Lean in on Four Leadership Traits, Part 2

Topics: Women in Leadership

As we noted in the last issue of Principal, four traits have a substantial impact on the way women in leadership do their jobs. These four traits—all equally important—help us to effectively navigate school leadership: confidence, empathy, risk-taking, and emotional intelligence.

Effective leaders are risk-takers. How else could they achieve positive change? Taking risks means walking in faith, with hope, and knowing how to embrace whatever comes your way. Tamara Grimes-Stewart, principal of Claymont Elementary School in Claymont, Delaware, says risk-taking can be scary, but she has honed the skill to overcome that fear.

“Acknowledge your fear and address it,” Grimes-Stewart says. “Fear can immobilize action and leave you repeating the same practices because it feels safe. However, effective female leaders have to be able to do something different and make mistakes. Mistakes provide opportunities to be reflective in your practice, which ultimately provides the opportunity for growth. Taking risks is how we evolve as leaders and people.”

“Taking risks can build a leader’s confidence,” agrees Mabel Boutte, principal of Etta J. Wilson Elementary School in Pike Creek, Delaware. “To me, confidence is based on extensive experiences gained over time. It evolves when one takes risks, learns from mistakes, and maintains strength in the face of adversity.”

Mina Blazy, national book study facilitator at NAESP’s Center for Women in Leadership, believes that a confident person takes risks and learns from others who are stronger in the areas in which they fall short.

“As a leader of a school, I had to take risks to improve the academic achievement and well-being of students,” she says. “However, since I wasn’t the teacher in the classroom, I counted on the teacher experts to do this; I took time to listen and learn with them, and sometimes had to take a risk on doing something completely different from the neighboring schools.

A believer in assessing one’s own strengths, Blazy says to listen to your colleagues and other stakeholders because we are not experts at everything, but we can build relationships with others to build our own self-efficacy.

Emotional Intelligence

The fourth leadership trait—emotional intelligence—encompasses an individual’s self-awareness, self-​management, social awareness, and competence. Like her colleagues, Blazy believes all four traits are interdependent, and she links emotional intelligence to belonging and empathy.

“If I’m in a room and I see that there is someone alone, I will purposefully start a conversation with the person and invite them into a space where they feel like they belong,” she says. “This is part of emotional intelligence—the ability to empathize and understand the world around you helps us to recognize, understand, and use emotions effectively.”

Emotional intelligence can help leaders connect with members of the school community. “Leading requires you to manage your emotions and understand those around you,” Grimes-Stewart says. This is especially helpful when dealing with parents who are very concerned about a situation within the school.

Talented women in leadership are constantly evolving.

“Often, you can feel their emotions,” she says. “It is in those moments that, as a leader, you need to use all of the characteristics associated with emotional intelligence. I often have to be aware of my body language and facial expressions to avoid conveying the wrong message in the moment. I tell myself, ‘It is not personal’—parents are concerned and want to ensure their child is safe and learning.”

Ann Hlabangana-Clay, education associate for equity and recruitment at the Delaware Department of Education, believes that emotional intelligence helps her communicate and connect with others. “I work hard to stay out of judgment and recognize my own emotions so I can draw upon my emotional intelligence to communicate positively,” she says. “In most of my experiences, this has led to a more meaningful connection with that person. I am a work in progress.”

Talented women in leadership are constantly evolving. The four leadership traits—confidence, empathy, risk-​taking, and emotional intelligence—are critical to one’s effectiveness as a school leader, and they should be practiced with intention and in concert with an educational leader’s lens and knowledge of instructional leadership.

These traits can be developed through practice, self-​reflection, and coaching. Developing and leveraging the four traits as a female leader might be perceived negatively by others, but “rightful traits applied at rightful situations help [women] gain success and growth,” says Wisestep leadership expert Krishna Reddy. “It not only helps to develop, but [it] also motivates other female employees to move forward in their careers.”

Strong, confident, empathetic, risk-taking women in leadership are essential not only for providing a much-needed perspective on the direction a school district is taking but also in terms of the qualities they bring to the table that can’t be found anywhere else.

“Women leaders bring a different perspective to their roles that should be honored similarly to men,” Grimes-Stewart says. “We lead differently because we are different.”

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.