Compassionate Leadership: Leading with Emotional Intelligence

Leading with Emotional Intelligence

Pauline Amabile, a teacher who works for Chari R. Chanley, Principal of Monroe Township Middle School, asks her if she has a moment to discuss something. Mrs. Chanley knows that this particular teacher has an elderly father and a mother with certain health issues. “Most certainly,” Mrs. Chanley says with a smile.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” Pauline begins. “I was thinking about it, and I said this to another teacher. You always ask about my mom, but you actually hear me when I tell you something. It’s not like you just say ‘Oh, how is everybody?’ You’ll actually say, “Oh, how did that procedure go with your mom?’ or ‘Did you have to schedule that appointment?’ You really listen. It makes me feel valued.”

Chari Chanley with Pauline Amabile accepting the award of Teacher of the Year.

Mrs. Chanley demonstrates what it means to lead with emotional intelligence. In the next few sections, with guidance from Mrs. Chanley and the latest research, we will show you how to lead with emotional intelligence and the–sometimes extraordinary–results of such leadership on staff and students. Plus, we will include a bonus link to in-depth learning for those looking to further their understanding of leadership and emotional intelligence.

Emotional Culture

Olivia A. O’Neill and Sigal Barsade spent ten years studying the emotional culture of organizations and its impact on employees. Unsurprisingly, they found that emotions in the workplace affect employee collaboration, satisfaction, and burnout, as well as performance and attendance.

Research also shows that emotions affect how employees make decisions and how creative they are. It affects their loyalty to the organization, how well they perform duties, and how focused they are. Thus, simply to ignore the emotional culture would be defeating to any organization. As O’Neill and Barsade put it, “Every organization has an emotional culture, even if it’s one of suppression.”

happy teacher, happy students

A school is a type of organization, thus it also has a distinct emotional culture. Emotional culture in schools is a topic that Principal Chari Chanley, Ed.S., has been researching for her doctoral dissertation.

As an educational leader for almost 20 years, Mrs. Chanley asks the question, “How and in what way does the principal shape school culture?” She found that when educational leaders create a pleasant environment for their teachers and staff, and when they give them the tools, resources, and support to be their very best, then “everything they do, they love doing”.

[bctt tweet=”A happy environment creates happy teachers, and happy teachers create happy students.-Chari Chanley @MTMS_FALCONS” via=”no”]

In many ways, emotional culture is contagious, spreading throughout an organization for the good or the bad. In fact, research on emotional contagion shows that people in groups imitate each other’s behavior, ultimately impacting brain function. This is exactly what Mrs. Chanley’s research and experience has shown.

The Whole Child Approach

When asked to define emotional intelligence, Chari Chanley says it must start with Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs.

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s theory states that certain needs take precedence over others. You start with basic physiological needs (such as food, water, etc.), you move to safety needs (security), then belonging and love needs (relationships, friends), and esteem needs (accomplishment), culminating in self-actualization needs (full realization of potential).

Mrs. Chanley emphasizes that in order to exercise emotional intelligence when dealing with anybody, from students to teachers to support staff, you must first make sure that basic needs are met. One must make sure that people have access to food, clothing, and adequate shelter. You must then make sure that people are physically safe and feel safe. She emphasizes the feeling of safety in a school environment, considering that as of late schools have unfortunately become a target of violence.

After these basic needs are met, one can focus on emotional needs. Mrs. Chanley cites a number of significant emotional needs. These include the need to feel love and friendship, the need to feel safe to make your own choices and be your own person, the need to feel respected and respect others. She believes that the need for self-esteem and self-worth plays a major role in emotional intelligence and success.

Chari Chanley with student Kyle Siegel at the National Junior Honor Society Induction Ceremony.
Chari Chanley with student Kyle Siegel at the National Junior Honor Society Induction Ceremony.

Ultimately, she sees emotional intelligence as being aware of people’s emotional needs and supporting those needs. Of course, it goes without saying that this comes after their basic physiological needs have been met. She reminds us that middle school is all about the whole child approach.

Mrs. Chanley also shares with us where she first gained her emotional intelligence–as a classroom teacher for inner-city students. Later, she tells us where she refined that emotional intelligence, as a mother of two children.


Modeling Positive Behavior

Modeling emotional intelligence in your everyday actions, as a leader, is the foundation for creating an emotionally intelligent atmosphere, according to Chari Chanley. She talks about how she dresses in all purple for school spirit day and dresses up for Halloween, how she lovingly inquires about a staff member’s sick mother, and how she makes sure to greet all people with a smile. This is all part of the emotionally intelligent school culture that she builds.

positive emotions

This corresponds to the research of Barsade and O’Neill cited earlier. They outline three steps to actualizing an emotional culture:

  1. Build upon the emotions that people are already feeling.
  2. Model the emotions you seek to encourage.
  3. Get people to use “deep acting” to turn fake feelings into real emotions.

Modeling certain emotions is a surefire way of bringing them into the school culture. In addition, research cites using the physical environment to reinforce positive emotions. For example, using bulletin boards for people to write compliments about fellow staff members.

Mrs. Chanley remembers moving into her new school building. At the time, Monroe Township Middle School was moving headquarters to the former high school building in Monroe. Teachers were complaining about the bad shape the desks were in. Hearing their concerns, Mrs. Chanley reassured them that they wouldn’t sit in a desk that she wouldn’t be comfortable sitting in herself. She continued to brighten up the environment by painting the lockers purple and decorating the walls, providing new furniture and equipment as needed.

A Real Leader, A Real Person

Building relationships with employees is a must. Whether it was attending the funeral of a former student with the school guidance counselor or inviting fellow teachers to her son’s bar mitzvah, Mrs. Chanley recognizes her employees as people first and foremost. Reflecting on some difficult emotional moments in her career as a leader, she recalls the death of a student who was hit by a car.

forming relationships outside of work

“You know, as a building principal you worry about test scores and evaluations of the teachers. You always worry about the academics…but we also forget that life is about loss. It’s about wonderful things when I have my teachers having babies… But then you have that sadness when, you know, my secretary just lost her mom…

[bctt tweet=”You can’t be a leader without being a person.-Chari Chanley, Ed.S.” username=”MTSDFALCONS @MTMS_FALCONS”]

Meghan M. Biro, Founder and CEO of TalentCulture, suggests that building relationships outside of the office and acknowledging significant life events are key to promoting a healthy and positive emotional environment. These are two things that Mrs. Chanley has been doing for decades as an educational leader. She feels that this has helped her to create an emotionally intelligent school culture.

“I bring my personal life to work. People say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t bring your personal life to work.’ No, that’s not true. I bring my personal life to work, because I am a person. I am not a computer chip.”

The “Why” Concept

As ethnographer Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it… By ‘why’ I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?”

Why Are We Here?

Chari Chanley’s “why” is to foster healthy, ethical people, who are contributing members of society. She does this by modeling this behavior. She prides herself on knowing many students by name–and there are 1,654 of them just this year. Every student is cherished and appreciated for the individual that he/she is.

[bctt tweet=”My job is to create a good citizen.-Chari Chanley, Ed.S.” username=”MTSDFALCONS @MTMS_FALCONS”]

“What does that mean? You make good choices. You do not harm others, either from a legal standpoint, an emotional standpoint, a religious standpoint, [or] an ethical standpoint. By definition, a citizen lives amongst others, [citizens] do not live in isolation. So you learn how to treat others with respect, with loyalty, with honesty, with integrity. You bear the burden of making decisions, and then you bear the burden of living with those decisions. You go to work; you go to school. You further your education; you don’t further your education. You’re a mailman. You’re a custodian. You’re a professor. Whatever role you have in life, you’re still a citizen. So, that to me is the ultimate goal: to help children live within the real world, in whatever capacity they may choose, in an emotionally healthy way.”

She brings all of her staff on board with her mission, emphasizing the foundational middle school philosophy of nurturing the whole child. Comfortable with entertaining different opinions, she asks only that team leaders in her school believe in the mission of educating the whole child and creating good citizens. As Sinek says, “If you hire people who believe what you believe, they will work for you with blood, sweat, and tears.”

“You’re The Reason Why I’m Going to Have A Life”

When asked to discuss a difficult emotional situation that she encountered in her role as an educational leader, Mrs. Chanley responded with a story of a boy who was having social and emotional difficulties in school. Ultimately, she had to be the one to make the difficult decision of keeping him in school or sending him out of district–to a school where better resources and tools might be available to him.

difficult decisions

The audio clip below provides the full story–and the following audio clip tells of its outcome nearly a decade later. Listen to how she describes handling the situation, and note the emotional intelligence she used throughout the entire ordeal.


Mrs. Chanley relates that she called her former student by name, after seeing him for the first time in almost a decade after the event. She also informs us that she stops to give him her full attention.

Did you pay careful attention to how well she knows and understands the mother of the boy? She knows the mother’s job, her culture, her concerns for her son, and ultimately how she felt about the ordeal–from embarrassment, to guilt, to apprehensiveness.

Now, let’s find out what happened next…


Mrs. Chanley speaks about making the decision as part of a team, including the school psychologist and Director of Personnel Services. Notice how the boy even recognizes that Mrs. Chanley empathized with his mother, when breaking the news to her of the decision that had been made.

leading with emotional intelligence

All of her actions speak of a leader displaying emotional intelligence, treating others and their emotions with validity, respect, and compassion. Mrs. Chanley has created and nurtured an atmosphere of true care and concern for every person that resides within the walls of Monroe Township Middle School. A true emotionally intelligent leader has to put her people first.


For those readers who are seriously interested in finding out more about leadership and emotional intelligence, Coursera is now offering a free course through Case Western Reserve University, Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here