Teaching girls to claim their voices is woven throughout our school’s history. From the essay writing contest from decades past to recitations to our contemporary rite of passage, the Senior Speech, Laurel School has, for more than 100 years, encouraged girls to speak up and speak out, to frame their thoughts, build an argument, and speak their minds. Yet, our longstanding emphasis on articulate expression is related to but not synonymous with voice. Voice is a fundamental component of confidence and is linked to leadership.
Claiming one’s voice is to leadership what steel beams are to construction—the beams support the structure. In the same way, the ability to imagine and convey one’s vision is essential for leaders.
I worry that in many school communities the term “leadership” has become a catch-all; I’d like us to deconstruct the term, to parse it so that girls understand there are many ways to lead. Perhaps one non-negotiable is that great leaders know how to communicate effectively. They also share a willingness to initiate, to inspire, to listen closely, and to follow through. At Laurel, we view school as a crucible in which girls develop voice, vision, and the ability to practice components of leadership.
Adults in our community encourage our girls to speak, to test their ideas, to substantiate a thesis persuasively. Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls has undertaken a recent study, led by researchers at the University of Michigan, on hedging—the tendency to soften or justify a comment by saying, “This may not be right, but . . . ” We are pleased to collaborate with the faculty at St. Ignatius, a nearby boys’ school, and with Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, MI as we investigate whether or not hedging is more common in young women than in young men. Why do we hedge? Maybe we do not want to appear too strident, too insistent. We want others to understand we are not arrogant, that we offer our ideas humbly. It is not uncommon for all of us to hedge from time to time. But thinking about this impulse, of which I, too, am sometimes guilty, has led me to reflect a bit more on the intersection of voice and vision.
We can all struggle with how to be understood; we can struggle with tone. Too often, we forget to practice. The simple act of rehearsing our ideas—out loud or in the early drafts of a paper—helps us clarify our thinking. We learn more about what we think by expressing ourselves and gauging the response offered by a listener or reader. It is when we listen to learn, rather than to talk, that our learning deepens.
The cultivation of voice is not all about talking. We must make space for those who do not participate volubly; they, too, are learning to claim their voices. Some of those girls in this community are our most eloquent on paper, our most effective leaders as they lead through example. Quiet girls know they are quiet. Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet has much to teach us about expanding school culture so that those girls who are more reticent are still honored. Speaking often and loudly does not necessarily mean one is effective or understood. Claiming your voice, our Laurel girls tell me, has to do with authenticity, with courage and passion. Conviction and action earn respect. Speaking aloud is one strategy, but quiet or garrulous, follow through is essential for leaders to earn the respect of their peers.
“Claiming your voice means that what you says matters, that you shouldn’t back down if someone disagrees,” points out a 6th grader. This willingness to stand apart from the pack, to offer an unpopular comment, is a theme girls cite often and admire. Courage is required in this willingness to disagree. Other girls mention that our all-girls environment makes it feel safer to speak—there are no boys to roll their eyes.
This last thought interests me. I have taught long enough to know that Laurel is not Utopia. Girls, gloriously flawed like the adults who teach them, do judge other girls, whether I like it or not. Still, I am happy that Laurel still feels like a safer environment in which many girls can articulate what they think or believe or feel.
When I press the girls to examine the link between voice and vision and to talk with me about the relationship between claiming one’s voice and leadership, they note:
People who use their voices well inspire others to follow—voice becomes synonymous with persuasion, conviction, purpose. Leaders articulate a vision that invites participation. Leadership depends on a leader’s ability to reach her vision through collaborative, organized efforts. Leaders, they explain, take charge of how they feel about certain issues and are willing to take action to effect change. Leaders are not afraid to embrace their unique voices and to use them in enlisting others to help make change happen. Leaders at Laurel are brave and bold.
At the end of lunch one afternoon, a group of girls visit my office to select a piece of candy from the jar I keep stocked for them. If I’m there, they have to speak with me for a minute. This tradition, now a decade old, allows me a quick way to take the pulse of the student community, to make connections over Tootsie Rolls. It’s often my favorite 15 minutes of the day. One Wednesday, a group of girls riff with me about what skills help girls and young women learn to lead.
“We all want to lead,” says a junior, “but though we want the position, we don’t always want the responsibility.” I commend her candor and ask to elaborate. Soon, other voices chime in.
“Leadership takes guts, doing what needs to be done.” “Good leaders are confident, not power-hungry like Macbeth.” Effective leaders, the girls underscore, are not necessarily bossy—that would be a dictator. The best leaders are flexible, accepting other people’s ideas and suggestions and not needing to take credit for every idea. They also apologize when they make mistakes. I ask, “Are good leaders humble?”
“Absolutely. Confident but humble.”
Leading does not mean, they tell me emphatically, that you have to be elected or in charge of a club or activity. There are lots of ways to lead. Hierarchy, one senior patiently explains, is overrated and gendered. Many Laurel girls are more interested in collaboration, in joining together without a single leader prescribing the course of action. Those leaders girls admire stand up for their beliefs, guiding, advising. Inspiration is key. Leaders translate enthusiasm into action, mobilizing social media to draw attention to an issue, thinking about many-pronged solutions instead of one quick fix . Cynical about those who are elected or appointed only to revel in the glory of the position and its prominence on a college transcript, the girls, nonetheless, acknowledge that it can be uncomfortable to hold peers accountable.
This tension between the desire many girls feel to acquire a leadership position and the reluctance they feel in taking responsibility for anyone other than themselves is real and persistent. In our collaborative culture, girls uphold our social contract because they want to be at Laurel; most value their relationships with their teachers, and most do the right thing most of the time. But the majority tend to resist holding their peers accountable when someone chooses to break the social contract; that piece, sitting in judgment and calling out a friend, feels uncomfortable.
Some girls struggle with selflessness, believing that the best leaders put the needs of the whole ahead of personal needs, an ideal that can be hard to live every day in the context of school life, an idea that is in direct contrast with what we know about self-care as a component of resilience. There is more nuance to discover in the absolutes some girls use in describing leadership. One girl closes, saying, “Look, Ms. Klotz, it’s simple. Leaders build consensus and move forward, collect more ideas, and then move towards feasible solutions and compromise.” Seems simple, easy to do. Yet, they recognize the gap between what they know good leadership looks like and the challenges inherent in leading. Most of them understand that they will continue to develop skills that help them lead. And, they admit there’s some pressure braided into leadership roles. They feel the heft of the expectation that they be good role models, not disappoint, to manage the feeling that others are judging their actions.
Finally, conversations circle back to voice. Leaders must be willing to speak up even if no one else listens or follows, to stick their necks out in ways that may be unpopular. They must be expert communicators, skillful at tone, conscious of audience, aware of a group’s capacity for change. Good leaders are collaborative, not power-hungry, idealistic, and reflective. They accept the consequences when decisions don’t go well and they find, within, the resources to keep moving forward, with the greater good more important than their own egos.
At the end of my first decade leading Laurel, I am grateful to our girls for their insights and candor. Claiming our voice is not something that we can check off a box; it is a process that continues throughout our lives. Articulating a vision, scaffolding the tasks that must be accomplished to achieve that vision, galvanizing others to join us in our work — this is the work we do forever. It is the work of inspiring girls to fulfill their promise and better the world. I feel fortunate to have voice and vision as my muses as I work with our faculty and staff on behalf of our girls.