Big girls in the leadership play

Mrs Lyn Chakravorty, Head of Beanland House and Year 11 Co-ordinator

For our Year 11 students, the protective layer of the seniors is slowly disappearing and they will soon be the ‘big girls in the leadership play’ for 2013. What factors contribute to leadership success and how are our students preparing for this?

Leadership is not something that just happens. Lessons about leadership begin early in life and are ingrained well before leaving school, according to Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons. At a function held by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools at Brisbane Girls Grammar School in August, Dr Fitzsimmons presented the results of his inquiry into the career paths of Australia’s CEOs. These provided valuable insight into the importance of family, school, society and childhood experiences in the attainment of leadership positions by women in the corporate world. Women CEOs in this study grew up in small business families where children were introduced to the world of finance and business from an early age. Many experienced some significant childhood trauma from which they had learned to cope with adversity and developed self-confidence. These women leaders did not have the same school leadership experience in sport as male CEOs. They had not aspired to be leaders at school and needed a mentor to learn their leadership skills in the work place. In addition, societal factors and childhood experiences were seen to inhibit the attainment of equal opportunities for our children. ‘We allow our sons to do things that we will not allow our daughters to do at the same age at the same time. My research shows that boys have career relevant experiences that girls have missed out on. This is a societal problem’ (Fitzsimmons, 2012). However QBE Insurance chairman Belinda Hutchinson believes it was not trauma, but her father’s advice to simply marry and have children, that motivated her to show her father that she could succeed as he had done (Marriner, 2012). Actions and attitudes of families and schools can, therefore, play an important role in the development of leadership potential for young women.

During a recent Year 11 assembly, our students discussed the notion of leadership and what it means to them. Their ideas provide insight into the complex nature of leadership but also mirror the findings of current research into student leadership. There was agreement about the need for resonant leaders, leaders who are mindful of their peers and the world around them, are able to turn individual aspirations into collective reality and show empathy and compassion for those they lead (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). In fact, the view of Mahatma Gandhi is apt ‘I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people’ (Munby, 2011, pg. 1). Year 11 students believe that a leader must be a good communicator, confident, approachable, responsible, reliable, committed to what is right, organised, able to compromise, strong, humble, and able to delegate. Leadership for many students has a future orientation, as they believe it to be a way of providing a quality that employers would value. While acknowledging this, leadership must also focus on nurturing the capacity to lead in the future. It is not all about the present, the status and the badge. Colleen Barrett, a leader in the US aviation industry (Wilson, 2004, pg. 157) has some timely advice for our prospective leaders ‘don’t ever take on a leadership role for the (money), power, title or prestige; take on the role because you have passion for the cause.’

At this School, student leadership is not a top-down process from the School administration that favours the privileged few. Instead, democratic notions of leadership are valued and a broad range of leadership experiences are available to students. These skills are nurtured and developed from Years 8 to 11 with the election of House Group Captains and House Group Sports Captains in Semester 1 and Semester 2 each year. According to van Linden and Fertman (Dempster, Stevens & Keeffe, 2011), in the early years of adolescent leadership development, the concept of leadership at first seems distant and students need help to see themselves as leaders, but then they begin to actively test their leadership potential. Year 11 students are at the beginning of the third phase, the mastery phase, in which leadership skills and abilities are focused in specific areas or activities. For the leaders of 2013, the formal process begins on the first day of Term IV with an address by the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Ms Elizabeth Jameson, after which Year 11 is given the responsibility of nominating and voting for their Head Girls. This democratic process continues with elections of leaders in the fields of Music, Sports, Arts, Service, Houses and Clubs. House Prefects, however, nominate themselves and are interviewed by the relevant Head of House.

Despite the availability of leadership positions from Year 8, most seniors still view Year 12 as a rite-of-passage with the large number of formal positions open to them in their last year of schooling. (Of course, another significant rite-of-passage for them is moving up to the tables around the Main Building). Positional leadership does involve titles with associated responsibilities and recognition. Avolio (McNae, 2011) dismisses the idea that young people must have a formal position in order to develop leadership capabilities. He argues that through learning about leadership in a variety of contexts, young people are able to learn to work alongside others and, through activities where they influence others, are able to continue to develop their skills more effectively in later life. In this context, our Year 12 students will continue to develop leadership skills when they wear their Year 12 badges and assume the role of ‘buddy’ in 2013.

Involvement in school co-curricular activities certainly provides opportunities for the development of leadership attributes in our students. Through interacting with peers outside of their normal friendship group, they learn to engage with different people; through team or group membership, they learn about managing conflict; and in their teams, clubs and groups, they learn to work together and take charge. These are valuable learning experiences for our young people. It has been argued that a strong correlation exists between success for males in corporate leadership and sport. ‘A lot of men CEOs attributed captaining the football team as ‘skilling’ them up for the workforce — you’ve got a goal, strategy, leadership, teamwork — and they come into the workplace with an understanding of these things’ (Women at the top, 2012). We must continue to involve our young women in leadership situations, not just in sport but also in our wider co-curricular programme.

Educational institutions have a significant role to play in preparing students to be leaders. According to the School’s Intent outlined in the Strategic Design, ‘Proud of our Grammar tradition, we are a secondary school that establishes the educational foundation for young women to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity’. As a single gender school, the curricular and co-curricular programmes at Brisbane Girls Grammar School are implemented in a non-gendered way with this purpose in mind. In the words of Joanne Deak (2002, pg.120), ‘We wish to give them the freedom from obstacles such as gender bias about careers, a freedom to choose and do just about anything…to engender the belief that girls can achieve, compete and succeed.’ Our approach involves more than just formal teaching about leadership and thinking about the nature of leadership. In order to nurture the capacity to lead, the school encourages our students to develop an understanding of the virtues of wisdom and integrity. In particular, our students are encouraged to experience leadership roles, putting knowledge into practice and experiencing the consequences, both inside the classroom and outside, with opportunities to discuss and reflect with staff. In our day-to-day curriculum, students learn about power, decision-making, motivation and ethics.

And so, the ‘leadership play’ for 2013 has begun. In the Year 11 assembly programme during Term III, the analogy of leadership as a play was presented to our students. There are three crucial elements in this process. The actors have the main roles and although fearful at first, need courage to take charge and lead. Secondly, the audience, namely the Year 12 cohort, needs to be a resonant audience, participating with enthusiasm and energy and supporting the actors. Thirdly the scriptwriters, who comprise all of the seniors, help by writing the scripts for the actors to perform. The School community watches these scriptwriters even if they do not have a badge. The scriptwriters contribute ideas and help others. As we prepare to enter Term IV it is not the final curtain, but the opening of the next Act, as we begin to stage the ‘leadership play’ for 2013.


Boyatzis, R. & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


Deak, J. (2002). Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters. New York: Hyperion.


Dempster, N., Stevens, E. and Keeffe, M. (2011). Student and Youth Leadership: A focused literature review. Leading and Managing, 17 (2), 1-20.


Fitzsimmons, T. (2012, August 29). Why there are so few female CEOs: the role played by schools, parenting and society in inhibiting female progression. Paper presented at The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Qld Networking Function, Brisbane.


Marriner, C. (2012, May 27). Gender divide in cradle of ambition. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from


McNae, R. (2011). Student Leadership in Secondary Schools: The influence of school context on young women’s leadership perceptions. Leading & Managing, 17 (2), 36-51.


Munby, S. (2011). Seizing Success 2011: Annual Leadership Conference National College of School Leadership, Chief Executive Speech. Retrieved September 12, 2012, from

Wilson, M. (2004). Closing the leadership gap: Why women can and must help run the world. New York: Viking.


Women at the top. (n.d.). Momentum. Retrieved August 30, 2012, from



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