Advice to My Younger Self

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.

And Now Presenting…

NAISI recently attended the annual NAIS conference in Boston. I worked with two other strong, confident, and thoughtful women leaders from school’s in California to present a 3-hour workshop on leadership and the work of the a division head. Take a look at what one of the attendees had to say as she responded to our workshop highlights:

Playgrounds, Parents, & Programs: Oh My! The Work of the Division Head, by Lori Carroll

If you are wondering…

How can I teach leadership skills to all my students? Read Teaching Leadership to All

How can I create a culture of inclusion in my classroom? Read In Pursuit of the Multicultural Curriculum

How can I develop my own creativity so I can model it for students? Read Embracing our Creativity

What is innovation and why does/should it matter to me and my classroom? Read The Innovation Imperative

We may not be fancy…but we sure are fun!

“One lives but once in this world.” – Johann von Goethe

PowderQuest’s Ingrid Backstrom Women’s Freeride Camp, 2013
August 2-9
La Parva, Chile
Photos courtsey of: Colleen Schilly, Margaret Meyer, Roberta Rebori, & David Owen

A Tale of Enduring Leadership – Part 4: The End

Fairwell Elephant Island

Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 set sail aboard the sturdy ship christened Endurance in December of 1914. Over the course of their two year expedition they truly lived everything embodied in the word “endurance”. Forced to abandon their ship, they spent months traveling hundreds of miles over frozen land and hellish seas, withstanding an astonishing amount of physical and mental hardship. Most astounding is that, in spite of all they endured, not a single member of the crew perished. Though they did not achieve the expedition’s goal of crossing Antarctica on foot, they achieved something that has gone down in history as a captivating tale of leadership, teamwork, and tenacious endurance. Shackleton’s initial transparency and consequent leadership attracted a group of like-minded individuals who he transformed as a result of presence, acknowledgement, and play into a true team able to endure and conquer challenges for the sake of their shared mission. In 21st century schools such leadership can grow communities that thrive in a constantly changing world as we strive to deliver our mission to each child.

A Tale of Enduring Leadership – Part 3: Play!

Football on the ice. (Photographer: Frank Hurley)

Football on the ice.
(Photographer: Frank Hurley)

Even in light of the grim forecast for the expedition’s hardships, Shackleton understood the importance of play and the value of morale. This photo shows members of Shackleton’s crew playing football. Their ship, slowly being crushed by the Antarctic ice, sits in the background. With cold temperatures, dwindling food supplies, winter nearing, the hours of darkness increasing everyday, and no end in sight it is marvelous that there was space to play. We live fast-paced, high-stimulus lives. As educators our attention is pulled a thousand ways at once, and yet we also strive to keep it focused on the one thing that really matters in our profession: children. It is so easy to get bogged down in the to-do lists of job and life, in the hard work of working hard…that we forget that play has a very important place in drawing us together, in lightening the heavy load, and in adjusting our perspective. Shackleton’s crew played cards, hockey, produced shows, performed music, sang, and shared company. As a result, Shackleton’s crew enjoyed camaraderie in the face of all manner of physical and mental trials. We must, as educators in the 21st century, strive to keep sacred our time to play together and on our own.