Girls’ Schools Redefine Leadership: Part 1 of 2

This article is part one of a two-part series on how leadership is viewed and taught in girls’ schools.


In her recent New York Times op-ed piece, author Susan Cain challenges colleges and universities to reconsider their “glorification” of leadership skills. She points out that the pressure to demonstrate leadership on one’s college application is stressful and leads to résumé building rather than growth and reflection. This perspective resonates with all of us at Castilleja School, and likely with girls’ schools guided by similar missions. However, when Cain asserts that this pressure is particularly troublesome for those whom she calls “natural followers,” our points of view diverge.

At Castilleja, our mission is to “educate motivated young women to become compassionate leaders with a sense of purpose to effect change in the world.” We know many of our peer schools share this commitment to teaching leadership skills to every student. So, let’s consider an alternate perspective on Cain’s observations, beginning by challenging the dichotomy she creates between leader and follower. Consider these situations, in which a young woman transitions from follower and leader, because she possesses a set of leadership skills and actions she has learned at her all-girls school:

At the lunch table, a follower stands by, failing to intervene when a classmate is excluded from joining the table. As a leader, she invites her classmate to take a seat and join the group.

Sleeping over at a friend’s house, a follower “likes” the hurtful comment her friend just posted to Facebook. As a leader, she encourages her friend to delete the hurtful comment by posting a supportive one.

After a school dance, a follower jumps into the backseat of a car with her friends, even though the driver has been drinking. As a leader, she steps out of the car and insists her friends and the driver do the same.

From these examples, it is clear girls’ schools define leadership more broadly than does Cain, who suggests some people simply do not have what it takes to lead. When it was first published in 2013, Castilleja faculty members read Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Fueled by her findings, we committed to cultivate in every girl the power of her leadership potential, regardless of the volume of her voice. From our experience, we have learned that even the quietest introvert will find herself in situations, such as the ones described above, where a personal set of leadership skills can empower her to quietly take action on behalf of others, inspiring those around her to follow her lead. In other words, girls do not need to “stand out” from the crowd as presidents and captains before they can “stand up” for what is right and what is true.

We believe everyone can learn to lead, and we also acknowledge there are times for every leader to become a follower. When a leader we admire and respect takes the reins, we are inspired by her choices, and we are eager to follow. Even those who frequently lead must learn to step back, to follow, and to give an emerging leader the space she needs to guide others and to have an impact. Every girl has much to learn from exercising her potential to lead and from practicing the humility to follow.

Cain suggests that for some, pursuing leadership might be misguided. She describes a high-school girl who loves reading and the cello. Fearful that her lack of leadership experience will limit her college choices, the student tries “to overhaul her personality so she would be selected for a prestigious leadership role as a ‘freshman mentor.’” She is chosen for the program but is eventually kicked out because she isn’t outgoing enough. With guidance from her genetics teacher, she instead decides to pursue her “true calling,” science, and by the age of 18, has published her first scientific paper. At a girls’ school, this young woman’s pursuit of leadership during her freshman year would not be viewed as an unnecessary distraction. Instead, she would be celebrated as a student who took a risk, learned from her failure, and emerged as leader in bioengineering.

Cain sets up another dichotomy, this time between leadership and teamwork, without acknowledging that on great teams, each member has a chance to lead. She recalls watching her sons play soccer and concludes that cooperation among team players, and not leadership, is critical to their success. She describes “each player anticipating the other’s strengths and needs, each shining for the brief instant that he has the ball before passing it to a teammate or losing it to an opponent.” What she does not note however, is that in the brief instant when a player has the ball, she does face a leadership opportunity. She will make a series of decisions, and she will own the outcome. If she hesitates, and looks to someone else for leadership, she may miss the opportunity to score for her team. But if she takes a calculated risk, if she has the courage to trust her own instincts and to make an unexpected choice, she just might score the winning goal. Is she a team player? Yes. Is she also a leader in that moment when the ball is hers? Absolutely.

I agree with Cain’s observation that the glorification of leadership can teach students to be motivated by the spotlight and by the desire to be in charge, rather than by the ideas and the people their leadership would serve. However, this concern is not prevalent at most girls’ schools where students are more likely to pursue leadership when they care deeply about a cause. At Castilleja, leadership takes many forms and is not characterized simply as authority. Throughout her time here, every student is supported and encouraged to develop personal interests, to put forth original ideas about local and global needs, and to inspire others to join her in pursuit of solutions. Leading an ACE Org, as these endeavors are called, is not a power grab for instant gratification. Instead, when a student seeks this kind of leadership role, she demonstrates initiative, she makes a long-term commitment, and she grows in empathy for those she serves and those she engages.

Much of Cain’s frustration with the current emphasis on leadership skills is borne out of her concern that a focus on leadership has added an additional burden on applicants in the college application process. She points out that when colleges stress they are seeking to enroll “citizen leaders,” applicants are padding their résumés instead of engaging in meaningful ways. In her closing, Cain imagines ways to lift this harmful burden. She ponders:

“What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we’re looking for are not leadership skills, but excellence, passion and a desire to contribute beyond the self? What if we said to our would-be leaders, ‘Take this role only if you care desperately about the issue at hand?’”

Cain implies that if colleges would pose these questions, they would encourage students, especially those whom she calls “natural followers,” to make more meaningful choices for themselves. Rather than pursue token leadership positions, students would seek answers to these questions by spending more time discovering their true passions. We agree.

At girls’ schools, these are already the questions we ask our students, and as they reflect on a range of learning experiences across the curriculum, they formulate meaningful answers that illuminate their leadership. These students recognize that the leadership skills they have learned at their girls’ school are in fact the tools they need to effectively “contribute beyond the self,” which for us is the ultimate leadership goal. In this way, leadership is taught, not as a path to wealth and power, as Cain points out, is too often the case, but rather as a journey to discovering the strength and the courage to spend a lifetime taking action, influencing outcomes, and having a lasting impact.


Nanci Kauffman, Head of School, Castilleja School

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