Are you are task leader or a socio-emotional leader?

Don’t bother answering that. What is a leader without a task? What is a leader without people willing to be led by him or her?

A better question might be, are you better at getting things done or are you better at the social and emotional aspects of leadership? I would suggest that most, if not all, school leaders would consider themselves better at one and feel that they need to work harder on the other to achieve the balance required to engage those that they lead in the work that needs to be done.

Balancing task and socio-emotional aspects of leadership is necessary and very difficult. This difficulty stems in part from the volume of tasks and the urgency at which these need to be undertaken to meet the needs of our students. And it seems that the way our brains are wired hinders us more than helps us in this balancing act.

Academics at Case Western Reserve University provide a detailed explanation of how two antagonistic neural networks underly differentiated leadership roles.

Recent research in neuroscience suggests that the division between task-oriented and socio-emotional leadership roles derives from a fundamental feature of our neurobiology: an antagonistic relationship between two large-scale cortical networks that is present in every individual – the task-positive network (TPN) and the default mode network (DMN). Neural activity in the TPN inhibits activity in the DMN, and vice versa.

The TPN is important for problem solving, focusing of attention, making decisions and control of action. The DMN plays a central role in emotional self-awareness, social cognition, and ethical decision making. It is also strongly linked to creativity and openness to new ideas.

The antagonistic relationship between the TPN and DMN creates a fundamental neural constraint on cognition that is highly relevant to the different roles and capabilities that effective leaders must astutely juggle and deploy. An important consequence of this constraint is that an over-emphasis on task-oriented leadership can prove deliterious to an organization: in particular when openness to new ideas, people, emotions, and ethical concerns are important to success. On the other hand, the over emphasis on relationship oriented leadership may prove deliterious to focus and the execution of clearly defined goals.

As school leaders, we need to engage both networks but engaging one seems to prevent us from engaging the other. This is problematic but an understanding of the relationship between these two networks provides us with a foundation for some practical steps we can take to ensure that we are as balanced as our schools require us to be.

The 3 Focusing Questions of Adaptive Schools:

Who are we? Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this, this way? Before undertaking a task, a dialogue around these questions establishes the purpose for doing that task. The purpose of a task may not be immediately clear to all and leaders need to be prepared to take the time to establish a sense of purpose through dialogue before assigning it to anyone. Establishing a sense of purpose and a belief in others that the task is being undertaken in the most efficient manner requires relationship oriented leadership. Only once a leader has established a sense of purpose and efficiency, can he or she switch to a more task oriented approach.

Meetings (Discussion v Dialogue):

Meeting agendas that identify items as falling under three main categories help all group members switch focus between task-orientated and socio-emotional-orientated roles.

Items earmarked for a decision during a meeting should be dealt with first. The task is to leave the meeting with a decision being made and should be approached with a task-orientated focus through discussion. Adaptive Schools distinguishes discussion from dialogue. Discussion requires clarity about the decision-making process and authority, knowledge of the boundaries of topics open to the group’s decision-making authority, and standards for orderly decision-making.

Items earmarked for understanding might include the introduction of new ideas, the sharing of successes or concerns, or explanations of community events that might impact the school. No decisions need to be made on these items at this stage. A relationship-orientated approach ensures that creativity and an openness to ideas is encouraged and attention can be paid to the mental states of others. This is achieved through dialogue. Dialogue focuses on the goal of developing shared understanding. In our task-orientated work environments, this is often countercultural. It may be that an item earmarked for understanding becomes a decision to be made at a later meeting and therefore a change of focus is required to make that decision. However, if the group shifts to a task-orientated focus before a shared understanding of what is being decided has been developed, the decision is likely to be a poor one.

The third category of items in a meeting is information. These are things that require no decision or understanding and may not even be spoken about in a meeting. These items appear at the bottom of a meeting agenda and may include dates of events, notice of faculty absences and the like. There is no need to talk about them.

A meeting template that I developed based on these three categories and the principles of Adaptive Schools can be found at this link and also in the 3rd edition of the Adaptive Schools Sourcebook.


In our very task-orientated environments, it is very easy for leaders to be distracted from the socio-emotional-orientated role of leadership. Leaders need to switch between the TPN and the DMN but heavily focusing on one will likely lead to deterioration of a leader’s ability to engage the other. A leader heavily into a task role can commit to switching into a relationship role by coaching another person to help them develop. By committing to coaching one person once a day in the context of that person’s aspirations, vision and values, the leader commits to switching into the relationship role at least once a day and activating his or her DMN. Over time, switching between the task and relationship roles will likely become easier for that leader.

Leaders need to be task-orientated and socio-emotional-orientated. It seems that we are not wired to be both at the same time but that does not preclude us from switching roles at the right time and being deliberate in doing so.

Boyatzis, Richard Eleftherios, et al. “Antagonistic Neural Networks Underlying Differentiated Leadership Roles.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 17 Feb. 2014,

Garmston, Robert J. The Adaptive School: a Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Christopher-Gordon, 2009.