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CAG Blog: Powered by Optimism

"Powered by Optimism" captures my reflections of life in and around an all-girls' school and highlights the values of C.A.G.: leadership, global citizenship, wellness, and teaching and learning. Underscoring it all is a deeply ingrained sense of optimism that we are preparing a generation of boldly creative women who will help change the world. 


in appreciation of leaders- 10.21.14

If you are at all familiar with this blog, or with the work of the Center, you know that we focus much of our energy on the development of leadership in girls. Ultimately, the Center generates programs and tools for girls and young women that will help them create a world that will be more equitable and fair in its opportunities and its conditions.

And in a world in which there are still too few women leaders, the Center will continue to parse out the reasons for this lack of female representation – and will fashion the tools that will best address those reasons.

In my professional life, I am surrounded by girls and women. I see, each day, the power of girl leadership and the exemplary strength of women leaders.  I can, in the span of a few hours, watch the developmental arc of leadership play out before my very eyes.

In Michael Fullan’s book Leading in a Culture of Change (2001), the author writes eloquently about the styles of leading that combine to make the most effective leader when navigating change. I would argue that when working with and on behalf of the young, change is the operative concept upon which we build and expand our programming.

Fullan writes that the effective leader combines three styles: an affiliative leadership style (in which “people come first” p. 35); a coaching leadership style (“Try this.”), and an authoritative style with which “the leader mobilizes people toward a vision.” (Ibid.)

The logic is obvious: we are all more motivated to work toward a common goal when we understand it, buy into it, and feel valued as contributing members of the team. We bask in the attention of the leader who understands our strengths and challenges – and helps us expand on the former and overcome the latter.

In my experience, girls and women typically gravitate to the more relational leadership styles that Fullan mentions. We are conditioned to “put people first” and, through that relational lens, more easily identify the value each person on a team brings to the table.

It is, of course, the more authoritative style that girls (and women) often struggle with. Authoritative behavior flies in the face of feminine ideals of niceness, of not being seen as bossy. The Girls Scouts research institute found that two thirds of girls avoid leading because they don’t want to be labeled as bossy – or risk losing friends.

So how do we tackle this complex issue?

We can start by helping young girls define how they see themselves as leaders. We can help them discover that they have the capacity to lead because they possess (or can develop) the traits of a good leader (resiliency, independent-mindedness, being a good listener, just to name a few.)

We can develop the middle school girl’s perception of leadership by expanding her world and giving her opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.

We can help upper school girls by teaching them skills all good leaders need: financial, fundraising and negotiation skills are just three examples. We can push them to run for office, risking defeat and failure. We can help them bounce back and practice the resiliency we taught them when they were just little girls.

I love watching our girls try on their own mantle of leadership. Like any hand-sewn garment, it fits who they are exquisitely.  I see girls step up with enthusiasm and with bold, loud statements. These girls plunge into the deep end, the only indication of nervousness the high color on their cheeks. These girls have spun mantles with vibrant colors – easily noticed, not easily dismissed.  They are our live wires – and we are, without fail, drawn to their charisma.

And then I see girls who consider more carefully.  They lead because they believe deeply in issues that warrant their attention. Their smiles are not meant to garner votes, but they come from deep within – from a place of contented knowledge that what they are doing, what they are passionate about, matters.  Their mantle may be more muted in color, but it is durable and lasting in quality.

How girls lead and identify themselves as leaders might change over time. As they should, girls will try on different mantles, different styles of leading, over time. They will practice being affiliative, or authoritative, or they may practice being a coach.

No matter – the development of their leadership selves is the epic narrative of which I love to be a part.


Posted by alison on Tuesday October, 21, 2014 at 09:32AM

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