How leaders can cultivate positive emotions within the school community

Dennis Sparks

Human emotions are contagious. School leaders’ emotions are particularly contagious because of their visibility within the school community. Their emotions can spread wordlessly from person to person throughout the school.

When principals and teacher leaders lament that they seem to have little influence, I remind them of the power of their emotional states to affect the entire school community, whether they intend it or not.

Leaders who are angry, cynical, anxious, or discouraged can infect the school community with their negative emotions. The downward flow of energy these emotions create what is called a “slow death spiral.”

School leaders who are enthusiastic, positive, hopeful, and have a general overall sense of well-being also infect the school community with those emotions. Researchers use the term “virtuous spiral”  because of the way those emotions create a positive mood and add energy to the organization.

Researchers in the area of positive psychology say that there are two things leaders can do to cultivate their personal well-being, which, in turn, helps create a virtuous spiral within the school community:

Practice gratitude by noting in writing at the end of the day three things for which they are grateful. Practicing this discipline for as little as six weeks has been shown to produce positive emotional effects.

Consistently use their strengths to accomplish important goals. This is especially true when leaders apply their strengths to purposes larger than themselves, which, fortunately, is built into school leaders’ work.

Principals and teacher leaders benefit when they practice gratitude and consistently use their strengths. And so do others as an upward spiral of emotion and energy suffuses the school community.

Question: What do you do to authentically lift your mood for your benefit and that of others with whom you interact?

5 Responses to “How leaders can cultivate positive emotions within the school community”


  1. 1 cathygassenheimer February 6, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Dennis,
    This blog entry is so timely for me. Today, we begin our Superintendent Leaders Network Winter retreat. Our guiding text for SLN is The Leadership Challenge — now in its fifth edition — by Kouzes and Posner

    This excerpt really stood out and connects with what you have written:

    “Trust is the lifeblood of collaboration teamwork. To create and sustain the conditions for long-lasting connections, you have to be able to trust others, they have to trust you, and they have to trust each other. Without trust, you cannot lead, or get great things accomplished. Share information and knowledge freely with your constituents, show that you understand their needs and interests, open up to their influence, make wise use of their abilities and expertise and—most of all—demonstrate that you trust them before you ask them to trust you.

    “The challenge in facilitating relationships is making sure people recognize how much they need one another to excel—how interdependent they really are. Cooperative goals and roles contribute to the sense of collective purpose and the best incentive for people to work to achieve shared goals is the knowledge that you and others will reciprocate, helping them in return. Help begets help, just as trust begets trust. By supporting norms of reciprocity and structuring projects to reward joint efforts, you enable people to clearly understand that it’s in their best interest to cooperate. Get people interacting and encourage face-to-face interactions as often as possible to reinforce the durability of relationships.” (pp. 238-239)

    • 2 Dennis Sparks February 6, 2013 at 9:36 am

      The challenge, as you well know Cathy, is in the implementation—the doing of those things. Please get back to us, if you have a chance, with what you learn about the day-to-day ways in which district administrators achieve those purposes.

  2. 3 Christina Ghrist February 6, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    As an instructional coach, I find that it is helpful to find someone I can trust to confide in who is in the same role as me and outside of my building. Gaining clarity by talking out loud to another person, problem solving with a fellow coach, and feeling listened too, automatically help me put things back into perspective when I am feeling “disheartened.” Also staying mindful that my attitude and the perception of my attitude has a life outside of me helps keep my “game face” on- even when it is hard.


  1. 1 Choosing the Scenic Path over the Psychopath | Moving Forward Trackback on June 30, 2013 at 8:03 pm

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