The Need: As Christian K-12 schools strive to provide an excellent education taught from a biblical worldview, in a competitive education market and a time fraught with economic challenge, there is a need to develop a strong and deep pool of leaders who can navigate the rapidly evolving education landscape.
The Problem: Currently, the pool of heads of school in Christian K-12 schools is largely male, which suggests there is a potential limiting of the strongest possible talent pool, and thus, there is room to enlarge the pool. How? The rarity of women heads of school in these educational institutions compelled an investigation of the leadership advancement of the women who attain these roles. What is it about these women and their leadership journey that has resulted in the attainment of the headship?
The Research: I set out to answer this question – the focus of my doctoral dissertation – by scouring all related literature and interviewing 13 women heads of Christian K-12 schools to find out what they identified as the critical influences leading to the attainment of their position. Specifically, I was interested in the catalysts that have spurred their progress and the barriers they have overcome to be one of the few women in this position.
The Findings: The findings of my study, based on the interviews I conducted with the 13 women heads of school, identified three barriers and six catalysts to women’s leadership advancement resulting in attainment of the HOS position. The three barriers were: (a) perceiving the head of school job as not attractive; (b) facing external opposition; and (c) facing internal opposition. Women found the head of school role to be unattractive because it can be a lonely position, it requires making difficult decisions and experiencing pressures, and it pulls one away from student contact. The external opposition women faced was from people not liking the woman or her decisions, people not having confidence in her, or people not wanting women in leadership. Finally, internal opposition centered around women not feeling skilled or competent enough for the head of school role, women’s reluctance to step away from the comfort and success of a previous position, and their need to navigate one-on-one meetings with male colleagues, donors, board chairs, and others in a way that avoided negative perceptions..
The six catalysts to a woman’s advancement were: (a) having a mentor; (b) having someone push and nudge them into considering the HOS position; (c) being called upon to meet a need or fill a gap; (d) knowing and being known by the school; (e) saying yes to earlier opportunities to lead, serve, or learn; and (f) gaining a realistic view of the headship. Surrounding the entire process was the overarching influence of being sensitive to God’s calling. The catalysts interact with the barriers in both an iterative and a linear fashion; over time, forward progress prevails and results in attainment of the headship. For example, where a mentor’s pushing meets with a woman’s perception of the head of school role as unattractive, the woman may voice diffuse expressions of surprise and resistance; but ultimately, as the woman continues to be mentored, pushed, exposed to the head of school role, recognized and trusted by the community, tapped to meet a need the school has, and ultimately called by God to step forward in willingness to take the role, the process culminates with the attainment of the headship.
In practical terms, the process of leadership advancement resulting in attainment of the headship details women who were called to a place: called by God to a place, one particular Christian school, long-term, to serve in whatever way was needed, according to their gifting and equipping for the task, and typically, rising through the ranks, spurred on by mentors and others who pushed and nudged them toward considering the head of school role.
The Implications: Given these insights, what can Christian school organizations, Christian schools, and individuals do to ensure that this great pool of talent is tapped to assume head of school positions? Eight practical steps can be taken by Christian schools and individuals in positions of authority and power who surround emerging women leaders:
1. Establish mentoring programs, coaching, and access to senior leaders for emerging women leaders.
2. Expose women leaders to a realistic perspective of the head of school role, allowing them to see how heads face challenges, develop skills, interact with boards, and experience joy in their role.
3. Invite women to take on tasks, such as leading the accreditation process, that will give them leadership opportunities and expose them to various areas and leaders of the school.
4. Provide emerging women leaders with opportunities to get to know the school and be known by the school community by chairing a schoolwide committee or having a visible role at all-school events.
5. Invite women leaders to meet needs and fill gaps, such as filling in for a head of school who is off campus for a number of days, or serving as an Interim Head of School.
6. Commit to a persistent pursuit of strong women candidates for head of school roles. Sponsor these women and encourage their candidacy, particularly those affiliated with the institution.
7. Pray for emerging women leaders, asking God to give them sensitivity to His calling in their lives.
8. Build a culture that explicitly states that women in leadership is desirable and appropriate. Acknowledging positive and effective female leadership supports that message. Without such messages, cultural norms may be mistaken for theological convictions.