'We must dispel the myth that leaders are "superhuman"'

We need to instil confidence in women that they too can be effective leaders in a way that works for them and their lifestyle, writes one deputy head

Ruth Smith

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I am sure we can all recall from childhood an encouraging comment from a teacher or a cutting remark from a peer that has stayed with us for an eternity. I have always been fascinated by the power of language to exclude, encourage or empower us, and the language of educational leadership is no exception.

In autumn 2015, my school, Mulberry Schools for Girls in London, submitted a successful bid to the National College of Teaching and Leadership to part fund a women’s only leadership programme designed to enable more talented women to step up to leadership.

One of the main aims of the programme was to provide a forum for participants to develop a deeper understanding of effective leadership and to critique the “established” representations of leadership which, all too often, are stereotypically male dominated and can put many women off pursuing headship.

As a result, every session of the nine month programme provided explicit opportunities to deconstruct the established and well-rehearsed definitions of leadership and invited participants to reframe their own perceptions of effective and authentic leadership in a way which included “people like them”.

The most memorable example of this was during the first day of the programme. When asked to describe female senior leaders they had worked with, participants often used the term “superhuman”.

In taking the time to deconstruct this superhero imagery, it quickly highlighted that participants felt that, in order to be a successful school leader, they too needed to be superhuman, infallible and with no other commitments beyond the job. This did not sit comfortably with the talented people in the room.

What followed was a confidential discussion forum whereby six women senior leaders – some of whom had been described as “superhuman” – ranging in age and experience, invited questions from the participants.

An honest, confidential discussion took place about how these six highly effective female leaders managed their role, balanced their life and were, in fact, mere mortals.

This simple activity had an instant and positive impact on the participants. Until that moment, they had only ever seen the senior leaders working from afar (appearing superhuman) yet by talking about the practicalities of the job and learning how each senior leader managed the job differently gave them the confidence that they too could be an effective, authentic leader in a way that worked for them and their lifestyle.

By the end of the programme, all 31 participants had gained in confidence and had redefined leadership in a way that resonated with their values. As one participant reflected: “An inspiring group who have helped me develop an authentic voice and vision and enabled me to understand I don’t have to "act like a man" to lead”.

Ultimately, the biggest success of the project was creating a space for women to have honest discussions about the real issues that can inhibit leadership progression and, by dispelling the myth of superhuman leadership; participants could see themselves as senior leaders in the near future.  

On 20 January 2017, Mulberry School for Girls will be hosting the second annual conference of the Leading Women’s Alliance: Seizing Opportunities – Leading Women to Headship and Beyond providing further opportunities for women leaders to gather to define what it is to be an effective leader and to champion inclusive, values-led leadership.  Some tickets are still available on Eventbrite and the full programme is available here.

Ruth Smith is the deputy headteacher, training for headship, at Mulberry School for Girls in London and is a founding member of the Leading Women’s Alliance

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