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Leadership lessons from a school principal: What the next generation of female CEOs need to know

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By Marise McConaghy, Principal at independent Melbourne high school Strathcona Girls Grammar


The events of the last year have put leaders from all industries under the spotlight, providing plenty of examples of both poor and best practice for the world to analyse. And while a global pandemic is an extraordinary event, crises and situations of extreme stress and pressure generally do reveal a lot about a person’s capacity for leadership. Leaders and organisations that have responded well are those that have stayed true to their values and mission and used these as a compass when the landscape continued to shift and change.

Something we’ve been hearing for a long time but which the pandemic really brought home is that to be resilient and successful, contemporary organisations must be agile — able to reassess, to adapt plans and to regularly experiment with ideas. To achieve this, the person at the helm must be someone who embraces change and isn’t beholden to old ways of doing things. Being rigid about plans made doesn’t always work or best serve the organisation.

Just as this was the case for businesses last year, it was also the case for schools. There had to be a realisation that not only was the old way no longer possible, but also that it wouldn’t provide the best possible outcomes when it came to student wellbeing, efficiency, relationships, and the provision of quality of learning. Teachers were incredibly creative in the initiatives they devised and crucial to this was their knowledge that if an approach or idea did not work out as first planned, that was ok. Failure was as much a feature of 2020 as was success. And with each small failure, we learned what needed to be done to recalibrate an approach or flip an idea completely to make it work better. Having a sense of humour also helps to keep things in perspective.


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As a leader, having too big an ego and wanting to maintain things you’ve introduced previously does not bode well. In high-performing teams, there isn’t room for outsized ego or for one star player. Being able to delegate, trust employees, value their expertise, collaborate and group appropriate people with varying skills to find ways to move forward is critical.

Encouraging and fostering diversity in your team and organisation is incredibly important as different viewpoints and ways of seeing things lead to enhanced problem solving and creativity. Also critical is valuing and utilising different people’s strengths in order to achieve the best possible outcome. For example, a creative staff member may have a great idea about how to do something, but to execute it requires the checks and balances of people who are strong on fine detail, logistics and risk. Recognising these respective skillsets and bringing these people together to achieve an outcome is the prerogative of a strong leader.

It’s important for those in leadership positions to be able to foresee (to an extent) how people are likely to react and respond to certain situations, whether they be students, parents, staff, customers, or shareholders. Empathy and compassion are essential to this. Throughout the past year, leaders needed an acute awareness of how members of their community were coping so that the whole enterprise —whether a school or an ASX-listed company — could function well. Leaders must be able to recognise when someone isn’t coping and give them respite so they can come back and do their job as well as possible in the circumstances. It’s important to note though that understanding and working to relieve the pressure your employees are collectively feeling is not the same as taking on the work yourself. This is an unsustainable burden for any leader to carry and not helpful in the long term.


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The qualities I’ve described above — empathy, compassion, capacity to manage unexpected disruption, delegation, collaboration, not such a big ego (being more invested in the outcome and the people around rather than yourself), and being flexible and receptive, are all traits traditionally associated with women. These are qualities the next generation of women leaders need to see as valuable and to nurture in themselves, rather than model themselves solely on the qualities of male leaders.

Fortunately, there are more female CEOs now than ever before (though still not nearly enough), providing the young women of today with substantially more role models than previous generations had access to. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the needs of an organisation, I firmly believe that the traits discussed here, combined with access to quality education, will guide the next generation of female leaders through unchartered waters and on to great success.


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Marise McConaghyhttps://www.strathcona.vic.edu.au/
Marise McConaghy is the Principal at independent Melbourne high school Strathcona Girls Grammar.