Leading with Credibility, Humility, Equity: Q&A with Ruth Simmons

Ruth Simmons, president at Prairie View A&M University and the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution at Brown University in 2001, shares insights into the type of leadership needed at today's business schools.
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Leadership is a topic frequently studied at business schools, but how often do we turn to our own academic leaders to gain lessons from the challenges they overcame to rise to the top? I recently interviewed Ruth Simmons, president at Prairie View A&M University and the first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution at Brown University in 2001, and I was struck by the many insights her own personal journey could offer into the type of leadership needed at today's business schools.

Which modes of thinking, habits, and strategies helped you become a successful academic leader?

The first thing I learned at a very young age is that I couldn’t be anyone other than who I am. I think of leadership, ultimately, as an issue of “authenticity.” Who are you? What do you bring? How do you function? Are you sufficiently self-aware, so that you can build the trust that is needed to lead?

I try to remove considerations that could be personally aggrandizing. I think of the fundamental value of what I am doing, to whom it could be valuable, and how, with my particular knowledge and skills, I can make the institution better. I think deeply about a problem and make a plan so that I feel entirely comfortable in taking responsibility for the outcome.

If you want to be a credible leader, you have to establish and earn the trust of those you lead. Credibility and trust do not come in a package that you can buy over the counter. What you do every single day builds or destroys the trust you have with others. Thus you have to pay attention to everything you do—the appearance of it, the genuineness of it.

Therefore, the center of leadership for me is authenticity. Your motivation has to come from a deep inner place: believe in what you are doing; care about people; respect traditions; and honor the fact that you have been given a singular opportunity to do something constructive.

Can you share a little about people in your life who nurtured and mentored you in your path to leadership, and throughout your career?

My greatest mentor by far was my mother. She had very firm views about humanity and talked about the need to respect people, to be humble, and never to think that my needs are more important than those of others. She spoke a good deal about fairness, equity, and justice. She talked about the importance of being a decent human being above all else. Those are the things I still treasure over everything I have learned. They are the bedrock principles of being able to work effectively with people and having a long career where one is not embarrassed about things one has done.

At Princeton, my most important mentor was the dean of faculty. On one occasion, he said my work was the “worst he had ever seen, ever.” That was the first time someone did me the service of telling me how awful my work was. I went back to my office and put my head on the desk and cried, then I got up and redid the work. From such experiences, I learned how to take criticism, how to hold myself to higher standards, and how to get work done in the right way, so I am ever grateful to those who respected me enough to criticize my work.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins introduces the term “Level 5 leaders,” whose attributes include a fierce resolve/professional focus combined with great personal humility. Would you agree that humility is important for leaders?

I agree that humility typifies leaders, but I certainly know many successful leaders who have neither the humility nor the ability to credit others for their work.

Let’s talk about the “evolution” of leadership. Because today we have access to all kinds of communications, we are more aware of the world, and we therefore require a leadership style that is different. The current leadership model demands serious study on how to be more inclusive, more transparent, more trustworthy, and more convincing to persuade followers. Leaders must be aware of this evolution in leadership.

Adam Bryant, in his October 27, 2017, piece on leadership in the New York Times, said that his favorite insight came from you, when you said, “…you have to be open and alert at every turn to the possibility that you’re about to learn the most important lesson of your life.”

I have always thought that the most important thing we can do as learners, and frankly as humans, is to be open to the possibility that the next thing we do, the next thing we see, the next thing we learn could be the most important moment in our lives, and therefore, we must be constantly alert to such opportunities.

On a personal level, what I tell my students is that the person who might be the greatest influence on you could be the person cleaning your dorm room. Your disposition should be to seek out opportunities to learn from everyone. Go everywhere with the knowledge that you could learn something that could be critical. This is in effect lifelong learning.

We know that women and minorities are significantly underrepresented in the highest leadership levels in academe. As a nation, how do we make progress on this count?

We can start off by being fair to women. There is no simpler or better answer than that. The opportunities and the messages we give to girls are important.

The difficulties in equal attainment start with families; families are a primary mode for instilling these values early on. Messages such as whether one is equal and should be respected as a human being, or whether one is capable and can work at the highest levels are all-important in early life.

We can be more equal in the workplace. My experience over the years has been that women have a very different experience in the academic workplace, starting as faculty members. Women who get an offer often say, “I don’t need much money and am simply delighted to be able to serve.” As a result, women start at a lower salary. When men start at a higher salary, that differential continues to widen over the span of their careers.

We can intervene by teaching women their rights in the workplace, how they can advocate for their needs. This information needs to be in the hands of every woman entering the workforce.

I spend a lot of time assisting women across the country who are negotiating for some kind of position in higher education. I tell them, if they don’t care about their own equity, why should anyone else care? “You are your own voice,” I tell them. Getting comfortable with this idea is a good start for women.

Ruth J SimmonsRuth Simmons is the eighth president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas. She has previously served as president of Brown University and Smith College and has held leadership positions at Princeton University and Spelman College, among others. She holds more than 40 honorary degrees and is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.

Minur QuddusMunir Quddus is dean and a professor of economics at the Prairie View A&M University College of Business.