Female Leadership: Girl Scouts and girlhood dreams

Female Leadership
Girl Scouts and girlhood dreams
by Barbara Murphy-Warrington and Yvette Angelique Hyater-Adams

What if we were able to fan a fire of purpose, learning, and voice for girls and women? What if we gave space for girls and women to turn down the flames of gender biases and instead fan an internal fire that allows and encourages them to bring all of who they are to the table as leaders?

Imagine a self-discovery journey where innate talent becomes an anchor and foundation for personal leadership. For over 100 years, a countless number of girls have been able to do just that through their local Girl Scout troops and programs. Girl Scouting has consistently groomed girls to find their voices. Girls are given an opportunity to express confidence, courage, and a healthy sense of self. There can be no coincidence when women like Michelle Obama, Sally Ride, Mary Barra, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Alexis Herman, along with 60 million women in the United States, have Girl Scouting as part of their girlhood journey. Girl Scout women sit in nearly every sector of our society. 

Girl Scouts creates multiple pathways for girls to discover who they are, what they care about, what unique talents they have, and how to take action rooted in their developing self-awareness. For councils like Girl Scouts of Greater New York (GSGNY), operating solely within New York City, there’s an opportunity to bring girls together across differences of race, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status to create shared experiences that transform girls’ worldviews, senses of self, and awarenesses of their inner power. 

In 2012, GSGNY took on the challenge of establishing a state-of-the-art leadership journey for high school girls. The Girl Scout Leadership Institute (GSLI) was created with a goal of helping girls tap into their personal leadership voice, honor their multiple social identities, and navigate differing cultural beliefs and mindsets. Awareness of the multi-generational workplace and of the spiritual dimension of human interactions became an integral part of the program design for this leadership journey. Why not create a learning experience that honors dá bìn lòuh—“people of all persuasions and tastes/ sitting down around a common pot”—as Wing Tek Lum describes in his poem “Chinese Hot Pot”? Part of what Girl Scouts is learning through GSLI and the girls who participate in it is how leveraging the intersectionality of our differences can help transform our society on a larger scale.

We—Barbara Murphy-Warrington, Chief Executive Officer of GSGNY, and Yvette Angelique Hyater-Adams, Principal at Narratives for Change, LLC—are two African American women who have come together to make hot pot soup and, in doing so, we have built a platform for girls in GSGNY to do the same. Rooted in the values of the Girl Scouts, a strategic partnership with Barnard College, and the support of a fully engaged Board of Directors and dedicated staff, we believe that GSLI is helping girls launch into more promising futures as global leaders. 

Here we share some of our reflections and experiences in the journey of dreaming up, designing, and implementing GSLI as a spiritually-informed, values-driven, and diversity-conscious leadership program. We are clear that the Girl Scout approach plus our life experiences helped us to sense, see, and design a dynamic, experiential, and collaborative leadership journey that teaches girls about much more than basic leadership skills.

Barbara: The Dream 

As a Girl Scout, we make a promise:  “On my honor, I will try: to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.” At Girl Scouts, God is inclusive, embracing different religions, and connected to the Divine within all. When I was a Brownie Scout, I made this promise. It became part of my DNA.

I grew up in an African American family of 11, and economically we were considered poor in the early years of my life. Race and poverty could have created “caged” spirits. However, my parents never allowed us to embrace limitations; instead, I learned to see possibilities. 

Eventually, I became a lawyer. I perceived myself to be trained as an individual warrior acting on behalf of my clients; success was primarily dependent on my intellect, skill, prowess, and finesse in representing them. It quickly became a very lonely journey for me.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I experienced a deep crisis of faith that led me to leave law and step onto the path of servant leadership. At that time, there was a profound dialogue about leadership taking place in this country. Many were asking questions and sharing ideas about what it meant to be a principled leader. Three women—Frances Hesselbein, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Meg Wheatley—offered me uniquely wholesome, group-centered, and spirit-inspired perspectives on leadership. Their perspectives stood in contrast to heroic, individualistic, or greatness models of leadership that had been touted for ages. 

It was during this personal “crisis” that I had a very strange dream. I was in a beautiful forest, like none I have ever seen. As I looked to my right, I saw a line of 300 girls of all colors and sizes unfurl before me like an accordion opening. As I turned to the left, I saw the same, except it was a line of boys. I returned my gaze to the girls. The dream shifted, and the girls were under attack by some unseen force. I quickly moved to action in order to help protect them. The dream ended, and I quickly forgot about it.

In 2011, I was hired as CEO of the Girl Scouts in New York City, and the dream came back to me. Unconscious or conscious bias around gender, race, and ethnicity, coupled with a lack of appreciation for the power of diversity, impede girls from being perceived as or prepared to be leaders. Girl Scouts’ research teaches us that girls gravitate toward leadership because of altruistic motivations. They often prefer collaborative leadership informed by values and ethical behavior and the ability to effect social change over the command-and-control leadership frequently seen in our culture today. Perceived biases about her ability to be a leader, lack of opportunities to practice leading, and beliefs that she won’t have the power to change things seem to snuff out the inner spark many girls have for pursuing leadership. 

My dream was leading me to create something that would encourage and sustain this inner leadership spark in girls until it could become a flame in their hearts. This work was necessary not just to help girls but also to help all of us and generations to come. 

One of the girls in the leadership program, a Chinese American Girl Scout whom we’ll call Mary, shares part of her story, showing how the dream manifests: 

“My prayers were answered. I was accepted into the Girl Scout Leadership Institute and the summer of 2014 is one that I will never forget. In the GSLI of 2014, there was a STEM and a Business and Entrepreneurship Intensive that gave all of us Girl Scouts invaluable insight on possible interests and career paths. But for me personally, it was so much more. I was exposed to a whole new world outside of my school, my home, and my comfort zone. The doors in front of me had finally opened—and I ran out. Courage, confidence, and character.”

Yvette: Connecting with the Dream

Barbara emphasizes servant leadership and listening to her inner messenger as the pinnacle turning point in her journey. My peak moment came when I trusted my voice and stepped out on air, choosing to form a new business venture with the Fortune 500 bank for whom I worked. I outsourced my business unit and created a boutique management consulting firm called Prime Directive Consulting Group as a jointly-owned partnership with the bank. Courage and belief were the floors I walked on to pursue my dreams. During my growing up years in Washington D.C., confidence was instilled and nurtured by my family during critical turning points in our country’s gender and race relations. At a time when Black women’s voices were broken and silenced behind the shields of Black men as the face of civil rights and behind White woman as the face of the gender revolution, risk-taking became part of the fabric of how I lived so that I could be heard and seen. After 15 years successfully managing Prime Directive, I did it again. I stepped out on air. I packed up, relocated to north Florida, and started a solopreneur venture, Narratives for Change. Today, I write about and develop leaders using a narrative storytelling approach. I have found that there are many avenues to leadership, and each is very personal. Working with girls’ leadership means showing through examples how women grapple with their intentions and make it through to the other side.

Taking an idea—a vision or a dream—and bringing it to fruition requires imagination, belief, and staying power. Pursuing a vision is messy and abstract, but if you stay with it, ultimately a path appears. 

Several Girl Scout affiliates have leadership institutes, and most hold annual conferences where girls gather in fellowship and participate in day or week-long leadership workshops. But Barbara believed that GSLI needed to be a journey exploring leadership in the world, the community, and the workplace with the girl at the center, reflecting her own unique personhood. A few days in a leadership conference could not begin to address the issues facing girls in New York City. Barbara reached out to me to help co-design a creative and courageous way for girls to lead our future.

We began with listening to the needs of girls in New York City who were facing many complexities in navigating leadership. After we listened, we formed collaborative relationships among staff of GSGNY and Barnard College’s Athena Center, GSGNY’s Board of Directors, and funders—all of us seeking to contribute to re-imagining a girl-centered leadership program. I worked with our design team of caring and capable women to learn training and organization development models as tools for current and future programs. We drew from our collective experiences as mothers, daughters, volunteers, nonprofit leaders, educators, entrepreneurs, students, attorneys, corporate executives, the affluent, members of the working class and low-income families, single parents, and latchkey kids. Our team represented identities similar to girls at GSGNY. By grappling with issues of confidence, power, and diversity, by disclosing vulnerabilities, and by discovering ways we could truly work together, the design team modeled what we wanted to create for the girls. 

As a narrative practitioner in applied behavioral science who works with three girl-centered organizations, I listen, observe, and write stories emerging from girls and women who are co-creating leadership experiences. In doing this work, I often hear stories of navigating thorny trails in white and male-centered industries. My own leadership trek is filled with sagas of sexual harassment and affirmative action accusations tossed around as insult to my intelligence and capabilities. I survived by creating strategic circles of support, and Barbara speaks of the inspiration she gleaned from mentors who chose not to follow the pack but to live from a vision inspired by an inner messenger in response to life experiences. 

We designed GSLI so that girls and adults could engage with such support and see such models. Collaborative learning, inspirational mentoring, and opportunities for girls to explore principled and courageous leadership are centerpieces of the program. We invite girls to not only experience leadership but also to journal about it and to look within for their own inner messenger. 

Barbara: The Pattern and Possibility

As we pursued our dreams for GSLI, I knew that I needed to pay attention to the pattern of girls’ experiences, to the Girl Scout history and brand, and to the leadership know-how among the collaborative design team and stakeholders. Three Girl Scout principles are infused in all of our programs: 

Our programs are girl-led; we trust that girls have the wisdom to act.

We promote collaborative learning; we create safe places to take risks, fail, get back up, and grow.

We see leadership as taking action and as service; we identify social issues and work to sustainably address them in order to help make communities and the world a better place.

These principles are tried and true and continue to be a focus in the GSLI program. However, when Yvette and I began framing the GSLI design, three additional principles revealed themselves as key factors for GSGNY. These principles had previously been present only in a less explicit manner within the Girl Scouts’ approach:

Our Girl Scouts are all ages; we leverage multi-generational relationships and learn together with a set of shared values.

Our approach is spiritual; we view Girl Scouts as a spiritual organization, which profoundly allows us to tap into the essence of our humanity.

We unleash the power of diversity; when girls across multiple identity demographics participate in a shared experience, their perspectives powerfully and organically shift.

Because of the diversity within the GSGNY organization, we needed to pay attention to differences. Doing so required developing intensive skills-training in topics such as narrative listening, through which we invite a girl to open up from her heart, tell her story, be heard without interruption, and have her words reflected back to her for acknowledgement without interruption.  Practices such as this one allow girls to experience deep personal change. GSLI recognizes the reality girls live in versus what others espouse. GSLI creates space for girls to journal, dialogue, and make connections held in the context of leadership. 

Research suggests that mindset barriers exist for girls. We learn from reports such as “Leaning Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases,” which was conducted by the Making Caring Common Program within Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, that girls’ experiences of gender biases in their families, schools, and communities prevent too many of them from stepping forward to embrace leadership in their lives. Some girls—as many as 35%—report that they wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting a leadership role, while an additional 38% of girls state they are simply not cut out to be leaders. 

From the Girl Scouts Research Institute’s report, “The State of Girls: Unfinished Business,” we learn that girls’ leadership aspirations are connected to the notions of leadership they see being circulated in the culture. Girls relate to leadership when it is defined as collaborative, inclusive, and concerned with making a difference in the world. To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must recognize these data by addressing girls’ aspirational or preferred definitions of leadership, their needs for emotional safety, and their desires for social and personal development. 

Girls learn best from role models. They need to see women in action and in leadership roles in the workplace as reflections of themselves in order to appreciate they too can lead. GSGNY is changing the leadership dialogue for girls by breaking free from the traditional Machiavellian style of leadership and modeling one that emphasizes the development of personal leadership identity. We believe that this strategy will help us achieve gender parity in leadership in the future. 

Yvette: Path to the Dream

In exploring the views of the women working on the GSLI project, I learned the breadth of complexity around fulfilling this dream. We all wanted a program that would empower girls to lead with confidence and courage, but the lens through which we saw this goal was different for each woman. We grappled with details about what content to deliver, how to make budget allocations, and how facilitators would present the content. Like ocean waves hitting the shore, we moved back and forth between big vision and small details.

Our work resulted in determining key competencies to develop in the course content (i.e. monthly workshops and summer program) and program activities (workplace visits and leadership coaching circles). We prioritized Leading Self, Living Vision and Values, Self-Mastery Mindset, and Critical to Creative Thinking as skills for girls that would make our program stand apart from more traditional leadership programs.

Even as the design team did its work on new ideas and approaches to leadership, we could not help but fall into patterns of what we had all learned from the “traditional male” habits and language of leadership. We needed to stop ourselves, re-center on our purpose together, and imagine what we wanted to be different about our work. Creating GSLI for GSGNY meant taking time to do our own work in self-reflection. 

Today, Barbara now proudly describes GSLI as a 15-month intensive leadership journey followed by an evolving period of practicing leadership. Girls apply what they learn to their lives and return to mentor girls who are entering GSLI or younger girls in other Girl Scout programs. Continuous improvement comes through ongoing feedback and reflection on action, which allows girls to fine-tune and expand their leadership experiences and gives them tools for life-long learning. 

Barbara: Final Reflections

Many hands built GSLI. The staff of GSGNY, Barnard, and other partners put in long hours to design and deliver the program. Women from across a number of different workplaces hosted GSLI visits, coached the girls, and shared their professional experiences and lessons learned. GSLI is by no means perfect, and many aspects continually must be tweaked. However, our purpose and impact are clear: when we contrast most girls when they enter our program with how they are when they complete it, we can observe how girls emerge able to embrace their uniqueness and their responsibility to share their leadership gifts in order make the world better. The new perspectives formed by the girls in the program suggest that the six principles that anchor GSLI might offer a model for helping to transform our world. Two of our girls who we’ll call Kylie and Connie have a story that illustrates this point beautifully:

Kylie, an African American 9th grader from a low-income family, attended a low-performing public middle school in the South Bronx of New York City, which we believe has the greatest concentration of intense poverty in the U.S. Connie, a Caucasian 11th grader who was born to an upper-middle-class family, has lived in several countries and attended one of the best technical high schools in New York City. Kylie and Connie met each other at GSLI. 

Lacking confidence, Kylie hesitated to share her ideas, but she had a strong instinct to lead. Connie was confident in her analytical abilities and took the lead in most situations. Connie’s intelligence never seemed to let her down, and she had faced few challenges in life—there were no clear obstacles for her in asserting leadership. 

Connie and Kylie worked together on a GSLI project team. At first view, their beginning days together were exasperating to both of them. Neither appreciated the other’s gifts. When the team said Kylie’s business idea was best, Kylie was elated, and Connie was distraught. While Connie’s ability to analyze the issues quickly inspired the team, it unnerved Kylie. GSLI instructors showed Connie and Kylie how principled leaders resolve a conflict. They helped them to see that such leaders appreciate diversity in building teams and use that diversity to find the right answer when they have to make decisions together. 

By the fifth day, Connie and Kylie began seeing the gifts each had to offer—it was magical. Kylie’s business idea ignited the team’s imagination. Connie’s keen analytical skills helped the team create a business proposal with metrics that were stunningly advanced. 

GSLI created a safe space for two girls from very different worlds and with different gifts to share an experience in practicing leadership. It enabled them to create something neither could have done alone. Connie learned that great leadership—often borne from facing and overcoming adversity—is about making the teams, not just individuals, stronger. Kylie came to understand the power of pursuing and seizing an opportunity, and, perhaps for the first time, Kylie learned she could do far more than she imagined. 

Girls who come from all walks of life—some who are unnoticed and silenced, others supported tremendously by family and loved ones—enter GSLI as talent-in-cultivation; as leaders waiting to be birthed. They work together to explore how their particular brand of personal leadership folds into the greater pool of women looking for ways to make a difference in their communities and the world. They leave knowing that they each have much to offer and can make the world a better place.

Many women who have experienced aspects of GSLI lament never having had such safe places to explore their unique perspectives and to practice leading. These women have entered the workplace, and, as they move up the career ladder, too many of them opt out because of lack of self confidence, fear of failure, too few role models, or inadequate support systems within their companies. This pattern is even more pronounced for women of color and women who’ve come from families with limited economic means. Yet there’s ample evidence that diversity—borne of different life experiences—contributes to organizations and companies being more innovative, productive, profitable, and sustainable. There are many lessons from GSLI that we are discovering about how we might leverage differences on a larger scale to help transform our society.

Yvette and I have been forever touched by what we have learned from girls as they participate in the GSLI program. We now see the acceleration of leadership readiness for girls that we couldn’t see as young women ourselves. §



Photos by Kelly Marsh, courtesy of Girl Scouts of Greater New York


Barbara Murphy-Warrington, J.D. is the CEO for Girl Scouts of Greater New York (GSGNY). She leads the strategic direction and overall operations for the $6.4M organization, which serves girls in the five boroughs of New York City. Barbara credits her early experience as a Girl Scout for providing a foundation for her leadership journey.


Yvette Angelique Hyater-Adams, MA-TLA is a writer, teaching-artist, and narrative practitioner in applied behavioral science. She runs Narratives for Change and is a highly sought-after leadership coach and facilitator for writing workshops, women’s and girl’s development programs, and social action writing.