It’s Time to Flip the Script on Leadership: Thoughts on International Women’s Day

Vice President Kamala Harris is sworn into office

By Kayla McMenamin


What does it mean to be a leader? And not just a leader by title only, but a truly effective leader. This is something I’ve thought a lot about throughout the past decade, both in my own personal experiences with leadership or being led, and in watching the events of our national leadership unfold.  


On this International Women’s Day, I’m celebrating the historic win of our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris, and reflecting on how we got here. From the direct barring from positions of power, to the more insidious and implicit shunning of women leaders through sexist stereotypes, women have had to blaze their own trail when it comes to leadership. A dominant narrative that still persists today is that women can’t be effective leaders for variety of bogus reasons – too emotional, too shrill, too bossy. On top of that, BIPOC women face a whole different and more challenging set of barriers. 


Society often has a narrow view of what makes a “good” leader. Words that come to mind when thinking about “traditional” characteristics of leadership – which are more often attributed to cisgender men – arestrong, brave, stern, bold. That isn’t to say that these words shouldn’t describe our leaders, but the way these traits play out (think aggressive, domineering, unwavering) can be gravely misguided and myopic. Now, I see the conversation about effective leadership taking a turn. 


I am inspired that emerging women leaders – cisgender and transgender  are flipping the script on what it means to lead and lead well. Many are modeling strength in listening over dominating. They are showing bravery through vulnerability. They are choosing to be stern when it comes to living their values. They are exuding their boldness as they break the status quo and pave the way for others. And they are also adding new ingredients to the recipe of effective leadership.  


Minerva partner Seattle Girls’ School recently hosted a Town Hall on the topic of leadership, inviting a diverse team of panelists who are effective leaders in their schools, workplaces, and communities. During this virtual event, the panelists talked about their personal experiences in leading, what leadership looks like at the intersection of race and gender, how to build strong leaders in our youth, and more. 


One common theme continued to take center stage throughout their conversation: Empathy. Empathy is an important attribute that is often left out of that narrow view of leadership. Yet, it is an incredibly important skill in understanding those you lead and unleashing their passions and power through their unique, individual experiences with the world. We do better work and are less prone to burnout when we feel heard, valued, and purposeful. Empathy is the secret ingredient that will help us get there. 


I left this conversation feeling super hopeful for a future of leadership that looks different than what we’ve seen in the past – one that values leaders of all gender identities. 


Take a moment on this day of celebration and reflection to read some of the highlights of their conversation below! 


Image of Seattle Girls’ School Town Hall on Leadership panelists and speakers. Starting from top left: Adriana Hernandez, Andrea Caupain Sanderson, Wendy Ewbank, Phelana Pang, Jacquelyn Howard, Brenda Leaks


On what makes a strong leader… 


Jacquelyn Howard, VP of Direct Sourcing at Starbucks: “You have to be empathetic, especially in these times where we’ve learned what that really means. Not just saying, ‘Oh, I feel sorry for you,’ it’s more about understanding and listening, being there for people, and having a heart. Because leadership is both heart and head. If you don’t come forward as a person – as a human being – authentically, people are not going to believe in you or follow you [] Being human is a part of leadership and showing your vulnerability.” 


Phelana Pang, Assistant Head of School at Seattle Girls’ School: “[Leadership] is about understanding the people you’re leading, whether it’s their stories or just being a really strong listener. And the communication piece is really important in building trust with the people you’re leading and knowing that everybody has different forms of communication – having different stories, having different experiences – and holding all of those pieces while having a vision and direction that you’re bringing people with you. 


On empowering student leaders… 


Adriana Hernandez, SGS Alumna and High School Student Leader: “It’s so important to push the message that there is no one way to be a leader. There is no clear, cutout way. There are the silent leaders who are just as important and deserve just as much recognition. Everyone has the potential to be a leader and to do these things, and I feel like it’s important to provide these opportunities and end goals. That is what drove me – knowing there was an end goal to things, and that my work had an impact.”  


On leading at the intersection of race and gender… 


Andrea Caupain Sanderson, CEO of Byrd Barr Place: “Leadership has been race and gender biased towards males and mostly white males. Breaking that mold has been hard on so many firsts. Kamala Harris being one of them, being the first Black and east Indian VP, even her role model, Shirley Chisholm being the first black female presidential candidate. And me for instance. I lead a 66-year-old civil rights organization that has been led by black males, so where I was not the first black leader of the organization, I am the first female. And there is pressure, and then there is hopefulness in the expectations that are placed on you [] And the responsibility that comes with molding oneself into a role model for others and for those to come. There is a responsibility there to create that opening and that opportunity for others so that there are many more examples.” 


On nurturing budding leaders… 


Phelana: “[What’s important is] recognizing that anyone can lead and grow in their leadership. Believing in people – in students, in women, in people of color – and showing that outwardly is really important. Also, finding people who are going to mentor and support [] I think about helping support our leaders by creating spaces where they have a supportive community, like for example, our affinity group spaces [] You learn to lead with compassion, because people show you compassion. You learn to lead with integrity, because you have people who are modeling, owning, and learning from their mistakes [] [At SGS] we create this community where we encourage our students to take risks and make mistakes, to share their ideas, to learn how to communicate and collaborate, to problem-solve, to think on their feet, and then to grow.” 


On seeking mentorship… 


Jacquelyn: “I think people imagine this big, goddess on top of Mount Olympus, and that’s the mentor. But the mentor could be your peer. It could be somebody that’s younger than you […] It could be one level above you at work, or someone who is not in your space that can give you sound advice. You usually seek out mentors that have some kind of experience and something you’re trying to achieve so they have a little bit more wisdom. I’ve had both formal and informal mentors along the way, and most of them have been in the form of people who are different from me. Because you don’t need to hear your own voice in an echo chamber.”  


On teaching about equitable leadership in a co-ed setting… 


Andrea: “I’m stealing this term from the for-profit world, but its ‘W-I-F-M.’ You got to make it ‘What’s in it for me/them.’ And I think COVID is a really good example to show of a time when we all do better, we all do better. I think it’s about finding a way to bottom-line it.” 


On helping young leaders develop skills in fellowship and collaboration… 


Adriana: “Working in a group and working with a team is so important. Knowing when to listen is very important. Knowing when it’s time to speak up for yourself is very important and setting boundaries. Most importantly, knowing that you need one another, and that community is so important and helps build you up.” 



To watch the entire Town Hall on Leadership hosted by SGS, click here 


About The Author

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla McMenamin

Kayla has a strong affection for storytelling and an aptitude for translating complex topics into sharp messaging. While her career began more than a decade ago in strategic communications, an insatiable interest in everything health inspired her to return to school to study disparities research and behavior theory. Learn more about Kayla.