The Head of School and Emotional Intelligence: A Leadership Challenge

By Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

Over the past decade, the field of Jewish education has witnessed a proliferation of papers, articles and presentations regarding the ever-evolving role and daunting responsibility of the Jewish Day School Head of School. From the multifaceted challenges of leadership recruitment, training and retention to the complexities and application of executive coaching, mentoring and model practice – the resources now being expended in this arena are significant and in many cases, unprecedented.

Underscoring this reality, is the assumption that Jewish day school effectiveness and positive student outcomes and achievement correlate positively with Head of School leadership performance and effectiveness. To be sure, the positive impact of high performing instructional leadership on school growth and student performance is indisputable, except in very rare cases.

This reality has catalyzed our Jewish day school community to create, develop and maintain high quality leadership development opportunities for our Heads of School – including university/college and/or denominationally-based leadership training institutes and programs, mentorship opportunities, and coaching interventions – all designed with the vision, hope and promise to improve and enhance the skills, performance, impact and effectiveness of instructional leaders in our day schools.

Although these initiatives have in many cases impacted positivity upon the profession, recent research suggests that they may have not significantly prevented Head of School burnout, stress, or turnover – all of which can have a debilitating and paralyzing effect on school culture, growth and direction. This reality is further evidenced by the number of Head of School posts which go unfilled for extended periods of time; or, are temporarily filled with either interim leadership professionals with little-to-no “hands-on” (in the trenches) educational/nonprofit executive leadership experience – especially on the senior day school management levels.

The average tenure for entering Jewish Day School Heads has recently increased from three to four years, which is great news. Nevertheless this turnover rate (and the variety of factors attributed to the turnover) suggests a profession that is still in a state of flux and in desperate need of stability, longevity and sustainability. (Parenthetically, the average longevity for Heads of School of non-Jewish private schools is 8-12 years. Factors attributed to this significant disparity vary and requires further investigation).

So where is the disconnect? With the vast array of sophisticated resources and initiatives now being invested in Head of School searches, recruitment and retention efforts – as well as senior leadership development initiatives – why is our field still plagued with premature and at times painful senior executive turnover?

The purported reasons and excuses for high executive turnover are plentiful. From the lay Board perspective, I hear the all too common reframe (as quoted or paraphrased by Board members) that “the new hire was not the right fit from the get-go” to the “Head of School did not get along with the parent body” – from, “the search committee and Board thought the HoS had the perfect skill-set required for the job” to “he/she definitely has the vision … but can’t lead or execute effectively” – to “it was all about personality, role modeling and chemistry.”

Balance these comments with Head of School frustrations regarding Board complacency, control and micromanagement, and the lack of clear communication and understanding regarding governance policies, roles and responsibilities … what begins to emerge is a perfect storm for both the Head of School and the Board (not to mention its potential fall-out and impact on the faculty, students and parents of the school).

In analyzing a variety of Head of School recruitment and hiring practices, I am often struck by the tremendous amount of vetting which schools engage. By and large, most of the search processes are conducted via sound state-of-the-art search committee processes – including extensive interviews, background checks, references, knowledge, candidate presentations, etc. So again, with such extensive vetting (assuming the candidate also engages in due-diligence regard job fit), why the high rate of turnover?

Like in any profession, the ultimate test of a Head of School’s leadership effectiveness can only be experienced once the person is on the job, in real time; focusing on real challenges with real staff and constituents. Therefore, we must rely on a variety of variables and factors including knowledge, prior exposure and battle-tested experience.

All of these observations leads me to the central challenge/theme of this post, namely, what additional measures can be undertaken by schools and communities, in order to help ensure the best Head of School fit for the school.

As many of us in the field now know, one of the most critical attributes or characteristics of a high performing leader – whether it be for a school, or other institutions – is a leader’s Emotional Intelligence (EQ). But, how often do Head of School search committees actually drill-down deeper in order to determine a candidate’s emotional disposition; or, even accord the same level of importance to EQ, as they do academic background or years in the field.

The five primary EQ attributes of an effective leader are: 1) Self-Awareness; 2) Self-Control or Regulation; 3) Motivation; 4) Empathy; and 5) Social Skills.

Although it may seem quite obvious that these five indices are of upmost importance in selecting a Head of School candidate, more often that than not, many of these “soft” characteristics are unintentionally overlooked at great cost.

Dr. Daniel Coleman, author of “Working with Emotional Intelligence” posits that one of the most, (and in many cases, the most) powerful predictor of effective leadership (especially when interacting with people) is a leader’s Emotional Intelligence. This assumption is further supported by management guru, John C. Maxwell who focuses on the more creative side of leadership as much as he does on “hard skills.” To be sure, Maxwell asserts that it was once thought that components of EQ were “nice to have” in business leadership. But, now we know that for the sake of performance, the ingredients of high level EQ are attributes which are absolutely essential for success.

It is important to note that criteria for HoS selection is not a zero-sum game. Point being, we must do everything in our power to assume a fair and balanced approach to selection criteria. To be sure, “soft skills” must be balanced with “hard skills,” and visa versa. It’s never only about EQ at the exclusion of other considerations, but a candidate’s current and potential EQ must also occupy a very high ranking on the candidate recruitment/selection process pyramid.

Several challenges to consider from an EQ perspective are:

  • How will the HoS interact with staff, parents, students and trustees?
  • How will the candidate lead, manage and respond to crises?
  • How does HoS encourage and foster collaboration and trust?
  • How does the HoS interact in the classroom, board room, lunchroom, on the sports field?
  • Is the HoS a visible Jewish role model and how does this modeling exhibit itself in the school and community?
  • How often does the HoS use the word “we” as opposed to “me” or “you”?
  • How proactive is the HoS in ensuring inclusion on the student, teacher and parental levels?
  • How often does the HoS exhibit sincere empathy in resolving conflict?
  • How does the HoS develop confidence on the part of staff, students, parents and trustees?

The aforementioned challenges are not always taught or learned via graduate school courses, institutes workshops and seminars. They are personal attributes, social characteristics and traits which are either innate or learned through experience (and at times, through high quality coaching). It is therefore imperative that the Head of School hiring process look beyond the standard resume-builders and begin to seriously consider the personal, emotional and social dimensions to HoS leadership engagement and success.

According to many emerging studies on effective school leadership, there is a clear and positive relationship between the emotional disposition of the school leader and the leader’s impact on positive school quality, climate and culture. It is also quite obvious that the more successful the school, the more it increases the probability for long-tern leadership stability and tenure. However, given the current rates of Head of School turnover, this assumption may not be as obvious as we would think it should be.


Not every Search Committee has the expertise, experience or background necessary to effectively measure the Emotional Intelligence (or Emotional Quotient) of its candidates (or finalists). It is therefore recommended that Search Committees seek professional guidance from sources who are experienced in the creation and administration of EQ measurement instruments and analyses. The costs are minimal; and the investment is invaluable.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick has enjoyed a variety of successful senior leadership positions in Jewish education, including Head and Principal of Jewish day schools, CEO for central agencies for Jewish education in Baltimore and Miami, consultant to a wide variety of Jewish educational and communal agencies; and, executive coaching. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness (Brown Books, 2011),