Lean in on Four Leadership Traits, Part 1

Confidence and empathy are essential to navigating leadership roles

Topics: Professional Development, Women in Leadership

School leadership is a multifaceted job that requires multifaceted approaches. While knowledge and leadership skills are required to lead all facets of a school, from organizational management to instructional leadership, we can’t overlook the impact leadership traits have on the way we—women in leadership—do our jobs.

In conversation with Mina Blazy, one of the national book study facilitators at NAESP’s Center for Women in Leadership, and several women who lead Delaware schools, we heard repeatedly that they lean in on four traits to help them accomplish their roles: confidence, empathy, risk-taking, and emotional intelligence.

No one trait was rated as being more important than the others. In fact, our group of female leaders said that all of these traits are critical to effectively navigating school leadership. In addition, they said it was important for the school community to perceive them in a positive light.


“The way a school community perceives [its] leader is important, so we, as female leaders, must be self-aware and practice confidence to stand firm in what we bring to the leadership role, the school, and those we lead,” one of our leaders said. A concern was that as women, behaving confidently can at times be perceived negatively, so it’s a struggle to understand how to lead confidently in spite of negative stereotypes.

Blazy, director of research, learning, and data at Beaumont Unified School District in Beaumont, California, believes she has always been confident in her ability to lead. She credits one of the learnings garnered from the center’s book study of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance— What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman: that confidence is both environmental and hereditary.

Blazy takes a practical approach, showing up with confidence, pushing through negative thoughts, and using a toolkit of strategies to lead confidently. “While I can’t control my genetics, I can control my environment and my belief system,” she says. “I personally believe that confidence is driven by self-efficacy. To gain confidence, I must believe that I am able to accomplish what I am doing. I also have the responsibility to acknowledge what I know and don’t know and to use this information to gain access to new knowledge.”

“Confidence in one’s ability illuminates positivity and risk-taking,” adds Lenita McIntyre, principal of South Dover Elementary School in Dover, Delaware. “It opens doors of possibilities and innovation to explore research-based, effective strategies and not stick to what has always been done if the desired results aren’t being achieved. Belief in one’s own ability to lead transcends into the classroom, where confident teachers may also feel empowered to take risks in providing instruction using new and more effective strategies and best practices.”

“The practice of ‘power posing’ can help leaders focus on their inner belief and confidence,” Amy Cuddy writes in her book Presence. Or as one female leader in our group said, “Even if we aren’t feeling confident yet, we can practice confidence.”

The leadership journey can “feel like a maze” or “a long and winding road,” says Ann Hlabangana-Clay, Delaware education associate for equity and recruitment. She embraces the growth and learning derived from the journey and says she has an intrinsic gift of confidence that helps her face down inequities and stereotypes; mentors, experience, and “sister circles” nurtured that strength. “My confidence helps me turn false beliefs off like a light switch,” she says.

Hlabangana-Clay says that biases against her intersectional identity drove her to lean in on her strengths. “Being a leader who identifies as female, heterosexual, Zimbabwe-American, and 5-foot-1 with a vision of ‘heart’ leadership often draws innocent questions, implicit-biased comments, and at times, consciously biased insults,” she says. “In these times, I demonstrate my confidence with ease by looking inward and quickly remembering that I stand on the shoulders of my amazing, courageous, and confident ancestors, who have schools named after them and whom former presidents relied upon for advice.”


Women in leadership talked about how empathy informs the way in which they do their jobs. Awareness and sensitivity to the feelings of others, they believe, helps female leaders manage every situation. They shared that empathy is the trait that guides the way they address stressful situations. Listening to staff, students, and families, as well as reflecting on the underlying emotions, helps these female leaders understand how to respond in a manner that is well received.

Tracy Novak, principal of West Park Place Elementary School in Newark, Delaware, and Nancy Ventresca, Delaware’s Christina School District academic dean, work closely on empathy. They became certified as yoga instructors and mindfulness facilitators and now share these learnings with their staff. These leaders care for their teachers by covering classes, providing breaks, and offering creature comforts such as snacks, lunches, and raffles.

“The saying ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ couldn’t be truer,” says Novak. “We seek to understand the feelings of our teachers, empathize with, and care for them so that they can care for our students.”

Blazy defines empathy as the ability to intuitively understand and see the world through the eyes of others. She often reflects to determine where her leadership skills might be lacking. “This was an area I had to work on, because I am someone who likes to get things done quickly and move on to the next activity that improves academic success. One of my colleagues reminded me to slow down and get to know my team. [Now,] I am very cognizant of the people in the room. I look at their facial expressions, gestures, and sometimes just ask how they are feeling today. I learned to slow down and listen, so I could build relationships through empathy and understanding.”

Hlabangana-Clay leans on empathy as a guide when handling tough situations such as “biased questions, comments, or insults.” In such situations, she says, empathy is about feeling with people, not for people: “While others may start to feel sorry for the person with such limited perspectives, stereotypes, and false beliefs, I work to listen, lean in, ask clarifying questions, and seek the other person’s perspective.”

She adds that being empathetic makes you a risk-taker— or as Brené Brown says, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.” “I am a work in progress, so I work hard to recognize my own emotions so that I can draw upon my emotional intelligence to communicate positively,” Hlabangana-Clay says. “In most of my experiences, this has led to a more meaningful connection with that person.”

In the next issue of Principal magazine, we’ll explore the third and fourth leadership traits, risk-taking and emotional intelligence, in-depth to help talented women in leadership thrive in spite of the challenges they face.

Andrea Thompson is education associate for school leadership at the Delaware Department of Education and a fellow with the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership.

Alison Travers is senior leadership specialist in the Delaware Academy for School Leadership at the University of Delaware.

Jessica Gomez is principal of Alice Birney Elementary School in the Colton (California) Joint Unified School District, a principal mentor, and a fellow with the NAESP Center for Women in Leadership.