WomenEd Blogs

Courage and compassion: leadership that builds community


by Elise Ecoff @EliseEcoff        Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

For most of us, the first community we know is the one we are born into: our family and relatives, neighbors, and friends. As we grow, we begin formal education and learn we can belong to communities that are our own, separate from our families, where we begin to carve out our identity. Being part of a class, team or club further expands our understanding of what it means to belong.

I have always sensed that belonging and connection are essential. My family moved across the country twice when I was young and I still recall feelings of loneliness and isolation. Those early memories of not feeling connected to my hometown or peers shaped my worldview long before an early childhood professor introduced me to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s not a surprise that even after decades of examination and revision, belonging and love still anchor the pyramid after basic physiological and safety needs are fulfilled.


Securing my first job as a teacher, I joined a warm and welcoming community anchored by a female principal who clearly articulated each team member’s value. I believe that deep connection to each other fueled our desire to make a difference for our students.

In my naivete, I thought every school community shared those same qualities. Little did I know, building a sense of community takes hard work, intention, and commitment stemming from a leader who prioritizes creating an inclusive culture.

Building Community Starts At the Top

After transitioning from teacher to administrator, I learned the hard way that feeling a sense of community is different for every individual. Because of the experiences and perspectives that shape us, we view belonging through our own unique lens. What made me feel connected to my first school community may have been different for others. I learned that everything a leader says and does tremendously impacts the community ethos. And because men and women perceive female leaders differently, how a woman builds community is unequivocally one of the most significant aspects of her role.

Cultivating An Inclusive Community

As the first female appointed Head of School at the independent school where I previously served as Lower School Principal and Assistant Head of School, stepping up to lead almost 300 employees and 1500 students was daunting, even as a known entity. Thinking of a school community as an ecosystem, the interconnectedness that can make that community strong is also what makes it fragile. If any area isn’t nurtured, the impact eventually touches everyone.

While I cannot emphasize enough the importance of relationships and trust as the bedrock of community building, there are a few things I’ve learned that, when practiced, can increase one’s leadership effectiveness exponentially.

Be Authentic
★ If you are a hugger, hug! If you are a crier, shed some tears. I don’t mean you should hug people who aren’t comfortable with it, just be who you authentically are. In other words, don’t feel the need to be someone else’s version of a leader. Let people know who you are and where your challenges lie. They are much more likely to ask for help or be real with you if they see you as a person, with strengths and imperfections alike.

Be Open to the Ideas of Others
★ Being a leader is difficult enough and having all the answers all the time is actually impossible. I’ve known a few women leaders, myself included, who sometimes believed they needed to control the conversation and the decision-making process. It’s often not about ego, but more the desire to get the solution “right.” Failure is not an option, and as a woman in charge, the stakes always feel high. Relinquishing control, however, is actually very powerful and takes greater skill and confidence. When people believe their ideas are valued, the collective is strengthened.

Be Candid
★ At the 1985 Academy Awards, Sally Field won the coveted best actress trophy and uttered those famous words, “you like me, you really like me.” As leaders trying to build community, being loved, or at least liked is a natural instinct, especially for women. In order to feel we deserve our leadership position, we sometimes need affirmation. But candor does not have to be confrontational. Having difficult conversations is kinder to individuals than not helping them to grow. And ignoring those elephants in the room will most assuredly erode community over time.


Last year I left the safety of a school community I loved to complete my doctoral degree and pursue a passion to support women on their leadership journeys. Knowing that not all environments are hospitable to women aspiring to lead, and using the knowledge/tools/skills I’ve acquired, I wanted to create a digital community that inspires, connects and guides women on their leadership journeys. I welcome you to join the community at www.MNT2LEAD.com

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Saturday, 01 October 2022

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