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Sidecar Summits Celebrate Female Leadership While Offering a Vision of Harmony for All

By Bridget McNamer
Sidecar Summits Celebrate Female Leadership While Offering a Vision of Harmony for All

As we turn the corner from summer to fall, educational leaders across the globe are back in full swing, already deeply steeped in the twists, turns, straightaways, and muddy patches that are inherent in the adventure of international school leadership. Some have extra fuel for this year’s journey, including the daring women leaders from around the globe who gathered in person this summer, in Montana and in The Netherlands, to celebrate their leadership strengths and accomplishments, rejuvenate from the depleting last few years, and reimagine a school leadership landscape that fully values and supports female attributes.

I call these adventures Sidecar Summit, a takeoff on my coaching practice Sidecar Counsel. Many of you understand my metaphor for coaching. I see leadership in schools as akin to riding a motorcycle on a mountain road. It’s thrilling, daring, adventurous, sometimes scary, and can feel very lonely at times, especially if you’re leading in an international school and even more so if you’re a female leader. As the guide in your sidecar, I get to travel along those (sometimes uncharted) mountain roads with you, serving as an extra set of eyes and ears and providing good company and counsel along the way.

When the pandemic made gathering in person impossible, I convened women educational leaders in virtual contexts through Zoom monthly meetups that I call Sidecar Rallies (continuing with the motorcycle metaphor). While this sated the desire for connection somewhat, a small group of us began dreaming of, then plotting and scheming to make manifest, an in-real-life meetup opportunity in July of 2021. We convinced several other daring women who traveled from as far away as Bolivia and Jordan to join us in Red Lodge, Montana for a two- and half-day event we called Sidecar Summit.

Why “summit?” That term has been (over)used for gatherings of global leaders that are discussing very important issues like climate change, the global economy, and geopolitics. While I believe women in educational leadership is also a very important issue that deserves such a lofty title, I think of summit in a different way. Let’s go back to the motorcyclist on a mountain road imagery. The top of the mountain is the summit. It’s a place of arrival, especially after a long and sometimes arduous journey. It’s a perch from which one can see more clearly and at a greater range. The air is fresh. The temptation to reach for one’s personal device is greatly diminished in favor of taking in the beauty and bounty of what’s around, in real life. And the joy of “summiting” is greatest when shared with fellow travelers.

And indeed, what joy to connect with other adventurous women to rejuvenate amidst pandemic burnout and the (it’s-well-past-time) reckoning of racism in schools, celebrate the female attributes that are instrumental in helping schools address these challenges, and to imagine a landscape that makes much more space for these attributes, allowing all school community members to thrive.

The enthusiasm from this pioneering Summit paved the way for two Summits in the summer of 2022. Small planning committees came together to create and host gatherings in The Netherlands and back again in Red Lodge. Our tenets for planning:

  • Keep them limited to retain a sense of personal attention and intimacy.
  • Co-create with input from those daring enough to sign up.
  • Host them in locations that reinforce adventure.
  • Create a “container” that feels safe and inclusive.
  • Be prepared to adjust the summit “flow” as the energy of, and emerging conversations among, the participants suggest. 

Despite the ongoing travel skittishness associated with Covid, many leaders prioritizing time back with family after two years away, serious challenges at the airports worldwide associated with staff shortages, a farmers’ strike in The Netherlands that threatened to block transport, and a once-in-100-years flood in Red Lodge six weeks prior to Summit launch, 17 brave leaders showed up for the Netherlands summit and 11 for the Montana one. They came from North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

What did we discuss at the Summits? The overarching theme for each Summit was Connection. Connection to our best and most authentic selves. Connecting to female attributes and their vital role in effective leadership. Connecting to one another as sources of support. We created visions for the future of female leadership and connected the dots through design thinking exercises to achieve those visions. We connected with nature and the lessons it offers up for leading-while-female. We centered much of our reflections on leadership lessons from the book Raise Her Up, whose co-authors Kim Cullen and Debra Lane helped plan the summits and who generously sponsored other female leaders to participate. We appreciated other Summit sponsors: ECIS, ISS, my 85-year-old adventurous mother, herself a pioneering leader in education. All great examples of women raising up other women.

What were the outcomes? Connections, certainly. Pledges of support for one another’s leadership journeys. Specific, tangible takeaways that leaders can bring back to their schools and professional lives. I’ll let some of the feedback speak for itself:

  • “It is difficult to find appropriate professional learning for school leaders and I love that this was so specific – female/ schools/ international education.”
  • “I feel lighter. I think the other feeling I have is "protected". I feel that no matter what happens I have my Wolfpack behind me and beside me.”
  • “Authenticity makes a difference in how the world sees you. We have a long way to go to impact gender. There are amazing women in this world that I need to continue to tap for support.”
  • “Such a gift to be with likeminded women exploring ways in which to support and enhance women leadership competencies and practices.”
  • “I've been thinking about the 'feminine' as opposed to simply man vs woman. What are female leadership attributes we need to encourage more of in both male and female leaders? Super heroes are not super human. The women in the group are amazing leaders with incredible superpowers, but they are also fun, messy, unsure, vulnerable, and imperfect. That was really beautiful to witness and realize.”
  • “It was comforting to learn that so many accomplished and confident women had similar challenges in their careers. I could connect to other very interesting women, had good reflective conversations, shared interesting thoughts and had a lot of fun and laughter.”

Now that these women leaders have descended from these Summits, they are remaining connected with one another, supporting each other’s onward leadership journeys, celebrating successes, weighing in on conundrums, shouldering one another’s burdens, and suggesting alternative ways around familiar but outdated limitations.

What does the future hold for Sidecar Summits? More of them. (I’m currently cooking up plans for a Summit in Latin America in March of 2023. Stay tuned!). More representation from our sisters of color (I’m committed to this and eager to understand how to make these gatherings more inviting to and inclusive of the BIPOC community). Be bolder in pushing the frontiers of female leadership in a way that doesn’t threaten to replace the masculine but harmonizes with it.

That’s a vision of the future that one needn’t be at a Summit, or a woman, to appreciate.

Bridget is the founder and chief navigation officer of Sidecar Counsel, a coaching and consulting practice committed to advancing women’s influence in international school leadership.

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