Living Leadership in the Lower School

Winter 2016

The persistent gender gap in top leadership roles in the United States is well documented in both academic and popular literature. One study using data from both the U.S. Department of Labor and Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focused on creating equitable workplaces for women, found that, while women occupied almost half of the U.S. labor force in 2008 and 51 percent of all managerial and professional jobs, only 7 percent of women held “the titles of chairman, chief executive officer (CEO), chief operating officer (COO), and executive vice-president (EVP).”1 To address the disparity between men and women in top leadership roles, it is imperative for schools to hone in on the most effective ways to develop the leadership capacity of girls throughout their academic program. This article offers a case study of the creation of one leadership identity development program for lower schoolers in an all-girls school and reviews best practices for developing leadership programs in independent schools more broadly.

Why Leadership Identity?

The program described herein was initiated at The Agnes Irwin School (Pennsylvania) in order to support the leadership identity development of the youngest girls in the school. Founded in 1869, The Agnes Irwin School educates girls in grades pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Located 12 miles west of Philadelphia, the school is home to the Center for the Advancement of Girls (CAG), an educational initiative that focuses on research, innovative programming, and community engagement. Leadership, featured prominently in the mission of the school, is a cornerstone of the Agnes Irwin education. With the focus on leadership in the school, leadership is also one of the four pillars of the Center for the Advancement of Girls. Leadership has always been infused into the culture of the school, but no formal leadership program existed in the lower school before this one.
Unlike many leadership development programs that focus on skills, the purpose of this program is to foster, refine, and elevate leadership identities in young girls. The reason we chose to focus on identity, rather than skills, is because it is important for girls to know how to be leaders and to see themselves as leaders. Unlike a set of skills, leadership identity is more likely to carry into adulthood because it is ingrained into how a person defines herself.2 Leadership identities, notably, are developed through a process of bolstering perceptions of leadership self-efficacy, the personal “level of confidence in the knowledge, skills, and abilities associated with leading others.”3 For a girl to view herself as a leader, she first must feel that she is capable of leadership. Without this confidence in herself, a set of skills will be of little use. Through creating a broad understanding of who a leader is and what a leader does, the program discussed here fosters the development of leadership identities through creating a strong sense of leadership self-efficacy in lower school girls. 

Participatory Action Research

To create a program that would be effective, sustainable, and reflective of the school’s cultural values, a team of seven teachers and three administrators from Agnes Irwin engaged in a yearlong Participatory Action Research (PAR) program facilitated by researchers from Bryn Mawr College. PAR is one form of applied research wherein researchers and community members work collaboratively throughout the entire research process.4 In particular, the researchers and community members form an inquiry team and become equals and co-creators of new knowledge. Over the course of a school year, a team of Agnes Irwin teachers and administrators along with researchers used PAR to co-create a leadership identity development program that would fit seamlessly into the school, functionally and culturally, because of its alignment with the existing ethos.
During the PAR process, one particular story, told by a Pre-K teacher, helped the group to clarify its goals as an inquiry team. The story was about a student, Lilly (not her real name), who teachers had previously described as a quiet follower. One day, during free time, Lilly’s teacher asked if she could read and write the words printed on the shirt that she was wearing that day. After Lilly was successful, she proceeded to approach each of her classmates in turn and offer them the same challenge, helping some along the way. The PAR inquiry team realized that Lilly was behaving like a leader because her classroom offered her a safe space to begin to build her identity. Using Lilly as a model, the inquiry team then focused on ways to best capitalize on moments like these that occur daily and naturally in classrooms, in the cafeteria, and on the playground. “How,” they asked themselves, “do we help Lilly know that she was being a leader at that moment? How do we clarify that leaders are not simply those at the head of the line? How do we help students make sense of and refine those moments where they could be demonstrating leadership?” Through this discussion, the team was able to articulate what they already believed: Leadership is not a zero-sum system wherein only a select few can be leaders, but a mindset that every girl in every classroom can live into. Through conversations with each other, with other teachers, and with students, the inquiry team began to craft an understanding of leadership that was both broad and developmentally appropriate. Rather than come up with a single definition, the team captured the many components of 21st century leadership by identifying nine traits and attributes of a good leader: responsibility, honesty, communication/listening, reflective thinking, problem solving, collaboration/cooperation, kindness, independent mindedness, and resilience. The attributes were gleaned from interviews with students and teachers, and later refined by the inquiry team throughout the year.

L3 Program

Using the PAR model, the inquiry team developed a program focused on the nine attributes of a leader. To effectively teach the girls about the attributes, the inquiry team constructed a physical toolbox that contained a laminated definition card and a physical object aimed to make the abstract concept more tangible for each attribute. For example, resilience is defined as, “When things don’t go my way, I bounce back” and is represented by a bouncy ball. The attributes, definitions, and objects are detailed in the chart (see sidebar).

Contents of the Leadership Toolkit

“I know what to do and I do it.”
Fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper; and a plastic ant
“I am truthful to myself and others.”
Picture of Pinocchio
“I listen and speak to others thoughtfully.”
“The Communicator” with green and red ends
Reflective Thinking
“I think about what I’ve done and learn a lesson from it. I think about what I’m going to do and make a good choice.”
Problem Solving
“When I don’t know what to do, I figure it out.”
Rubix Cube
Collaboration/ Cooperation
“I work well with others to get something done.”
“I care about others.”
Glass heart
Independent Mindedness
“I think and act for myself. I’m not afraid to be different.”
Photo of Agnes Irwin, the school’s founder
“When things don’t go my way, I bounce back.”
Rubber ball
The plan for the first year was to focus on a different leadership trait each month. The inquiry team concluded that the best method of implementation would require multiple modes of reinforcement throughout the month. Each month, during an assembly, the director of the lower school would help the girls review the trait or attribute from the previous month and then introduce the new trait of the month. Each trait or attribute was introduced in a slightly different way, often with active engagement of the girls in assembly. To introduce honesty, for example, the lower school director read the girls a story. She introduced resilience, on the other hand, by giving several examples of girls acting resiliently in challenging situations and showing the rubber ball “bouncing back" after each example. Throughout the month following the assembly teachers reviewed and reinforced the trait (and the traits discussed up through that point) in two distinct ways.
First, if a teacher observed a student displaying the leadership trait, she or he would place an anonymous note on a bulletin board describing the situation. For example, one teacher wrote that a student was demonstrating responsibility: “One of my girls picks up trash out on the playground almost every day. She cares so much about taking care of the school — it makes me happy!” This bulletin board not only offered positive reinforcement for girls who could recognize themselves, but the anonymous nature sent a strong message about leadership and recognition. The goal for these young girls was not to win a contest or to be recognized, but to understand what constitutes leadership and to believe in themselves. Furthermore, because the notes were anonymous, all of the girls were able to imagine themselves doing those same things — an important component in developing self-efficacy.
Second, teachers used the toolboxes in their classrooms in several different ways. Since the program was meant to fit in seamlessly with the existing academic program, teachers were told to use the toolbox in the way that worked best for their students developmentally and in a way that felt natural to them. Some teachers created their own bulletin boards, others used the traits in closing circle discussions, still others highlighted the trait through books, and one even used the traits as she helped students set their own goals for the year. This flexibility created a type of buy-in for the program that made it successful for the classroom and the school. All teachers, notably, used the toolbox in meaningful ways, which provided reinforcement of its importance and fostered a greater understanding of the concepts.
Through the assemblies, the bulletin board, and classroom activities, the lower school was able to build a culture of leadership throughout the entire division. During the year it was clear that the girls were not only learning to understand and use this language of leadership but also were able to internalize the idea of leadership. The girls were able to understand that there are things that they do every day that demonstrate leadership — which is very powerful in and of itself. While it is important for young girls to learn leadership skills, it is more crucial that they build confidence in their abilities as leaders, and this program, according to teachers, did just that.

Lessons Learned

While a need to build the leadership capacity of our students is not a new focus in the independent school realm, the constantly evolving meaning of leadership requires that schools reexamine their leadership programming fairly consistently, especially those programs that can combat the significant gender disparity in adult leadership positions. Leadership in the 21st century, according to Craig Pearce of Claremont Graduate University, “can no longer rely on simple notions of top–down, command-and-control leadership, based on the idea that workers are merely interchangeable drones."5 Leadership, he explains, needs to focus on leaders, followers, and everyone else in redefining who a leader is and what a leader does. This new brand of leadership, potentially, is where girls can excel if they believe in their capacity to do so. Through the use of PAR to build this program from the ground up, we were able to reimagine leadership in our school and create a greater understanding of what young girls need in order to ignite their leadership identities.
Throughout this process, the inquiry team learned several key lessons that would benefit other independent schools interested in reimagining their own leadership programming:
  1. Create a broad definition of leadership. The strongest leadership programs for young students are not designed to separate leaders from followers. Creating a definition that is both broad and clear can help students understand the many facets of leadership and to imagine themselves as leaders in different ways.
  2. Start from the ground up and allow for flexibility. The program described above was created by the teachers and administrators who were also tasked with implementing it. If this program had not been driven by the teachers themselves, and if it had not allowed them to adapt it to their own style, it would not have been as successful. A program that is built from the ground up is inherently responsive to the needs of the community and the community will be more likely to embrace the program. The PAR process allowed each member’s voice to be heard and valued.
  3. Know what you are already doing well. Programs fit best when they do not stand alone. Adding 30 minutes each week of “leadership time” is not nearly as effective as integrating it in the curriculum where it naturally fits. There are likely things in your school that are already happening that build leadership skills. The task, then, becomes the best ways to extend and refine those moments so that the program is not isolated or burdensome.
  4. Build a culture of leadership and plan for continuous improvement: To develop leadership identities, it is imperative that the school also incorporates an understanding of leadership into its unique identity. When that definition of leadership is part of the belief system of a school, it will become ingrained into the fabric of the school. Two years after the leadership toolkit was initially implemented, teachers spent this summer working on integrating it fully into the socio-emotional curriculum and revising the ways that the traits are introduced to each student. 
Overcoming the gender disparity in top leadership positions is not solely in the purview of independent schools. However, if girls learn to identify themselves as leaders from a very young age, as boys often do, they can be part of the broader cultural change that is clearly necessary. While the program described was enacted at an all-girls school, it is also imperative for coeducational institutions to work on this issue. In these environments, schools need to engage in measures to ensure that the leadership behaviors displayed by both girls and boys are celebrated.  


1. Jenny M. Hoobler, Grace Lemmon, and Sandy J. Wayne,  “Women’s Underrepresentation in Upper Management: New Insights on a Persistent Problem, Organizational Dynamics, 2011, 40(3), p. 151.

2. David V. Day and Michelle M. Harrison, “A Multilevel, Identity-Based Approach to Leadership Development,” Human Resource Management Review, 2007, 17(4), 360-373.

3. Sean T Hannah, Bruce J. Avolio, Fred Luthans, and Peter D. Harms, “Leadership Efficacy: Review and Future Directions,” The Leadership Quarterly, 2008, 19(6), p. 1.

4. Darlyne Bailey, Kelly McNally Koney, Katrina Uhly, Titilayo Bediako, Marilyn Bruin, Joel Hetler, Helen Kivnick, Anise McDowell, Barbara Milon, Makeda Zulu-Gillespie, The Alignment of Leadership of Participatory Action Research (PAR): One Process & Product from the University Northside Partnership.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Board of Reports, 2009.

5. Craig L. Pearce, “The Future of Leadership Development: The Importance of Identity, Multilevel Approaches, Self-leadership, Physical Fitness, Shared Leadership, Networking, Creativity, Emotions, Spirituality, and Onboarding Processes,” Human Resource Management Review, 2007, 17(4), p. 355.