Leaders Who Dare: Pushing the Boundaries
reviewed by Agnes Smith - 2006
Does gender have an impact on leadership? Authors Lyman, Ashby, and Tripses address this question through the stories of 18 professional women educators. In the book Leaders Who Dare, the authors chronicle the professional careers and effective leadership skills of women who have served in various educational leadership roles. They present results of a structured qualitative research study addressing why these professional women educators are regarded as competent and successful mentors for other women. The authors' purpose was to record reasons why women educators of different ages, racial classifications, and backgrounds of experience achieved success and moved into positions formerly offered only to men. This book accomplishes much more. It provides inspiration to all readers that leadership is purposeful. The message delivered by the stories of these 18 outstanding educators affirms the ability of women to develop into highly effective leaders. It also confirms the belief that dynamic leadership transcends the boundaries of gender, race, culture, nationality, and creed. A persons classification matters less than commitment and the courage to dare to lead.
Criteria by which women were nominated to participate in this study include professional distinction, political skill, [and] a personality or story that would have an appeal beyond the boundaries of Illinois, (p. 4) the state in which all participants reside. It is easy to become acquainted with them because they represent women in our daily lives. They share many of the same characteristics, qualities, and dreams as our mothers, aunts, sisters, and friends. The women who dared to participate in this study demonstrate responsibility for achieving harmony between their professional and personal obligations, a nature that cares for others, and similar ways of approaching conflicts between their values and authority. Their stories resonate with the struggles, feelings, and courage exemplified by women leaders who pushed established social boundaries to assume their places as respected educational leaders, some during a time when few women worked outside the home.
The authors introduce their project with a discussion of contemporary issues that frame womens leadership during the 21st century. They explore parameters imposed by four contemporary issues: resolving cultural tensions, essentializing, the importance of honoring diversity, and questions about the role of feminism and feminist research (p. 20). Discussion of these issues provides an overview of the struggles these women who aspired to move into leadership roles have faced. Four of the women responded "no" when asked if gender affected their opportunities to advance while five of the women perceived gender as having limited effects on their professional opportunities. When presented with this question, Carol Struck answered, My gender has never caused me not to advance, but there have been problems along the way. I rarely see it anymore. Its just not the issue that it used to be (p. 10). Candid admissions from seven participants in this study acknowledge the reality that cultural and social norms limit opportunities for women to assume leadership roles. When asked if gender affected her opportunities to advance professionally, Hazel Loucks responded, Im sure that it always has. I do think you have to work twice as hard and twice as long to show that you actually have the skills and knowledge to do the jobs. I saw some of my male counterparts sometimes get promoted faster, easier (p. 12).
Lyman, Ashby, and Tripses reduce the complexity of leadership to four central themes. Data analysis prompted the authors to assess the impact of gender on leadership in the contexts of developing collaborative decision-making processes, pushing bureaucratic boundaries, claiming power through politics, and living and leading from values (pp. 14-15).
As a former school principal, I can attest to the fact that school leaders make countless decisions every day. Lyman, Ashby, and Tripses investigate whether women employ collaborative decision-making skills more readily than men. Results indicated that although politics and time pressures (p. 46) were found to complicate the process of collaborative decision making, fourteen of the 18 [participants] described involving others in decision making through a shared or collaborative process (p. 40). Conclusions of this study did not result in the clear identification of women as collaborative decision makers any more so than men. Rather, results suggest that the current educational leadership reform movement requires all leaders of today to gather appropriate data and involve others in the decision-making process.
The authors believed that women leaders, in part because of . . . [their] marginalized status, might have something to share about pushing the boundaries [of bureaucracies] (p. 61). Twelve of the women advanced the notion that pushing the boundaries of the educational bureaucracy, also termed creative insubordination, (p. 63) was worth the risk of embarrassment or the loss of a job if such action could be justified as meeting the needs of students or maintaining their integrity. One of the women explained her motivation for committing creative insubordination with the statement, Im very comfortable if its doing the right things for kids (p. 62).
Although the political arena was not a principal focus of this study, stories recounted by the participants included numerous references to the dynamic intersection of gender and the local and state politics associated with successful educational leadership (p. 89). Despite the risks and pitfalls of political involvement, analysis of the interviews revealed that these women recognized how necessary political awareness is for leaders to contribute to the right decisions for the right reasons.
Central to this book is the theme that these successful women live and lead from a well-developed value system. They view relationships with students and colleagues with a clear focus on fairness, justice, and equity. Their interactions with the community could be described as sensitive, kind, thoughtful, and alert to the diverse needs of others. When faced with a conflict between the needs of the institution and the needs of students, these women are willing to face consequences to support the needs of students. They blend aspects of these four central themes to practice authentic leadership.
As the stories of these outstanding women unfold, the reader learns that their success can partly be attributed to their willingness to redefine leadership. Participants in this study earned places as highly effective leaders by cultivating political savvy and by practicing moral leadership. Each woman moves beyond the role of a leader who is to the role of a committed leader who is and who does. They speak softly of collaborative decision making, definitively about pushing bureaucratic boundaries, and boldly of redefining leadership.
Walter Lippman once said that, The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on (Halloran, May 20, 1979). Through their professional accomplishments and competencies, these women have met his standard and have extended the borders of professional opportunities for other women to new and more exciting frontiers. A significant conclusion drawn from this study is that the voices of these 18 women reach beyond established boundaries of leadership to validate the pivotal qualities of counterbureaucratic moral leadership (p. 2) for all people. Lyman, Ashby, and Tripses offer a narrative redefinition of leadership that integrates doing with being (p. 35), and they bring the impact of gender on leadership into clear focus. The book Leaders Who Dare makes an important contribution to the field of educational leadership and encourages all aspiring leaders, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age, to dare to lead with purpose.
Halloran, J. F. (Ed.). (1979). Daily thoughts for school administrators. Reading, MA: Principals Information and Research Center.