Learning to lead: inspiring our high-achieving girls
A leader is someone who inspires loyalty, effort and energy in their followers. A rousing speech has never, to my knowledge, begun: “I received straight As throughout school and a first class degree…”
Being a leader is not about who you are and what you’ve done, but about how you make others feel and what you can inspire them to achieve. It is not about “I”, it is about “we”, and it is not possible to be a leader if you do not inspire followers. That is why, although academic achievement is important for what it teaches us about in depth analysis and critical thinking, it is perhaps less than half the story when it comes to being a successful leader.
Investing our capital
My girls often hear me say that I have the best job in the world in leading The Abbey School, but what I don’t often share is the enormous weight of responsibility that educators feel as we shape our pupils into the custodians of tomorrow’s world. We are entrusted with this immense potential human capital to invest in the future, and it’s up to us to get it right, because it’s our future we’re building.
Our girls are bright, they’re motivated, but perhaps most of all they are lucky. They live in an open, tolerant society in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. They have supportive families who believe strongly in women’s education and who are willing to pay for independent education and the advantages this offers. How do we inspire these very fortunate girls to become responsible leaders in tomorrow’s world?
The only thing uniform about the girls in my school is their clothing. They are a hugely diverse group of girls and young women who are determined to find their best selves. There is no cookie-cutter route to success in today’s world – more than ever it comes in different forms and via unorthodox pathways and this is perfect for our wonderfully unique young women; it’s incredibly liberating. I urge parents not to limit their daughters. Tempting though it is to stick to what we know and encourage girls to follow our “proven” example, we must remember that the world of even 20 years ago is vastly different to the world of today, and our futures will see even swifter changes through innovation across all spheres of life. What our girls need is flexibility, resilience and a healthy attitude to risk-taking – transferable skills that they can apply to portfolio careers that will span continents in our increasingly globalised society.
Our girls may be fortunate in many ways but self-esteem and confidence is something that comes from within and which is essential for successful leadership – others won’t believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. From the first days in the Nursery girls must be supported to try new things and to appreciate that by failing we learn.
As girls grow we must foster a sense of balance and reflection, helping them to see the benefits of pursuing a wide range of interests and finding those activities and topics that they feel truly passionate about. We also need to encourage them to find their own “still small voice of calm” and the confidence to switch off from the distractions of our always-on world without fear of missing out. It’s vital that girls learn to control their personal environment, including pressure from social media, rather than letting it control them. A strong sense of self-esteem is at the heart of being able to achieve this. At The Abbey we promote stillness from the Nursery to Sixth Form in our reflection weeks. Initially many girls struggled with the idea that they were simply expected to be silent and still, that no “homework” or other outcome was expected of them, which very much indicates the sense of pressure that they are used to feeling. I feel passionate that we continue to help girls assign importance to stillness, reflection and calm
Meaningful and relevant experiences that make a difference
When providing experiences that help our girls develop the skills they need for that future we need to ensure that they are relevant and meaningful. They need to go beyond theoretical study and offer practical experience of challenging situations and people. The Duke of Edinburgh’s award is a superb example of a programme designed to do just that. Initiatives such as our Homework Club for refugee children introduce girls to the people and stories behind the headlines. They can see that they are making a difference to the children they help and get a true sense of achievement.
Most of all girls need to be encouraged to be pro-active, to take the initiative and act when they see something they want to change. One of my proudest moments in the past 18 months was hearing how one of our former pupils – remembered as being rather reserved – had become a leading coordinator of aid to earthquake-stricken Nepal. Alison rose to the challenge and discovered skills she never knew she had, and she made a difference. That kind of inspirational example is what our girls need.
I was recently fortunate to meet international aid worker, social entrepreneur and author Linda Cruse. She demonstrated authentic leadership in every sense. Her description of how she came to find herself involved in disaster support for global disasters such as the Nepal earthquake and the South East Asian Tsunami were a true message about reaching out and going beyond boundaries. Linda also reminded me that as we come into the world with nothing and will leave it the same way we should regularly ask ourselves “what will I leave behind? What will people say I have achieved?”
That is my call to our girls: you are capable of so much, get out there and make a difference for all our futures.
Rachel Dent, Headmistress, The Abbey School, Reading