Finding Your Voice in Leadership - (Ep 5)

An interview with Nina Safane, co-founder of the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools

By David Worley - March 10, 2019

Show Notes

06:17  Nina’s lessons on leadership from her decade at GALS.

10:10  How is voice important in leadership?

16:50  How to recognize you aren’t being challenged in your vocational life?

20:00  What is the role of curiosity in continuing to grow as a leader?

22:25  Nina models what it looks like to know yourself, know your values, and grow in leadership.


Girls Athletic Leadership Schools
Brene Brown's TED talks

Full Transcript

David:  00:00  Hi everybody. Welcome to the Groler Podcast. I'm David Worley. Being an organizational leader is often challenging. Central to being effective is the need to develop and maintain your particular leadership voice. Here, I don't mean your vocals, as in the sounds emanating from your mouth, but rather your unique perspective which is delivered in the particular way you speak and interact with others. This voice reflects your internal compass, your guiding North Star, so to speak, and I believe this partly carries you in the difficult arena of leading. In this episode, we talk with one of the world's best at honing these skills. Nina Safane, co-founder of the Girls Athletic Leadership School(s). Stay tuned for this conversation on the Groler Podcast.

David:  01:06  On this episode of the Groler Podcast, we welcome Nina Safane. Nina is the co-founder of the Girls Athletic Leadership School located primarily in Denver. The school, termed by its acronym G A L S, has been a huge success and has developed into an additional boys' school in Denver, a high school, also located in Denver and now a GALS school in Los Angeles. Nina is a graduate of Brown and Columbia Universities and is a leadership dynamo. By this I mean she gets things done. She moves the ball forward and is a force for making things happen. More importantly, Nina, along with her GALS cofounder and school team, have managed to instill in a school movement a set of values and practices sorely needed in society. It's a topic that we'll talk a little bit more about in this episode. And please welcome to the Groler Podcast Nina Safane.

Nina:  02:01  Thank you so much, David. I'm really excited to be here and talk to you.

David:  02:05  Well Nina, by way of introduction, would you tell us about yourself, about the values, visions, and reasons that you cofounded GALS and how that came to be?

Nina:  02:16  Sure. I was fortunate when I was a junior in college. I was about twenty-one actually had just turned in my last final of my first semester of junior year and I was, at that time, deciding that I wanted to be a teacher. I basically took an education 101 class at Brown that really changed my life. The same time I was doing some work in an alternative school in Providence partnering with the school and the university. And my mind was just really opening up to the ideas that schools could look different than we have, at least that I knew that they could. And all of a sudden I was having this gut feeling that I wanted to be a teacher. And, before that I had had sort of just like this generic liberal arts interest; I'm fascinated by healthcare and policy and education and sort of all the things culminating at Brown for me. And then when all of this started falling into place, I realized that I think I want to be a teacher.

Nina:  03:12  While that was happening, my rugby coach in college, who knew me very well, said to me "Nina I have your dream job. I met with a woman who has a really interesting idea." And honestly I was like, well, what's my dream job? I'm twenty-one and I'm just beginning to think maybe I wanted to be a teacher. That wasn't like my lifelong goal or anything. And so I met this woman, Liz. We sat down for coffee and I was completely blown away by an idea that she had for a school that could turn things around and shake up education in a way that I hadn't considered yet, but certainly aligned to all the things that I cared about in the world. She had some big ideas and basically we just worked really well together and got along incredibly well. It was a really natural instant partnership. And the plan pretty much after that coffee was, okay, Nina, figure out how do we make this a school? How do these ideas about integrating health and wellness, integrating movement, that connection between the brain and the body, so that we can optimize student performance, but also just overall wellness. And specifically how do we do that for girls?

Nina:  04:20  Because what we've seen happen, and we've seen the results in tremendous gender gaps and all kinds of ways, but what we've seen happen is that girls tend to lose a sense of self, tend to lose a sense of confidence, tend to stop taking risks right around the age of middle school. And we were sort of coming up with this idea that if we could instill the same values that you learn by moving your body, like the idea that you can actually push past your, what you feel is your, physical limit, that by working hard you genuinely see results over time. That if we could really think about how those values fit into a school model, that we could make this something that every girl believed was her birthright, that she could understand fully that she had every opportunity in the world that she didn't have to opt into something that was outside of school because she was doing amazing or because her school or her community was worried that she was at risk for something. But how do we give every single girl this opportunity to feel like they know themselves incredibly well and that they can be anything in the world. And that just resonated with me so much.

Nina:  05:24  And so I didn't know at the time how it could look in the school, but very quickly from there began a lot of research and yeah, 10 years later, everything you just shared about the school is up and running and that's what we're doing every day now.

David:  05:39  So as a little aside, you have a unique vantage point in that you've seen over a thousand, probably I would guess several thousand, middle school and now high school girls go through GALS and you know, leadership is actually a part of the name. And I can, having my own personal connection to GALS, [attest] that leadership is built into the curriculum in almost every way. But what are your reflections now after a decade of seeing girls develop their leadership capacity? And what does that mean for adolescent and high school girls? Like, what are your lessons on leadership from watching so many people hone their own ability?

Nina:  06:23  Yeah. I think that something that GALS really gets right is this idea that leadership doesn't have to be a formal position, but that, in fact, for somebody to feel like a leader, to hone in the qualities of being a leader, you really have to know yourself well and feel comfortable and confident speaking up and speaking out. And that doesn't always mean, you know, raising your voice in a way that's making a stink. But it means using your voice powerfully and meaningfully. And that can be on a very small scale about something you need in a relationship, or that can be on a much bigger scale, about something that you stand for in the world. So we tried really hard at GALS to ensure that leadership wasn't a class. It wasn't just something that you got elected to, but that there were constant opportunities for girls to take up space and use their voice powerfully and meaningfully.

Nina:  07:10  And our belief, and what I saw play out, over all these years, and what I hope will make a really important difference in the world as these girls grow up and become the next generation of leaders, is that they had an opportunity to practice this for three years of middle school, four years of high school, ideally seven years of middle and high school. And that they had these skills and that they can take that into the world and really make a difference. But by having the opportunity to practice these, not just because you're elected as the captain of your team or the student council president, or you know any other more typical form of leadership that you see through schools, but giving them these really authentic opportunities to speak up. That will let them do things differently than we've seen in the world. And honestly, leadership as I mentioned, there's an incredible gender gap in leadership in the world and there aren't a lot of great models of female leadership. You know, we're beginning to recognize more and beginning to look back over time and see that be true. But we really wanted to give the girls a chance to see themselves that way and [to have] every opportunity to see women in the world that way.

David:  08:19  So it's interesting. I just began listening and reading Brene Brown's most recent leadership book. And for listeners who aren't aware, Brene Brown is a social worker, a scholar of social work, she's at the University of Houston. She's written a lot on shame and vulnerability. She has like one of the most popular TED talks ever produced. And so she just produced a leadership book with her team. And as I'm moving through it, I think of GALS often because one of the critiques of Brene, that she clearly gets a lot and she speaks to directly in the book, is the critique of "oh, that's just the soft skills." And you can kind of imagine your average business school professor saying something like that. But Brene makes this really powerful point in that book around if you think these are the soft skills, why don't you practice them and see how soft they feel? So, a difficult discussion that, you know is exposing to yourself and you know is going to be hard for the recipient. And having a really good healthy discussion, which in my opinion, is one of the foundations of a working organization. That's not a soft skill, that actually is the meat and potatoes of leadership.

David:  09:39  And one of the things that you just said there, Nina, and I've observed myself by virtue of having a daughter that is a middle schooler at GALS. Is this very clear sense that you all are providing these girls, and now boys in the Boys' school, with the opportunity to practice what it means to be healthy and whole in interactions. And one of the things that stood out to me in what you just said is about voice. So would you speak, in whatever way you see fit, about the way voice is important for a person's leadership? Both in adolescent girls and also in adults. How [are] voice and leadership tied together?

Nina:  10:25  I think it's one of the most important skills and tools that we have as humans and I think that having a chance to know yourself is the most important piece of establishing your voice because to be an effective leader. [The] word gets tossed around quite a bit, but you have to be authentic and that means your voice has to be authentic. You have to speak in a way that's true to yourself. You have to be able to back up your words with actions. You have to be able to have conversations in a huge variety of ways and all of that has to be in a way that's truly authentic to you. So for the girls, we really start with how do they begin to know themselves? And that is no easy task in middle school. You know, you're 11 years old and what we're trying to prepare them for is hopefully who you are now is not actually who you're going to be in a day, a week, a month, a year that's going to change and evolve. You know, the core of who you are. Of course there's some constant threads, but how do you know yourself really, really well? And then how do you know how to grow comfortably and continue to know yourself really well?

Nina:  11:28  And then I think when that is a foundation, you have a tremendous opportunity to use your voice. Because in there. You're thinking deeply about what are the things that mattered to me and ideally, how can I interact with that? How can I make an impact? Or how can I do something with the things that I care about? And you know, voice, it's not always your literal speaking voice. Some people are very skilled in their ability use words and have that make a difference. But your voice can come through and something that you produce, something that you write, something you create. There's a ton, through a performance, you know there's tons of ways that your voice can be heard in the world. And one of the things that I'd like to see continue to shift is the diversity of voice that we have an opportunity to see. And so honing that in middle school is critical. And back to what you said about soft skills, you know, I mean if we're not teaching these things in schools, I think we are missing an enormous, enormous piece of what it means to educate a community.

David:  12:32  Can I just say on behalf of, I guess, parents that are affiliated with GALS and, you know, future citizens of the earth, I want to thank you for your work at GALS because I do think it is stimulating different ways of thinking about education and more intentional and comprehensive ways of developing leaders. So thank you for your more than decade long investment in that.

Nina:  12:57  Thank you.

David:  12:58  And actually as kind of a transition, as you were talking about self-knowledge as kind of a foundation for leadership, I think it's interesting to talk about you yourself are now transitioning to do other things. And that caught my attention because in my own personal and professional experience, it takes so much courage to move from something that you've been highly successful at into a new domain, or a new opportunity, or a new area. And for folks who don't know you, can you talk a little bit about where you're at in life right now, but with the goal of talking about what led to your self-reflection to make some changes in your vocational life?

Nina:  13:51  Sure. Yeah. As you said, several months ago, almost six months ago now, left something that I did for about a decade and was very successful at and loved very much and still care about tremendously. And I left it actually not for anything in particular, I didn't have another job lined up. I didn't have an opportunity. I didn't really have much of a plan. I felt compelled though over the last two years leading up until now, to give myself some space again. I was beginning to be cognizant that the work at GALS, though I cared about it deeply, was not lighting the same fire for me that it had all along. You know the work in education is so meaningful, it's so hard because you care so deeply. But the tasks that I was beginning to experience as a principal, that part, the tasks themselves were becoming a little bit too easy. And not because I was a perfect principal, a complete master of the craft, of course, there was always development that I could have continued to do. But it wasn't challenging me in the same way and I felt like it was beginning to lead to stagnation for me as a leader, as a human.

Nina:  15:03  And honestly, I felt like if I felt that way, that that was going to have a negative impact on the organization as well. And it was really important to me to take a step out so that I could put myself in a position to learn again. I, of course, when I started thinking about this, I started to think about what I might want to do, but it felt impossible and it felt like the right decision to close out this chapter and then give myself some room to figure out what's next. The biggest pull for me honestly was just that I had been doing this for ten years and while I care just as much about the core issues, and I care deeply about the students and families and the staff, I just, I felt like I couldn't continue to do the best work that I could for GALS or for the world, honestly, if I didn't put myself in a position to see some other things and learn other things. And the work of education honestly left no room for both to be true. You know, I couldn't fully explore some of the things that I'm thinking about exploring while holding onto GALS. And so it just felt like the right thing to step away, transition, and give the school an opportunity to get some fresh perspective and fresh leadership and then give myself the chance to get some fresh perspective, and just honestly new opportunity. Which I am figuring out every day right now, one step at a time.

David:  16:27  So that provokes a very interesting question for me in terms of one's own management of one's own leadership development, and that is the role of learning and challenge in a person's ability to continue to refine and hone their leadership skills. I mean, you spoke a little bit about that there, but would you say more about how someone might recognize that they're not being challenged and that they may need to consider a change in their vocational life?

Nina:  17:02  Yeah, I think that it came down to like I said, the tasks that I had in my role as principal, were no longer the challenge. So I felt like I wasn't going to be able to have sort of, if I'm not being challenged then there's no way that I'm bringing my full ability to think critically and creatively, and you know GALS was built on grit. It was built on this unbelievable desire to make it happen. And once I felt like I wasn't living that anymore, it didn't feel like I could contribute to it in the same way. So, you know, I think everybody is different, honestly, and I can only speak for me. That it felt like when that challenge began to fade, it didn't feel like the right match for me as a leader. I think I began to figure out the kind of environment that I thrive in as a leader. And it's not ultimately one where I'm just perfecting the same skill over thirty years. You know, I care deeply about growing and giving something an opportunity to get better with time. But I felt like I was beginning to hit a point where that just wasn't going to fuel me anymore.

David:  18:29  That's courageous. I think so few people in professional life have the courage to act on that. And you know, I think some people are unaware that it's happening for them. And so I give you just huge kudos on just self-awareness and self-monitoring of how you actually feel and are experiencing your life. But more than that, the willingness to take bold action and act on what your gut and internal world is telling you is just so commendable. So thanks for being a model for all of us and for the girls and boys at GALS as well.

Nina:  19:11  Thank you. You know, I'll say one more thing about that is that I talked earlier about, you know, knowing your values and knowing yourself really well. And I think what I began to figure out, over time, at GALS is while I loved the day to day, the girls, the staff, all of that, I love the actual school. I am interested in a lot more in the world. And so I think that professionally I felt like I needed to take a bigger look at the rest. And who knows, maybe it'll all come back to GALS. Maybe it'll all come back to a school. I don't know that for sure, but I couldn't know it if I didn't pick my head back up again. So yeah, I just, I felt like I figured out for myself that my professional values didn't align with just continuing the same work.

David:  19:58  So that's another interesting thought then. So what do you think the role of curiosity is in a person's ability to continue to grow as a leader?

Nina:  20:09  Oh, I think it's essential. You know, I think that it's really, it can be very easy in a position of leadership to just worry about everybody else. You know, your job is to manage, possibly to directly manage but to lead a vision, to lead people, to lead something forward. And you can kind of lose yourself in that because it's very easy to invest in everybody and everything around you. And there's a handful of things that I am, without question, taking away as a better person from building and leading GALS, and one of them is just how to really think about what I need. And so I didn't lose sight of that. Although it certainly was easy at times and in moments, you know, my job was to be responsible to every stakeholder that existed at the school. And so it was easy to put myself last. But that's not what GALS is about.

Nina:  21:01  And it was essential that I modeled that for the girls. It's what I would hope that they would do in twenty years for themselves. Just to think about what they want and need and continue to be curious about the world. I've always thought that GALS would always be a startup in some ways because I think if we're not looking at things and thinking about how could it be better, how could it be different, and not just, you know, sort of like sitting back and saying, "well, we've done a great job, here we go, this is the model, we're good to go." I think we have to apply that same philosophy to ourselves as humans in order to give the best to the world.

David:  21:38  This has been a very interesting and insightful and nuanced and self-aware conversation. I think few leaders exhibit the sort of self-knowledge, self-awareness, but then also courage to act, that you do and so I thank you for being on the podcast. But more than that, for just being who you are and serving others. So thanks for being with us.

Nina:  22:03  Thank you so much. Really appreciate it, David.

David:  22:07  That concludes our interview with Nina Safane, co-founder of the Girls Athletic Leadership Schools based in Denver. This conversation nailed a critically important aspect of learning and growing as a leader. Namely, finding and maintaining your voice in leadership. Nina modeled what it looks like to know yourself, know what you value, and grow to have an internal compass that points you towards growth and change. This culminates in the willingness to take risks, to have the courage to step out and do new things, and sometimes even to leave a role that you have mastered. Nina truly represents what Groler is about, learning and growing as a leader. Once again, thank you, Nina, for being on the show and for your incredible contribution to American education via your work at GALS.

David:  23:01  If you're new, the podcast you can find out more about Groler at our website. That's G R O L E R dot com. On the website you will find show notes for this episode along with a full transcript. You will also find a related article and an array of other episodes that you may benefit from engaging. You may want to consider subscribing to the show. You can do that via the iTunes store or via your particular podcast App. You also can be assured that you will never miss a new episode by subscribing to our mailing list at the Groler website.

David:  23:41  Finally, Groler exists to help leaders learn and grow. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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