I spent the weekend in the company of forty-six formidable women. They came to our school for a Women’s Leadership Seminar sponsored by The Heads Network. All week I felt slightly giddy, as if I were planning a party. Arriving on Friday afternoon, they hailed from California and Tennessee, from New York City and Winnipeg. They came because someone had suggested they attend, because they may want to be Heads, because they were curious. Over two days, we covered many topics: school finance, governance, fundraising, navigating the search process, balancing multiple constituencies, interviewing basics, making a transition with one’s family, the statistics on women in headship—advantages and obstacles and percentages. We immersed ourselves in possibility, listening to one another’s stories, taking each other seriously but also laughing, interspersing poetry with practicality. There’s a peculiar intimacy that comes from being strangers—perhaps aware of how finite our time together was, we risked more? Perhaps there’s a freedom born of being in a group who will not be there to judge you Monday morning.
As the hostess, it was my job and privilege to set the tone. I loved welcoming people to our school, seeing the beautiful 90-year old building through other people’s more forgiving eyes. I see forlorn bulletin boards and all the projects on my wish lift. Our California guests perceive a school rich in tradition. What we do in it every day to educate girls is more cutting-edge than our space suggests. But over the weekend, I looked around with new pride, surveying our gracious elegance with satisfaction. This is a school that has been educating girls for almost a century and a quarter; I’m proud of our legacy.
Perhaps that’s why the weekend moved me. We are in the business of offering opportunity—to the girls and young women at Laurel School. And, in my service to The Heads Network, our leadership seminar seeks to do the same for aspiring women leaders; our time together allows us to lift up out of our every day lives and carve a small amount of space and time to dream into the future. With children, it’s easy to imagine all they will become. Adults feel more anchored by location and circumstance; it’s hard to imagine leaving places where we’ve put down roots, where we are valued, where we know the drill. To contemplate leaving aging parents or asking our spouses or partners to consider a move can weigh us down, keep us tethered to what we know.
All weekend I thought of a quotation by Apollinaire that I used in the speech I gave on the occasion of my installation as tenth head of Laurel School:
“Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”
We are all of us afraid, I think. Especially of that which we cannot know. Over the weekend, those of us serving on the faculty encouraged our mentees women to take flight. They are not scrawny baby birds, tentative and clumsy, demanding worms. They are glorious accomplished women, ready to glide, soar, climb, seek—but we all need encouragement. .
At the last session, I gave each participant many small cards suspended on a ring. On each card is a word or phrase I associate with leadership along with some blank cards for women to use to write down their own words—terms or ideas that I might have missed. I’ve learned that leadership is deeply personal, distinct. What works for me may not work for a colleague. We learn from one another, refine our practice, grow from mistakes, incorporate feedback from colleagues, seek mentors. Our leadership evolves.
Years ago, my husband helped me make these talismans, souvenirs of the seminar. I had the idea, but, as has happened so many times in my life, my husband helped me translate a grand vision, to make my vision real. He is a problem solver, a question asker, an interpreter. I am better for his ability to complement, enhance, sometimes poke holes in my thinking; he helps me get clearer. Often, I start in the middle describing some dilemma I face at school. Mostly patient, he walks me back to the starting point, so he can understand what I am saying in order to help. I often assume he is in my head with me, particularly when I am tired. But I’m a better leader because he is beside me.
I shared with the women sitting on the floor of our living room my story of becoming a headmistress. I cited several mentors who saw something in me, who prompted me towards the next step. I didn’t think about revealing my marriage as my greatest source of strength until after everyone had gone back out into the rainy night, headed to the hotel.
The seminar ended in the gymnasium. We offered a brief comment about our time together, tossing a ball of ribbon across the circle to make a web, a metaphor for the connections we’d established. We admired the ribbon’s shimmering colors, lifting it high and then releasing it, allowing it to flutter to the ground. So much about leadership has to do with trust.
Off the women went, headed back into their lives, buoyed, we, the teachers, hoped, by inspiration, by our faith in them. But after they had left, I sat on the floor of the gym rolling up the tangled mass of ribbon. It was a frustrating task; we’d find an end, but it was easily lost. Knots felt insoluble. A few times, in our frustration, we had to cut an end loose and start again. Metaphors abounded. There was Julia, a headmistress friend I’ve known since she, herself, was a girl and a student in the summer theatre that Seth and I started together decades ago. And there was my son, too, who has never known a mother who was not a Head of School. Across a chilly parking lot in our lovely cluttered home waited my husband—my partner, mentor, best friend.
The personal and professional work of leadership cannot be easily disentangled. “Surround yourself with support,” we urged the women. After they left, I reveled in the support I too often take for granted: my husband, son, daughters, friends, colleagues. The architecture of my own web of support seemed suddenly visible, like a spider web whose form is revealed by the drops of dew affixed to it—surprisingly sturdy, intricate, exquisite.
Despite this enduring winter, I note the forsythia buds on the hedge in the parking lot starting to swell, glimpses of bright yellow barely visible, the buds still furled. Spring’s arrival is inexorable, which gives me hope. The women we met this weekend will surge forward, too, each, at her own pace. Their growth can no more be halted than we can stop the hedges from bursting into bloom. The sunny blaze will dazzle, take center stage, then subside until next spring. That thought fills me with optimism despite the chill in the air. These women, too, will have their season, their glory, one day soon.