Women's leadership advice for school leaders

Bad Leadership Advice For Women

Mar 08, 2021

When I was first considering taking on a formal leadership role in a school, I attended a Women in Leadership workshop where it was recommended that, in order to be shortlisted for a position and then successful at interview, us women needed to “be more bloke.”

We needed to be bolder, more confident in rattling off our successes and even learn how to boast (but only for when we were in the interview- because we all know no one likes a boaster outside of interviews).

“Be more bloke.”

Not exactly what I was expecting to hear at a workshop aimed at empowering women to step up to formal leadership in a school.

There’s no doubt the message was well intentioned, but the overtones made me uncomfortable: If us women wanted to be successful in leadership, we had to be less woman and more man.  

What would have been more helpful in that women’s leadership workshop would have been to learn about who women are as leaders, what our strengths are and how we can use these strengths to be successful in our roles.

So, in that vein, today I’m going to share 3 tips I’d rather have received as a woman with leadership aspirations.


1. Don’t wait until you feel ready

It’s widely reported that women don’t like to apply for positions in which they haven’t met 100% of the application criteria. This is different to men who apparently are more likely to apply even in situations where they only met 60% of the criteria.

Part of this comes down to the fact that us women tend to want to feel fully confident in our skills and knowledge before we take on a new role.

The problem with this is that often the way to develop confidence is through doing the work.

As Melbourne leadership coach Emma McQueen explains in her book, Go-getter, confidence is developed through experience, habit, consistency and discipline. She uses the example of going to the gym to explain:

Emma McQueen's confidence model.



The idea of applying for a position before you feel ready is one I certainly identify with. Back when I was a Leading Teacher and saw the principal position came up at my school, I definitely did not feel ready to apply for it. Being a principal was in my 10-year plan, not my 2-year plan!

Opportunity had rudely knocked on my door (completely uninvited) and forced me to decide if I wanted to turn it away.

Fortunately I had some great mentors at the time who encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and back my competence over my confidence.

Just as Emma McQueen suggests, the confidence did come as I rolled my sleeves up and did the work. And, by the 2nd-3rd year of the job, I started to feel like I knew what I was doing. (Nothing like fumbling through for a few years is there!?)


2. Less ‘we,’ more ‘I’

Rather than ‘speaking like a bloke’, far more empowering advice for the application and interview process would be to remain conscious of your pronouns.

More specifically, include less ‘we’ and more ‘I’ in your application and your interview responses.

The reason for this is not about imitating men through coming across as being more confident, it’s simply a case of helping the panel to understand the specific skills, strategies and knowledge that YOU bring to a team. 

The WHY for this piece of advice comes back to the research suggesting that women are known for engaging in generative leadership practices- forming webs, rather than pyramids, in their institutions. (Grogan and Shakeshaft, 2011).

Basically, we lean towards involving others in decisions making.

Teamwork makes the dream work, right? Of course, it’s critical to understand that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of leadership. In fact, this style of leadership calls on many of the traits that international business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic says correlates with good leadership and good outcomes:

You want leaders to be competent (which means to have technical expertise and be a subject matter expert in their area)…smart and data-driven and rational and capable of objective, evidence-based decisions, curious,…humble (so they’re aware of their limitations) and fundamentally you want them to have empathy (so they can understand others and be considerate and caring with others), altruistic, empathetic, kind, honest and ethical.

(The Global Institute for Women's Leadership, 2021)

Julia Gillard’s interview with Tomas (who wrote a book called “Why Incompetent Men Become Leaders”) is a MUST listen.

When this team approach can be problematic though, is in the application and interview process.


Because, depending on your pronoun use, it can leave the panel wondering if they’re interviewing you or your team…

Consider this interview scenario:

Panel: “Can you tell us about a time when you implemented a change that had a positive effect on student learning?”

Applicant 1: “Last year the year 3/4 team noticed that students were unable to make inferences in texts because they didn’t understand the vocabulary. We decided to implement an explicit vocabulary cycle and when we conducted testing at the end of the unit, we found that their ability to decipher the meaning of unknown words had improved.”


Applicant 2: “Last year I noticed an increase in the number of teachers in the 3/4 unit talking about students struggling with inferences in reading. I spoke to the literacy coach about this and I then designated the focus of the next PLC to investigating the issue. As PLC leader, I led my team through the inquiry cycle, encouraging them to bring evidence of their students’ struggles and providing time and a safe space for them to share their experiences. As a result of this inquiry, we collectively decided to implement an explicit vocabulary cycle. I organised for the literacy coach to provide targeted PD and professional readings to support the team and all of the 3/4 teachers trialled the suggested approach in their classroom.”

Do you see the difference?

In the first response, it would be unclear to the panel exactly what the applicant’s role in the team was. Were they just a passive member of the team or were they actively leading and influencing others?

Being a team player is a strong and appealing skill to have, but when it comes to hiring a person for a leadership position, the panel needs to know what other skills you possess in addition to being a team player.

My advice here is to use the pronoun ‘I’ more.

Also, don’t be afraid to follow it up with a strong verb: I led, I organised, I consulted, I created, I empowered.

Own and be clear about your role in the team.


3. Value community over competition

Even though I could write an entire blog about this one, I’ll keep it super short:

Strong women lift each other up.

In the words of Madonna:

“As women, we have to start appreciating our own worth. And each other’s worth. Seek out strong women to befriend, to align yourself with, to learn from, to be inspired by, to collaborate with, to support, to be enlightened by.”

(Madonna’s acceptance speech at the Billboard Women in Music awards is certainly worth watching.)

As a woman and a leader, commit to community over competition.

Lift other women up, rather than tearing them down.

Be inspired by strong women, rather than fearful of their strength.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the world is not big enough for all of us women to be brilliant.

Always strive for community over competition.

The world will be better for it.

Does any of this leadership advice resonate for you? What leadership advice -good or bad- have your received in your career? Join in the conversation over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook Group.




  • Grogan, M. and Shakeshaft, C., 2011. Women and educational leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • McQueen, E., 2020. Go-getter. Melbourne.

  • The Global Institute for Women's Leadership, 2021. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic on why incompetent men become leaders. [podcast] A podcast of one's own. Available at: <https://www.kcl.ac.uk/giwl/podcast> [Accessed 8 March 2021].


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