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New Leadership Model Values Women's Strengths

The new leadership model plays to women's strengths. It requires leaders to talk, communicate and build relationships, and display more female traits such as sharing, curiosity and using teams.


Dr. Mary K. Culver

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results. A new research-based model hopes to eliminate the “Groundhog Day” approach in the training of educational leaders.

(In the movie Groundhog Day, actor Bill Murray wakes up to the same day over and over until he learns the lesson.) Leading is constantly moving and continuously developing, said Dr. Mary K. Culver, and is best represented by a flowing shape or contour.

“Contour” is also great word to show the feminist side of the approach. In nature, contours are not one shape, but a combination of many shapes over time.

Culver teaches educational leadership at Northern Arizona University (NAU), where she’s associate clinical professor. Over her career, she’s been a program manager, director of satellite schools, assistant principal and principal in an Arizona public school system. She currently supervises principal interns and visits doctoral students in the field.

She discussed research that led to the development of an educational model that results in stellar schools at the 27th annual Women in Educational Leadership Conference held in Lincoln NE in October 2013. In her presentation on the Contours of Leadership, Culver described how the model plays to women’s leadership strengths.

Turning around failing schools

Culver’s presentation grew out of 15 years of research on skills and characteristics of university scholars and administrative practitioners, specifically superintendents. Her research, conducted as part of a team, featured interviews at school districts that took students from failing to outstanding.

What happened in those schools that turned the students around? Could it be replicated elsewhere?

As the qualitative analysis person, Culver looked at what all of those districts had in common and uncovered a surprising finding. What the research revealed didn’t match what’s actually being taught in the colleges of education across the nation.

“Educational leadership books today look like those written in the 1800’s,” said Culver. “Research based are the ‘buzz words’ driving school reform, but they don’t know what the research is and how it’s useful.”

Policy makers want a set formula that outlines what outstanding schools do and can be used as a template to fix underperforming ones. So much of the application of “research based knowledge” involves writing down what works and saying “Let’s all do it.” Culver’s research identified a huge problem with that approach.

“It totally erases the context of each school,” she said. “Every school is different and the communities are different. And each school changes every year.”

The typical pattern used to prepare school leaders is to first identify what leaders do in outstanding schools as they currently exist. The second step is to “de-contextualize” and freeze leadership behaviors and make them static.

Step three is to reproduce schools as they currently exist and make everyone follow the leadership behaviors. What’s missing from those recommendations is “context.”

“If you implement all the elements found in currently stellar schools, you still don’t have an effective school,” said Culver. It correlates, but doesn’t predict.

If all schools are the same, then leadership to deal with difference is irrelevant, she said. It just doesn’t matter. But the research shows that it matters very much.

Every school has the seeds of its own rebirth, making a template ineffective.

A constant process of ‘becoming’

Leadership is a constant process of “becoming.” It’s a moving target that’s constantly in flux. The art of leadership cannot be prepackaged.

Great leadership isn’t about one hero riding in on a white horse to save the day, Culver pointed out. Great leadership is about doing disciplined work within your community of practice.

According to Culver, great leaders:

  • Prioritize teaching and learning
  • Build strong connections
  • Maintain a disciplined focus
  • Manage efficiently
  • Choose to be optimistic.

What schools need are humble, competent and caring leaders, whether they’re student teachers, faculty or staff, who can build an “achievable reality.”

The leadership training identified as a result of the research “teaches them to understand context and to build solutions from the inside out,” she said.

Knowledge, skills and values are all part of a leader’s identity and should be incorporated as part of a community context. “You can’t cookie cutter reform from one school to another,” said Culver.

Then there are the “accoutrements,” the special characteristics “sewn” into your identity as a leader, she said. “It’s like a quilt that’s never done.”

Just as teachers exhort their students to never stop learning, the same lessons can be applied to the school’s leaders. Because the structure of high expectations looks different from one community to another, NAU’s educational leadership programs teach students to seek out expectations before moving ahead with change.

Teachers need to know the standards. When they do, they can apply it to the curriculum. The curriculum can be tweaked to serve the needs of the community.

Change starts at the top. Only then can you drill down to the district, the school and ultimately, the classroom. Context matters.

Build a team of experts

The model advocates for being flexible, aware and reflexive, not reflective. It’s not about applying a black study to a black school. It goes beyond the application of a pre-determined template.

Being reflective involves identifying a goal and taking action based on achieving the goal. Reflexive is more holistic.

Reflexive leadership asks: “How am I thinking about this?” Am I an insider or an outsider? Am I an accepted outsider or an outsider who is not accepted by the group? What are my biases; my limitations? Reflexive leaders frame the situation before taking action. “Don’t reflect on what you want to do, but take into account your biases, your thinking processes,” said Culver. Above all, avoid the plague of “groupthink.”

Historically, the teacher was the expert. Today, success comes from building a team full of people with expertise in different areas.

Manager or leader?

Whether being a manager or a leader is better is a false dichotomy, according to Culver. “When have you seen leadership take place without effective management?” Good management is necessary for good leadership.

Management produces the smooth operations of the day-to-day structure. Leadership, said Culver, is focused on the future, on the climate and on vision. It’s rarely static and has many layers and faces. It’s interactional and co-constructed with followers.

For example, the high-performing school districts had principals who regularly visited their classrooms, as opposed to districts whose principals remain in their offices.

For the high-performing school districts, improving classroom learning was the priority. They used staff to handle a lot of the technology and management duties.

The community was trained that the principal was in the classroom. So when a student’s mother came to ask about a management issue that was affecting her daughter, she would talk to the staff member empowered to answer the question rather than the principal.

Model plays to women’s strengths

The new leadership model plays to women’s strengths. It requires leaders to talk, communicate and build relationships, and display more female traits such as sharing, curiosity and using teams.

The model also considers context, culture and reflection. Context includes leading adult learners and developing compassion as human agency.

Culture involves acknowledging ignored but intended skills and encouraging intellectual curiosity. Reflection emphasizes understanding the importance of “futurity” and exploring imaginativeness.

Here are the model’s components:

Leading the adult learner. Teacher professional development is based on adult learning principles. Administrators and faculty lead on a need-to-know basis, playing to their preferred ways of learning. The material has to spark their interest.

Human agency. Care and compassion drive leaders’ actions, as they identify what’s fair and just. An example occurred during the WELC conference. Since 95% of participants were women, leaders turned a men’s restroom into one for women.

Ignored intended skills. Building a vision requires strong people skills and listening to all sides of an issue, with fairness as a component.

Intellectual curiosity. This model prepares school leaders to be curious. Leaders are expected to create a culture of asking “why” at their school and suspend their own biases and perceptions. Leaders learn how to use technology to leverage time for more important tasks.

Futurity. Leaders need exposure to learning frames that go against the grain of current wisdom, with an emphasis on asking, “What does the future bring?” Culver said that “Going against the grain may be the best leader trait we can encourage.” Leaders are encouraged to pay attention to their inner rebel.

Imaginativeness. Never stop looking for what is not there. Imagine a principal or superintendent who goes into a classroom and models learnerfocused teaching.

Why can’t a leader be imaginative, caring and compassionate? Who has deemed those traits to be inappropriate in a leader?

Culver and her colleagues found a high correlation between gender and district performance. The high-performing districts had more women in positions of leadership such as superintendent, principal and building principal in the stellar districts than in other ones.

What leaders need

The new model identified 12 actions by good leaders:

  • Refuse to accept the status quo as inevitable.
  • Refuse to accept low performance as permanent.
  • Commit to social justice and schools as levelers of social change.
  • Commit to a participatory process.
  • Commit to respecting and understanding students’ families, homes and cultures. 
  • Commit to undertanding who is doing the speaking.
  • Accept that some forms of student resistance are healthy signs of protest, not to be erased or have their cultural identities compromised.
  • Accept that one’s persona does matter.
  • Remain intellectually curious and imaginative.
  • Ask the hard questions that guide the teaching craft.
  • Encourage teachers to continue learning.
  • Sponsor professional development opportunities that lead to culturally responsive pedagogy and curiosity.

What’s the lesson for administrators and teacher training programs? The heart still matters. When you fail, call on your resilience to allow yourself to start again. Understand what isn’t working and be willing to start again.

Contact: Mary.Culver@nau.edu


Santovec, Mary Lou. (2014, January). New Leadership Model Values Women's Strengths. Women in Higher Education, 23(1), 16-17. 

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