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Managing External Perceptions of Leadership

Seeing Yourself as a Leader
By Kim Cofino
Managing External Perceptions of Leadership

A common thread throughout the Women Who Lead interviews was that many of the women who are now very successful in formal leadership positions never saw themselves as leaders. Many needed multiple nudges or suggestions from others who saw their potential to start them on their journey.

I am fortunate to connect with educators around the world in a variety of contexts, including the #coachbetter podcast, inside the certificate programs I offer (The Coach, Women Who Lead, and COETAIL), and in my private mentoring packages. In many of those conversations, I speak with outstanding educators who are doing amazing things in their schools but still feel uncomfortable calling themselves a leader. In fact, many of the Women Who Lead interviewees also talked about how long after taking on formal leadership roles it took for them to think of themselves as leaders.

With our stereotypical expectations of what leadership looks, sounds, and feels like, and imposter syndrome often nipping at our heels, many women don’t see themselves as leaders, even when they are already leading in informal ways. Even when given an opportunity to label themselves as a leader, many women shy away.

In today’s article, I will share two of the most common mental obstacles holding women back from embracing their leadership, along with insight from our Women Who Lead to help you recognize that you are, in fact, a leader, even though you might not see it yet. Both of these are focused on the external perceptions of what leaders “should” look, sound, act, and talk like. In my next article, I’ll focus on internal perceptions of readiness for leadership.

These interviews highlight many ways that teachers, instructional coaches, and other informal leaders in schools are building essential leadership skills, often without even realizing it. Recognizing, owning, and being able to articulate your leadership skills are important first steps in taking action to pursue a formal leadership opportunity.

If you are curious about your own leadership potential and wondering how you might see yourself as a leader, these interviews may offer an opportunity to reframe your current thinking, so you can see the leadership capacity you’re already building. If there’s no one in your school setting who is offering you the nudge into leadership, please use these stories as a digital nudge!

1: Leadership is exclusively for administrators

So many women that I speak to say they don’t want to be a leader because they believe that the only way to lead is through formal, positional power. The subtext that comes with that is that I don't want to be an administrator. This often manifests as a lack of self-belief. As Beth Dressler points out, “Women put so much pressure on themselves that they believe they can't do it. They can't possibly be the leader they want to be.” Once they step into the role, however, they recognize they can do it. It’s a matter of giving yourself the opportunity to try.  

Mel Bland talks about a “constant companion of self-doubt, especially if you're new to the role, but once you've had a few years, you find your feet.” As Charlotte Diller highlights, “often when we talk about leadership, we’re thinking about positional authority. Leadership in general is more about building capacity and everyone can be a leader at different points in their career. Sometimes we have positional authority, sometimes we don’t. Leadership is contributing to make the world a better place, as a group, and perhaps influencing others, toward a common goal….” 

Reframing your perspective on what makes a leader, and in what ways you can lead may help you recognize your own leadership capacity because the fact is that leadership isn't exclusively the domain of administrators. You can be a leader on your team, in your department, in your hallway, or in your building. You can be a leader by taking a risk and trying something new. You can be a leader by building something you know your school needs and moving the project forward. Even if there's no official title for the role. Leadership isn't exclusively the domain of administrators. 

According to Katrina Charles, International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma coordinator, at the American School of Doha in Qatar, “there’s leadership at every level.” She talks about “being a leader within your current position and recognizing that there is leadership at every level, wherever you are in your position. If you can see the glass half full you'll start building your leadership capacity to take that next step.” 

2: I’ve never worked with a leader who looks, talks, acts, or sounds like me, so it can’t be possible for me

This one is tough because it is a reality. As this column has noted several times, there are very few women at the highest levels of school leadership. It is not uncommon to go through an entire teaching career and exclusively work for the stereotypical male leader, which can make it hard to see the potential for those that don’t fit the “traditional expectation.”

Nadine Richards, a high school principal in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, notes the reality of the glass ceiling in education. “There's a higher proportion of women in the teaching roles, but fewer and fewer as you move up into leadership positions.” Nicole Schmidt, the high school principal at the American International School in Johannesburg, South Africa, talks about the reality of “the old boys club. When she goes recruiting, it is a tight network of old white men. It's hard if you don't know how to play that game, it's hard to break in.” Tambi Tyler, the head of school at the Colorado Springs School in the United States, talks about the lack of role models. “If you don't see anyone that looks like you doing the role, it's a far reach to imagine yourself doing it back.”

While we know that it is likely that many of us have never worked for a leader that looks like us, it doesn't mean it isn't possible. Our Women Who Lead is just the start of proving that it's actually the opposite. There are leaders who look, sound, think, and act very differently than our traditional vision of a leader. Don't let the fact that you haven't had the opportunity to work with that one person let you believe that it's not possible for you. 

Firoozeh Dumas, New York Times bestselling author currently based in California, United States, talks about not giving up. “When she hits a wall, she turns in a different direction. When she can't get through a door, she looks for the window. When the window doesn't open, she looks for the cat door.” She talks about building that resiliency to continue moving forward. 

Dr. Mary Ashun, principal at the Ghana International School, talks about the importance of “being prepared and recognizing that there may be more expected of you as a woman than there might be of men. Knowing that you are going to fight for what you need, and you have to do it intelligently”

You are not alone.

If you read these common obstacles and recognize your own negative self-talk, you are not alone. As you can see, many of our very successful women leaders have felt this way too. These stories and their aligning facts are here to help you move in the other direction and take action on your leadership goals, formal or informal. 

Arden Tyoshin, head of school at Harare International School in Zambia, talks about “having the courage to be you and be courageous.” The actions you take may feel courageous for you and inspiring for others. Every step we take toward leadership helps us redefine and reframe what leadership is, and what it can look like.  Emily Sargent Beasley, then head of campus at Shanghai American School, Pudong China, says, “As we engage in leadership, and more women engage in leadership, we redefine leadership. From the beginning of my career to now, that notion has changed quite dramatically.” 

As you’re going through this process, don’t hesitate to connect with others. To reach out and share the challenges and opportunities a leadership pathway reveals. You will find that you are not alone. Rachel Caldwell talks about the importance of “finding the people that can support you, finding your network.” You can do that inside Women who Lead at!

Kim Cofino has been an educator in international schools since August 2000. Having lived and worked in Germany, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan, Kim has had a variety of roles in international schools, including (her favorite) instructional coach. Now based in Bangkok, Thailand, Kim is the co-founder and CEO of Eduro Learning, which offers online customized professional development in a community-driven environment, including COETAIL, Women Who Lead, and The Coach Certificate & Mentorship programs. Kim is co-author of Your Connected Classroom: A Practical Guide for Teachers, as well as co-host of the #coachbetter podcast and YouTube series. Find out more about Kim at

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