The emotional experience of leaders managing critical incidents
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The emotional experience of leaders (i.e., school principals) who have managed a critical incident involving the death of a student, teacher or staff member was the focus of the dissertation. Secondary issues of communication, decision making, and interpersonal communication were also explored. A qualitative paradigm using methods of constant comparative analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) embedded within a world view of feminism (Jaggar, 1997), social constructivism (Harre, 1986) and experiential psychology (Greenberg & Safran) identified questions, themes, and understandings. Purposive sampling identified ten participants including three female and seven male principals. Further distinguishing criteria included a separation between public and catholic schools, elementary and senior grades, rural and urban, male and female, and native and non-native. For each participant, two semi-structured interviews of 1 1/2 hours each were conducted. Nine themes were deduced from the data and included the principals' emotions, concerns, internal support (the principals' actions and beliefs that helped them cope with the CI), external support (support systems that assisted the principal personally and managerially), caring support (that principals gave to others), strengths, leadership, learning, and advice. The findings revealed that principals typically managed their emotions during a CI by compartmentalizing or pushing their feelings aside; managed the feelings of others by listening, making presence felt by being visible, showing concern, and encouraging participation; became "wiser," and "more understanding;" avoided critical incident training and practice; improved interpersonal communication with the most dramatic increase between principal and counselor; improved relationships with the school community; and were freer to seek support and not have to appear in control both of tasks and emotions when interdependency was acknowledged, which led to more open styles of communication and consultative decision making. Implications for practice point to the need for critical incident and stress management training; compulsory principal's debriefing; formalized system of administrative support during a CI; policy and procedures for CI practice sessions and updating of teams and networks; establishment of susceptibility markers; information and ongoing communication between head office and principals; and, training and education on the concepts of emotional intelligence. Contributions of the research include mapping out of the principals' critical incident process and the accompanying emotional states; explaining the relationship between the themes identified and critical incidents; identifying caring support, communication, and having a critical incident manual as key components for positive CI management. Also, a model of effective critical incident management (ECIM) was developed. As this was an exploratory study, research on the general population of principals is suggested to determine incidence rates, type of incidents, and quality of critical incident management.