.

VITALE: That’s excellent advice. I want to flip just a little bit. We’ve talked a bit about empathy. In your books, you mentioned that by late childhood, the most advanced levels of empathy emerge. As educators, what can we do to build empathy in our students at an early age? Are there specific actions that we can be taking to help build that empathy within our students or even within our staff?

GOLEMAN: You know, I’m a very big advocate of social-emotional learning. Are you familiar with it at all?


GOLEMAN: One of the developmental lines that SEL, if it’s done well, helps children with is empathy. Understanding the perspective of others. For example, one common exercise in SEL is sharing how you feel and why you feel that way. Listening to other kids and hearing how they feel helps develop your empathy toward them. I see lots of data suggest that many of the kinds of problems that you see in schools with kids like bullying or fights are lessened greatly when students get regular input on social and emotional skills, which is, basically, teaching emotional intelligence to kids. When it’s done well, it’s developmentally appropriate. So you might teach a given lesson differently to a 2nd grader and a 5th grader and a 12th grader and so on. But you’re teaching the same thing as children are able to comprehend better.

It’s important that best practices include parents. And spend time training teachers. Make the culture of the school reflect an emotionally intelligent place so that kids get it from all sides. Students are learning constantly.

VITALE: Now, to the broader impacts. I’m interested to know what impact do you think social media has had on empathy for students and adults, as I’m certain that you are aware, people say what they want to say using social media as the mechanism, with very little understanding of what the person they may be talking about might be feeling or experiencing.

GOLEMAN: There’s a phenomenon among psychologists who study social media called cyber disinhibition. What it means is that people will say things online, on social media, for example, that they would never say face to face. And the reason they would never say face to face is that when you’re looking at someone in the eye, when they’re picking up every emotional signal you’re sending, your brain instantly says ‘Don’t say that, say this instead.’ It makes interactions work smoothly.

Daniel Goleman2
Daniel Goleman, a co-founder of CASEL, believes the culture of every school ought to “reflect an emotionally intelligent place.” PHOTO BY KRIS KRUG

So there’s a diminution of information channels as you go from face to face to Zoom or web conferencing to telephone. Voice still carries a lot of emotional message, but you don’t get facial expression. The worst is text alone.

If a young person is sitting alone typing out an e-mail, their emotional centers, particularly the amygdala, the part of the brain that reacts with anger and with fear, is not inhibited. The face-to-face interaction inhibits it. It gives that part of the brain information about how this is going to impact the other person.

Essentially, that person who is typing a message on social media is indifferent to how it will land with the other person because they don’t see them, they’re not with them.

There’s nothing to put the brakes on, sadly. They can be mean in a way they would not be if they were with a person.

VITALE: Segueing a little bit, you divided leadership into six categories that get results: commanding, visionary, affiliative, democratic, pace setting and coaching. What suggestions do you have for superintendents to consciously switch styles and how to know which to draw upon and when? Is that something that could be strategically learned?

GOLEMAN: I think it’s something you understand intuitively, that this is a situation that calls for coaching, a little one-on-one with this person and they’re a direct report and I want to help them get better at what they do. So that calls for coaching. Now, if you’re addressing a group of people and you want to motivate and inspire them, then that visionary style, where you articulate a shared purpose that has meaning for you and has meaning for them, that’s very positive in that situation. If you’re in a situation where you sense there’s a conflict, you can see there’s a conflict, then you want to be the mediator. And if people have done something that’s worth celebrating, we want to celebrate with them. Those are all very positive styles.

The unfortunate styles are all too common these days in leaders. One is what’s called the pacesetter, where often it’s because you were so good individually that you get promoted to a leadership position. But you got so good because you’re a perfectionist and you constantly drive yourself to do better. Sadly, pacesetters see other people through that same lens. So they don’t celebrate them, we don’t praise them for good work. They condemn them for what they did wrong. They’re rather dismissive. They don’t see that they can still get better.

Then, there’s the command-and-control leader. You know, do it because I’m the boss. It’s just a style that tends to alienate people. You want to mix it or use it only if it’s an emergency.<

VITALE: In one of your books, you write about how we can screen prospective employees to work in our district offices and schools based on their EQ. I wondered if you had examples of questions that we might ask to help assess someone’s EQ in an interview.

GOLEMAN: The question I would ask is, “Can you give me the names of three people who know you, who will talk to me candidly?” People in an interview, a job interview, are at their best. They’re trying to be at their best, to put on their best face. I, personally, don’t trust that situation as a basis for getting good information. I would rather ask people who worked with them before who will talk to me in confidence about what they’re really like in a situation.

Another thing you can do is hire people provisionally and see what chemistry they create, how well they work for six months, say. Then make a decision.

I don’t actually think there’s a good instrument for assessing emotional intelligence for a job applicant.

VITALE: So if we found three people, what questions might we ask those people?

GOLEMAN: Tell me about a time this person did something really well. Tell me about a time this person really screwed up something. And what’s the general reputation that this person has created in their position? And why?

VITALE: Would you mind elaborating a bit more on this question and provide a couple more examples?

GOLEMAN: Well, for example, in the time they did something poorly, what did they learn? Did they improve after that? Did they handle that same situation and similar ones better? I think that’s actually a key question.

VITALE: You’re the co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which serves as the framework for teaching social and emotional learning in schools across the globe. What prompted you to establish CASEL and how do you see this work impacting students to become more emotionally grounded, especially in the aftermath of a yearlong pandemic that forced remoteness on so many?<

GOLEMAN: I co-founded CASEL in 1994. I got interested because I was writing an article for The New York Times about a school shooting, which then was very rare, and the aftermath. I stumbled across a woman named Linda Lantieri, who was brought in to help the students with grief and trauma after that shooting. She was talking about something called emotional literacy. I thought that was a fantastic idea that we could use to help children emotionally, not just cognitively, in our schools.

Linda and I and a half dozen other people got together and founded CASEL. I found a few pioneering programs, which I wrote about in my first book. Now there are hundreds. All we do at CASEL is be sure that research is done well on these programs. We also talk about best practices.

One of the things we found is that it’s well and good to say you’re going to do SEL. But if you implement poorly, it’s not going to help students one bit. If it’s done well, as shown through meta-analyses that have been done with more than 270,000 students in the aggregate, it improves pro-social behavior, liking school, liking class, feeling that someone cares about you. It lessens anti-social behavior. I mentioned bullying types and the whole spectrum of that. Improves it about 10 percent on average and more in schools that need it more. Then academic achievement scores go up 11 percent.

This is really strong data. It suggests that when students are not preoccupied with emotional upset either from home or because they didn’t get invited to that party or whatever the melodrama of childhood is, when they know how to handle them better — that’s what SEL teaches — they can learn better.

VITALE: When you speak with organizational leaders, in terms of emotional intelligence and strengthening all attributes, what do you think are the strongest traits that a superintendent or other organizational leaders need to demonstrate to effectively lead our school systems?

GOLEMAN: I have a few things. One is warm-heartedness, and the other is inspiration. You know, as a superintendent, you’re affecting students. But that’s very far removed from your day to day. There was a study done for the Ministry of Education in the United Kingdom some years ago where they looked at what they called heads of schools. They controlled for demographics, where the students lived, how wealthy they were and so on. They found that if the head of the school was strong in three or four of the styles I talked about, the students did far better academically. I think what’s in the black box is how the heads of schools treated teachers who then treated students. They could teach better. They could teach their best. And I think that that goes upward, too.

A superintendent is leading a large operation, like a CEO of a company. But how that leader, how that superintendent, treats the people whom they deal with day in and day out affects how those people treat the next level down and the next level down. There’s a ripple effect outward.

So being able to care about people and to keep your eye on a goal and to inspire people toward that goal, I think, is at the heart of what a real top leader, like a superintendent, ought to do

VITALE: I couldn’t agree more. My last question involves your bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, now celebrating its 25th-year anniversary with a new edition. What has changed or surprised you most relating to emotional intelligence since your work has been devoured by educators around the globe now for so long?

GOLEMAN: Yeah, I didn’t expect that. That was a pleasant surprise. Also, the real surprise was how well the uptake in the organizational world, business community and other organizations, particularly in terms of leadership training, I did not expect that. But now, perhaps due to my articles in the Harvard Business Review, emotional intelligence is seen as intrinsic to effective leadership.

I did an article in 1998 for the Review called “What Makes a Leader,” which became their most requested reprint in the history of the magazine.

VITALE: Yes, I have it right in front of me. I read it.

GOLEMAN: I think all that that means is that people have known this all along. They just didn’t have language for it.

VITALE: Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything you were hoping to talk about that I didn’t ask you that would be good information for the readers, who are predominantly superintendents?

GOLEMAN: No, I think you covered all bases. Thank you for those excellent questions.

VITALE: Thank you. It was an honor preparing for the interview and talking with you as you personally had influence over my career, my actions and who I am as a leader. I know I speak for hundreds of colleagues as we talk about your work and throw around your language like it’s a second language. Like I said, we know who you are and we engage in your work, and we use your language and we really, really thank you for the work that you do.

GOLEMAN: Well, I’m grateful to you for letting me know. This has been quite a pleasure.


Julie Vitale


Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District

Books by Daniel Goleman

Several books on organizational leadership by Daniel Goleman carry particular relevance for school leaders. Here’s what resonated for me in three of his works.

  • Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995)
    Goleman’s groundbreaking international bestseller was a game changer for understanding the components of a successful leader. There are countless leaders with high IQs and great technical skills who are not succeeding in their leadership positions. Goleman posits that the most successful leaders also have a high EQ or what has come to be known as Emotional Intelligence.

    The foundations of EQ are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. A synopsis of the terms can be found in Goleman’s article “What Makes a Leader,’’ which was named by the Harvard Business Review as one of its 10 “must read” articles.

  • Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (2001)
    Primal leadership refers to the emotional dimensions of leadership. In Goleman’s words, “a leader’s primal task is an emotional one — to articulate a message that resonates with their followers’ emotional reality, with their sense of purpose, to move people in a positive direction. Leadership, after all, is the art of getting work done through other people.”

    This book helps leaders understand that how they lead matters, the climate they create in their district matters and the feeling tone of the workplace matters.

  • Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (2013)
    As superintendents, we are relentlessly “pinged” by our technological devices with alerts, text messages, direct messages, tweets, likes and old-fashioned phone calls. I start most meetings by reminding people to set aside their “disruptive appendages” to put attention on the topic and or speaker at hand.

    In this book, Goleman too asserts that what we need is focus — not so much that we have tunnel vision, but not too little that we are distracted by every little thing. “Open awareness lies in a particularly fertile area between the poles,” Goleman writes, and this book reminds us that we must resist the distractions and continue to sharpen our focus for effective leadership.