This week, at the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference, I have the opportunity to co-present on women in leadership. I have spent a lot of time reflecting, revisiting notes from conferences and seminars I’ve attended, and attempting to synthesize my own thoughts as I dig deeper into the research on women in leadership. The work of educational leadership is something I’ve been doing for seven years now and in that time my job has changed, the world has changed, and I’ve changed. I stand at this moment in time, preparing to share what research shows about the obstacles that exist to women in leadership (both systemic and of our own making), and what my experience as a female leader has been…and I started thinking about what I wish I knew at the beginning of my road. And while that list is extensive, there are a four gifts of insight I would give my younger self if I could.
Lesson #1: Did you leave things better than you found them?
I’ve been very fortunate in my school career, both as a child and as an adult. Learning and the rhythms and routines of school have generally come very easy to me, which meant that, if and when I added a strong work ethic to the mix, I experienced a great deal of success more often than not. The work of leadership is frequently complex, sticky, and ambiguous. There is rarely a clear, right answer and even when there is, navigating relationships amongst many constituents is very public and humans are, by nature, opinion-prone creatures. Early on in my leadership journey I too often evaluated my effectiveness by whether or not other people approved of my decisions, work, and performance. Don’t get me wrong, in a heavily interpersonal career garnering trust, respect, and confidence from those I am bound to serve (children, families, and faculty) is critical. I believe in striving for excellence. However, my measuring stick is no longer “Did everyone think I made the right call, or led a great meeting, or handled that conflict appropriately? Did I get everything done on my to-do list today?” Instead, my “bullseye” is creating and contributing to a culture and an educational experience for children that will last long after I am gone: day by day, conversation by conversation, through all the seemingly inconsequential moments of interaction and care that slowly, over time, change the course of children’s lives.
Lesson #2: Own your value. Know your limitations.
One of the patterns that you see as you begin to look at qualitative, empirical data collected from women in or aspiring to leadership roles is that we are often our own worst critics. It is absolutely a systemic problem that women are frequently passed over for leadership roles that equally qualified (on paper) males are asked to fill. What I/we can get better at is developing the skill of confidently, articulately, compellingly speaking to what makes us excellent. We have a lot to offer, and too often women (self included) wait too long to decide we’re ready for leadership or we wait for others to reaffirm that we are. It’s time to step out and own it. It is unfortunate that culturally we have equated women publicly speaking to our own strengths as brazen or arrogant. Self-awareness is powerful. We also have limitations, and I can speak to mine with equal clarity, including how I continue to seek to understand the nature of them, investigate where blind spots exist, and expand upon my skill set.
Lesson #3: Listen to what other people value about you.
As I have grown as an educator, leader, and person the things that people tell me they appreciate about me have grown and changed as well. In recent years, I have often been told how calm I am in the midst of what seem to be anxiety-filled, complicated, contentious, or stressful situations. Until recently this feedback has often confused me. First off, because I definitely do not always feel that way inside. Secondly, because this was not the feedback I received early on in my leadership career. I was much more apt to wear my stress and worry on my sleeve…and for many reasons that was not helpful. I’ve decided to believe people. This must be something I am much better at now. I’ve decided to believe them because in doing so I can name and nurture strength (see above), I can celebrate the growth I made in what used to be a relative area of weakness, and I can put my energies towards other areas of leadership development with confidence that growth is possible. Women often avoid accepting high quality positive feedback by dismissing it as invalid (“Oh, you’re too kind.”), diminishing it’s value (“It’s nothing, really.”), or deflecting it with self-deprecating humor (“Non-anxious! That makes up for what a nightmare I am when I’m hangry!”). I am most often guilty of the latter. We get in our own way by failing to graciously accept, appreciate, and reflect on positive feedback.
Lesson #4: This is your job, not your life.
In education, as with many “helping” professions, it can be easy to over-identify with your work. I am increasingly aware that it is possible to do a job well and with strong heart without it becoming the whole, or even the majority, of who I am. I am also a wife, an artist, a writer, a lover-of-mountain-sports, a beginning golfer, a daughter, a surprisingly skilled foosball player, a sister, an athlete, and more. These parts of who I am deserve care, attention, and effort as well. In my work I can take ownership of problems and mistakes without personally tying them to my identity or self-worth. I can say “This went wrong, let’s fix it. I have the skills to help us do that.” In doing so, I am motivated to look forward rather than backward and to seek resolution and growth. I believe in working hard and playing hard, and regularly work to remind myself that philosophy only thrives when I maintain balance.
If you are a woman at some phase along your own leadership journey, remember that someday Today’s You will be the Younger Self that you have wisdom for. And since you can’t actually share your wisdom gained with Younger Self…maybe there’s a woman around you who is hungry for it. Let’s lift each other up.