Women in Leadership – Empathy

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Women in Leadership – Empathy

Shared By Laurie Kimbrel   /     Feb 27, 2016  /     Blog, Laurie Kimbrel, Laurie Kimbrel Superintendent, Laurie Kimbrel Tamalpais, Uncategorized  /     , ,

by Laurie Kimbrel

Empathy (noun):

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner


Another essential component of leadership for women is empathy or the deliberate act of reflecting on the situation or thoughts of another. Some theorize that women are more naturally empathetic than men, although relying on stereotypes never accurately reflects reality. In an organization with a robust strategic plan that calls for continuous improvement, we need to recognize and understand that different groups of stakeholders will experience change differently. We should take time to listen and understand these experiences and work to understand how it feels from their perspective.


One strategy for gaining empathy for our students is to shadow a typical student in your school for a day. We see their experience from the outside, but what does it really feel like to sit still all day? How difficult is it to understand the differing expectations and systems of different teachers? What does it feel like to wait in line in the lunchroom and to eat your food in 10-15 minutes? As you shadow one student, take the time to ask other students a set of specific questions:

  • What is the learning outcome or goal of this class today?
  • Where are you in terms of that learning goal?
  • What are your next steps to make progress on that goal?

These are questions that I ask when I’m in classrooms and I’m continuously surprised that the learning goal is not always clear to students. This certainly gives me empathy for the difficulty of learning in a system where goals are not explicit.


Empathy requires information and time to listen. Another good strategy to gain information about a particular stakeholder group’s perspective is to set up advisory councils. As a superintendent, I had parent, student and staff advisory councils that met four to five times per year. The first meeting of the year was always without a specific agenda so that I could gather general information about how they experience school and our system. The meeting was organized in terms of three general questions:

  • What is going well?
  • What could be going better?
  • What questions or issues would you like to see addressed at our future meetings.

The final question always brought great ideas for future agenda items.


It can be difficult to set up student advisory councils at the district level. Students identify with a school rather than a school district. As a superintendent, I asked principals to set up school based student advisory councils that I attended. These councils included a wide variety of students from every social group rather than relying on a leadership class or student council. The idea was to get many perspectives rather than the student voice most often heard. As a superintendent, participating in student advisory councils allowed me to understand trends and patterns of thought across the district as well as issues specific to one particular school. I then shared then shared these trends and patterns with the district senior leadership team as well as the school board.


Although there are many different strategies to develop a pattern of deliberate empathy, the most important strategy is to be reflective and thoughtful of how others feel about their schools and the district. Empathy takes time but it may be the best time a leader spends and can drive the pace of innovation and change. Modeling empathy can also move others toward more empathy for our positions as leaders as well. What other strategies do you have to increase empathy within your organization? I would love to hear from others on this topic.

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  • About Laurie Kimbrel

    The current project manager for the Atlanta K-12 Design Challenge, Laurie Kimbrel is an educator with many years’ experience. Before undertaking this position in 2015, Kimbrel served as Superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District in Larkspur, California, where she oversaw 4,200 students, 435 staff members, and managed a $63 million budget. Among other achievements under Laurie Kimbrel’s tenure, the district implemented a leadership model that formed Professional Learning Communities designed to augment teacher effectiveness through shared assessment data.

    Kimbrel holds a bachelor of science in music and business from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. She also received a master of science in special education from Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and completed her education with leadership-based doctoral studies at Loyola University in Chicago.

    Dedicated to her community, Laurie Kimbrel is a hospice volunteer and works with nonprofits aimed at ensuring every child has access to great teachers and schools. She is also passionate about education reform and champions efforts to bring about effective hiring practices in schools.

  • Education & Publications


    Loyola University Chicago - Doctorate, Curriculum & Instruction

    National Louis University, Certificate of Advanced Study, Educational Leadership

    Dominican University, Master of Science, Special Education

    Millikin University, Bachelor of Science, Music and Business

    It's a Man's World: How to Achieve Success as a Woman in High School District, AASA Women in Leadership Conference, 2013

    How to Run a Clean Construction Program, California School Board Convention, 2012

    A Transition Success Story: California School Boards Association Conference, 2009

    Program Growth and High Achievement: College Board National Conference, 2008

    Building Leadership Capacity through Effective Staffing Planning, Illinois Association of Personnel Administrators Conference, 2008

    Improving Student Achievement: Illinois NCLB Conference, 2007

    Conducting Effective Workplace Investigations: Lake County Personnel Administrators Conference, 2007

    The Impact of Proactive Classroom Management, Doctoral Dissertation, Loyola University, 2002

  • Community Service

    Laurie Kimbrel volunteers for a number of community organizations including Bristol Hospice as a patient volunteer, Destiny's Daughter's of Promise as a student mentor and Students First as an advocate for effective educational practices.
  • Contact Laurie Kimbrel