Effective Leaders Are Affective Leaders: Imagination’s Role

For S…you have guided my learning more than you know.

We have all been there as teachers, sitting in a staff meeting and looking at student data that communicates where our collective learners are at. And for many of those staff meetings, we leave feeling down on ourselves and our practice. Our classrooms are full of different needs and learning capabilities, and it seems like there is never enough time to support all the learners each day in every area they need. Resources never seem plentiful enough, and the pressure we feel can bring down morale amongst staff. We wonder how our administration cannot see how hard we work and how demanding the classroom is.

For many administrators, the main driving force behind our move into admin was because we loved teaching and learning so much, and wanted to empower students beyond our classroom walls. We believe in good practice, we believe in our teachers and we see them model life-long learning.

What happens when educational leaders unintentionally negate all the positive things teachers are doing by focusing on test scores?

We risk damaging the very relationships upon which our schools are built.

Now I am not saying that hard conversations need to be ignored. I am not saying that we don’t talk about where our kids are at and what needs to improve and shift, in order to meet the expectations of our education ministry, our school board, and our own school growth plans. Our work is too important to let children fall behind and not succeed. But we have to somehow find a way to tackle the hard things without forsaking the relationships and culture that a school can have. I believe imagination is required in learning and leading to achieve this aim. With imagination, we can find a way to improve the collective work we do, while at the same time valuing the work that our staff already does.

Imagination in leadership is not a fickle thing. Imagination is an affective learning tool–a tool that engages human emotion. Imagination enables change while creating an emotional investment from all involved. Maxine Greene wrote of the importance of imagination as a change maker in schools:

“Imagination, intention: Neither is sufficient. Both demand reflection and praxis, which are inseparable from each other.  Both not only imagine things as if they could be otherwise, but move persons to begin on their own initiatives, to begin to make them so.” ~Maxine Greene (2010)

So how does this acknowledgement of imagination’s role translate to teacher development and growth? I believe the key is the role of imagination in supporting agency. Without intent and action framing our imaginative thought, we don’t have change. Without reflection, or awareness of our own presuppositions and how they influence our actions / spur praxis, we can’t move our practice forward.

Seeing the forest through the trees…

So what does this mean for leadership? I think we first need to know how our own influences or expectations of our roles as educational leaders direct the conversations we have with our staff. If we have a preconceived notion of what things are, or are not, happening in our teachers’ classrooms, we may miss important opportunities to learn from, or support our teachers.

Returning to those staff meetings…difficult conversations are crucial. And in that context, how do we listen with a clear mind? How do we communicate to our staff the importance of dialogue, without fear of judgement? We are told to meet students where they are, in order to move them to where we want them to be. How do we do this for teachers while still maintaining respect and dignity for all, protecting the culture of our building, and retaining the important relational aspects of our work?

I believe imaginative leaders can learn from principles of imaginative teaching (Imaginative Education). Equipped with tools that engage human emotion and imagination (cognitive tools) we can become what John Maxwell describes as “effective leaders”. Effective leaders are also AFFECTIVE leaders.




“Leadership is not about title, positions, or flowcharts.

It is about one life influencing another.” -John Maxwell (2011)




Features of Affective Leadership

How do we become affective leaders?

  1. Take on other perspectives. (Each teacher brings a different dimension to their teaching, based on their previous experiences and belief system. It is imperative that as affective leaders, we come to know this side of each teacher, in order to better support their work in the classroom. Also, being aware of the emotional resistance of some to change can guide our understanding of the support they need.)
  2. Cultivate emotional responses to subject matter and an openness to other possibilities. (Help teachers find the story on what they are teaching–discuss emotional dimensions together. As leaders we can identify the story on issues or challenges we face and can leverage this emotional core to create meaning the staff in our schools.)
  3. Engage the cognitive tools our teachers are already employing to make-meaning in the world.  Engage imagination with schools issues. (This can be used for discussion purposes, or specific problem-solving around school based issues.) *This post offers some more insights into how to use cognitive tools in your leadership.

Some examples of cognitive tools to engage your staff include:

The Sense of Agency is a cognitive tool that engages our desire to improve the world/learning/culture of a school. This cognitive tool helps us feel a sense of direction or purpose, and a sense of belonging. This is hugely important for the culture of a building…we should be tapping into this as much as possible. (Learn more about this tool here.)

The Story-form is a cognitive tool that calls to us as story-tellers.  It requires us to engage the emotional significance of an issue/idea/challenge we face. What’s the story on the latest challenge we face? What’s the story on a topic teacher’s are individually or collectively seeking to better understand in their practice? Being able to reveal the story doesn’t mean creating a fiction, rather, it means indicating the emotional context of our school and work. (Learn more about this tool here.)

The Search for authority and truth is a cognitive tool that guides us to test the validity or “trustworthiness” of the ideas we use. Where do we get a sense of authority and “Truth” about issues/ideas from? What do we hold as “True” about learning/education/issues/challenges among a world of diversity and “truths”? This cognitive tool can help all educators identify what they align with pedagogically and how this practice may/or may not, be rooted in authentic and certain best practice. (Learn more about this tool here.)

We shape our school’s story. And so it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we are building a narrative that helps all succeed. For both the student population, and our staff. Effective leaders are affective leaders.


Courtney Robertson is a Vice-Principal in Langley, British Columbia. She completed her Graduate studies with a focus in Imaginative Education at Simon Fraser University. Courtney began her career as an Early Learning Specialist and has continued to find passion and enjoyment in teaching and working with young learners. Her primary research areas include dialogical thinking, Imaginative Education, the power of a beautiful and complex narrative, the affective power of the story form, and the “wonder” of teaching and learning for all students. You can follow her on twitter @wonderanded



Greene, M. (2010). Prologue in Art, Social Imagination and Action 5(1) Winter.

Maxwell, J. (2011). The five levels of leadership: Proven steps to maximize your potential. New York: Centre Street Publishing.

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