Culturally Relevant Leadership

Summer 2014

In the 1960s, social and political changes in the United States initiated countercultural practices that, in turn, gave underrepresented people greater opportunities in business, nonprofit, and government sectors — including public and private education. As a result, the nation has seen an increase in the number of women and people of color in leadership positions in schools. Still, 50 years later, these groups remain underrepresented. In particular, women of color remain vastly underrepresented in independent school leadership. According to recent statistics from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), women of color make up less than 2?percent of the heads in member schools.1

Given that the data on women of color administrators in independent school leadership is limited, research into the question of why women of color have been so underrepresented and remain underrepresented today requires a more general investigation of the experiences of women in educational administration. And here, available research illuminates the imbalance of male and female administrators in schools and how laws, exclusionary practices, cultural stereotypes, and societal beliefs created barriers that prevented women from becoming school leaders. The “democratic and egalitarian” approaches to leadership and decision making historically ascribed to women were in conflict with the “authoritarian and dominant” approach historically ascribed to men. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, many of the principals were men trained in traditional models of business and the military.2

The preference for a 20th-century–style authoritarian leader over an egalitarian leader no longer applies as the dominant leadership style. Today’s demographic, economic, and political changes have placed growing emphasis on multiculturalism and the global economy, and these changes have necessitated different leadership approaches toward working and engaging with people of diverse backgrounds. Yet, there remains a carry­over 20th-century bias toward men as school leaders.

To help us get beyond the bias, my recent study of 10 women of color heads of NAIS-member schools explores how these women exercise their leadership roles in ways that fit well with the needs of 21st-century schools. Their lived experiences indicate that an organic emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, coupled with their personal experiences and a deep understanding of the value of cultural diversity, inform what they value as leaders. My findings make it clear that listening carefully, critiquing options, and integrating a variety of opinions to encourage change and move the organization closer to its mission through inclusive outreach are central to excellent leadership today. Common approaches these women described include leadership that advances student learning, cultivates social justice initiatives, and centers on the value of relationships. These approaches present a shift from hierarchical to collaborative leadership that deliberately draws upon the strength and richness of diverse people.

Common among the women of color heads is a distinct network approach to leadership. In the study, the women heads viewed relationships in horizontal rather than hierarchical terms, and described the concept of power as shared rather than a matter of exercising control over others. They felt that taking a coalition approach and inviting people to discuss and participate in issues involving the organization empowers members of the organization to be committed to and support the overall vision. 

What also emerged from the study was the concept of culturally relevant leadership, informed by the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings3 on culturally relevant teaching, and the work of David Thomas and Kerr Inkson on cultural intelligence.4 In essence, culturally relevant leadership includes:

  • Cultural intelligence — paying close attention, in reflective ways, to cross-cultural situations with a sense of mindfulness about the details of the lives, needs, and core values of others.
  • Cultural competency — the ability and adaptability to code-switch and sympathetically understand cultural cues across situations and interactions, and taking cultural diversity and individual differences into account.
  • Cross-cultural networking — the commitment to collaborate with people of diverse backgrounds to work together toward common goals. Such collaboration creates a web of people, resources, skills, and talents that further develop those partnerships.

This concept of culturally relevant leadership, while drawn upon the lived experiences of women of color heads of independent schools, is important for both men and women across public and private, profit and nonprofit organizations. The combination of cultural intelligence, cultural competency, and cross-cultural networking that makes up the components of culturally relevant leadership can inform leaders of diverse organizations in the emergence of a dynamic and complex global economy and an integrated society.

In short, the experiences of women of color heads of independent schools offer much for educational administrators and organizational leaders to consider. Their collective voices, training, and journeys are a tremendous asset to independent schools and organizational leadership. Their practices inform areas that we should consider and continue to explore in school administration and beyond.


1. NAIS Statistics, 2013.

2. Charol Shakeshaft, Women in Educational Leadership. Newbury Park: Corwin Press, 1989.

3. Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. Jossey-Bass, 1994. 

4. David Thomas and Kerr Inkson, Cultural Intelligence: Living and Working Globally. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009.