Meet Jenna Leadbetter

With a last name like hers, Jenna Leadbetter was destined for leadership. At just 31, she became the District Superintendent and now educators twenty years her senior look to her for inspiration and direction. She talks with us about being the youngest person in the room, ditching law school, and why she carries around a list of people who inspire her.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I have served as an educator for ten years. During the past two years I have had the honor to serve as a School Superintendent and Interim School Superintendent / K-12 Principal at Circle of Life Academy in White Earth, MN. This is where I seek to create an atmosphere of continuous academic improvement in a tribally controlled culturally responsive teaching / pedagogy. As a school superintendent, I am the top executive (“CEO”) in the school district. I implement and lead the school board’s vision by making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff, and facilities. I have managed several multi-million-dollar budgets from state and federal funding streams. I have raised or secured many thousands of dollars in grants to support both the school and communities I serve. I hire, supervise, and manage central staff and principals. I am lucky to work with school leaders — principals, managers, coordinators, lead teachers — to serve the needs of our incredible students and meet our school’s goals. Furthermore, I must also respond to the demands of all the other constituencies and interest groups in the district: students, parents / guardians, staff, advocates, and the communities at large. This includes constant consideration of how to use the financial and human resources of the school in order to achieve the best results as well as ensuring mindfulness of competing demands while guided by what is best for all students. 

Prior to any School Superintendent position, I served as the K-12 Principal at Circle of Life Academy and as a K-12 Speech-Language Pathologist.  During these periods of time, I took on additional leadership roles to meet the diverse needs of all learners and to ensure compliance to state / federal mandates as well as adherence to true “21st century and beyond” best practices. I have spent my entire career in predominantly rural school districts, and I have a great passion for the growing diversity and opportunities of rural education. 

Outside of my career, I am an ambitious small-town Minnesotan woman, who was raised to have strong values and good character. Thanks mom and dad! I am actively pursuing my Doctorate in Educational Leadership, instruct weekly yoga classes, volunteer through the Detroit Lakes Breakfast Rotary Club, and spend remaining time with the love of my life, Ben Noah, our families, and friends. I find myself immersed in the communities I serve, with Detroit Lakes, MN as my current home.

How did you get involved in your work?

My journey, so far, has been a winding path with many forks in the road. I certainly did not follow the traditional route to becoming a school superintendent, but I would not have it any other way. 

My father, Dr. Larry Leadbetter, sat with me on the tailgate of his Chevrolet truck one summer day. I had recently just graduated from Concordia College of Moorhead, MN and was planning to attend William Mitchell College of Law. Unfortunately, I knew my heart was not truly in pursuing a career as an attorney and I suspect my father did too. Fast forward to October 2012, where the second incredible person, School Superintendent Bryan Thygeson, stopped me in our school’s district office hallway and said something to extent of, “…you should really pursue leadership Leadbetter…I mean it’s clearly in your blood with a last name of Lead Better…” 

I have always recognized that I am kind of a sponge and soak things up without even knowing it. When you combine this sponge-like mentality with phenomenal mentorship, your career path is set before you even know it. It is mentors like my father and School Superintendent Bryan Thygeson, who not only saw something in me that I was unaware of, but equally showed a lot of energy and passion for education of our youth and future driven leadership. It’s hard not to fall in love with a career that combines both.

What does it mean to be a Ladyboss?

A Ladyboss is a strong and empowered person. I emphasize person rather than lady as I believe a boss is a boss, which should need no additional descriptor. Unfortunately, gender specification is still often needed when advocating for women in leadership roles. This specific and vital factor speaks directly to me as a woman, a female school superintendent and a featured woman in this publication. 

I do not see myself as a “boss”, but rather “a leader”. I feel leadership is a position, but effectiveness of the role is seeking to empower rather than seeking power. To empower others in today’s world is not easy. In fact, I am immensely proud of it, especially at my age. I became a K-12 Principal at the age of 30 and District Superintendent at the age of 31. You might however be surprised that being female has not been my biggest challenge, but my age has proven to be a greater point of contention. It is not being a woman; it is always being the youngest person in the room. I must navigate my way around empowering people that are 5, 10, 20 years older than me who are not used to taking direction or being inspired by somebody younger. 

Who inspires you?

That’s an easy question for me to answer because I carry with me a written list of my top 8 most influential people. These people have positively impacted my life. I carry this list with me to both remind me of my journey and that throughout our lives we will encounter messengers. They will come in different shapes and sizes and if we’re open to it, they’ll leave their mark. We will pass this positive mark on to one person and that person to the next and so on, until what happens is a ripple beyond measure.

What is your favorite form of self-care?

My favorite forms of self-care are reading and exercising. I think the health of the mind and the body are deeply interconnected. Only a healthy mind leads to a healthy body and vice versa.

Reading a good book, which helps improve my awareness, makes me feel more peaceful. On the other hand, exercising makes me feel more energetic and confident. So, both these activities are crucial parts of my daily self-care routine. I devote at least 30 minutes a day for each activity.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard recently?

We have all heard, “control the controllables”, but the one thing that no one ever talks about is your reaction to unexpected moments. When unexpected things happen, an event or situation in your life, you are going to react. We have thousands of these unexpected moments throughout the course of our lives and each one brings a reaction. The question is or rather the best piece of advice I have heard is, “how do you react to your reaction?” Theoretically, how do you react to adversity? The initial reaction is not the concern here, but rather your choice in how you continue to react to your initial response. It’s human nature to feel the initial emotion, but then you have the power to choose if you’re going to move positively forward or sit in a boiling pot of negativity. #React2YourReaction

What do you think women in leadership roles need right now?

In today’s uncertain times, leadership takes on a whole new meaning. Even the most experienced female leaders are finding themselves challenged in entirely new ways. The name of the game is no longer about getting a seat at the table, but about keeping that seat in high-stress situations.

Leading a team with certainty isn’t easy, nor is being a role model for those who need you without sacrificing your health, relationships, or sanity along the way. The sad fact is that successful professional women are struggling to navigate their careers without making huge sacrifices in their personal life. 

These types of women need supportive mentors that ignore the “success requires sacrifice” mantra everyone else blindly adheres to and instead have each other to lean into during times of chaos, creating a sense of calm, confidence and grace that does not topple their personal lives in the process.