Dr. Lindsay Whorton, president of The Holdsworth Center, recently interviewed Dr. Ruth Simmons for a virtual session with Leaders from our District Leadership Program. Ruth is the president of Prairie View A&M University and the former president of Brown University and Smith College. She was the first Black woman to serve as president of an Ivy League institution. She also chairs The Holdsworth Center’s board of directors. In the interview excerpt below, questions and responses have been edited for space.
The full 75-minute interview is available for streaming and download. In it, Ruth discusses:
- the importance of empathy and focusing on the human elements of leadership
- being bold and authentic as a leader
- balancing hope with realism
- talking to students about race
- preparing students for the new postsecondary
Lindsay: Our district leaders have hundreds of principals getting ready to start the next school year. And some of them may feel intimidated about whether they have the right thing to say, particularly when talking to students about race. What advice would you give to those district leaders and principals?
Ruth: One of the things I’d like to remind leaders is that human beings are very forgiving. They actually permit you under the right circumstances to make lots of mistakes. You can say the wrong thing. You can be incorrect in your approaches. I urge people to think less about whether or not they have the exact right thing to say. What I encourage them to do is to be truthful: Admit if they are feeling discomfort, if they are struggling, if they are trying to do better. If you’re direct and honest and transparent, people are going to be very forgiving.
The heart and mind should never be far apart. Authentic leadership is about reflecting who you are and what your values are.
I always say that you have to lead with who you are and what your values are. I was talking to one leader who was very concerned about how people might react to him. I said, ‘Why don’t you make it clear that you oppose racism?’
When I was president at Brown University, we would have hosting day and all the students who had applied to Brown and gotten in would come. I was very forthright with them. I said, ‘If you do not wish to associate with people who are different from you, if you are concerned that you’ll have to explain yourself to people, if you are concerned that you might have to live with a person who eats different kinds of food than you, please don’t come to Brown.’
I said in advance, ‘Here’s your job in college. Your job is to teach other people who you are. Your job is to learn about other people. That’s your job. Don’t come see me to complain when you encounter something that challenges you, that makes you stretch, that requires you to do more than just be kind of a lazy listener.’
Leaders should say in advance, ‘Here’s what I believe. I could be wrong, but my job is to lead this institution, and this is the way I’m going to lead it.’ If people have to pull it out of you – How do you actually feel about this? How do you feel about that? – you’ve lost half the battle.
Lindsay: I know you’re thinking about the realities and economic circumstances students face at Prairie View A&M University. And I know you’re also thinking about the same things our district leaders are thinking about, such as how to take people’s temperatures and move them through buildings. How do you structure your time and energy to be able to attend to all of those little things that matter, but not lose sight of the bigger picture in the context of day-to-day demands?
Ruth: As leaders, there are thousands of small things you can do that will consume your time while the really important things will not get enough of your attention. Someone once told me that what I ought to do is to have in mind always a small set of things that are absolutely crucial, and on a daily basis to reassess whether or not I was devoting enough time to them. So, I actually started doing that. And I still do it.
It can be very disruptive to people because there’s a lot of competition to get on my schedule. I’ll come in and look at what’s on the schedule and look at my priorities side-by-side. If my schedule has nothing to do with my priorities, I will throw out the schedule. I’ll say, ‘No, this is not what I should be doing. Let’s redo the schedule.’ I’ve done that to the frustration of my assistants over the years. But it’s been good because I’ve rarely felt that I didn’t get to the things that I needed to get to.
The other aspect of it is that I try to communicate clearly so people will know what I’m doing. I’m very outspoken, which can be a disadvantage. But the advantage is that people will absolutely know where you’re coming from.
What people are looking for in a leader is not someone who just knows how to follow the rules. They’re looking for people who know how to offer something different.
I remember when I first got to Prairie View, people are accustomed to being called Dr. This and Dr. That. I said immediately, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m going to call people, no matter who you are, by your name without a title. I don’t want anybody to think that just because they have a PhD, they’re more important than the person who cleans the building.’ Well, there were tons of complaints filed against me. Every time I had an opportunity, I let people know I will never change.
That kind of very direct approach helps when you’re choosing among many different things and when you’re saying no to a lot of things that probably are pretty worthy to do.
Lindsay: In addition to all that we’ve discussed, I know you’re also paying a lot of attention to how you develop your people and your team. And this moment seems to create a lot of opportunity to develop vision and strategy and planning. I would be curious to hear a bit of how you’ve approached that with your team through the last six months.
Ruth: I’m trying to push them to think creatively about new ways of doing things. And frankly, new things to do. I’m trying to promote the idea that teamwork is very important and how they interact with team members is important to their future. I’m talking a lot about empathetic leadership and what that requires. I’m talking a good deal about responsiveness.
For example, email – the bane of our existence, right? I established long ago that my email would be accessible to everyone – to staff, to every student, to parents, to everyone. And I also established that I would answer when people took the time to write to me, and I would answer immediately. I built it into my schedule to be responsive. Many of the people who work with me are notoriously delinquent in answering people’s queries. And I think that engenders a problem with leadership. When people take the time to reach out to you, writing back is an easy way to demonstrate as a leader that you care and are responsive. Sometimes my answer is, ‘I really can’t answer you now, but I probably will be able to get back to you within a day.’ Whatever it is, it’s still an answer.
But probably the single most important thing that I try to instill in the people here is how important communication is. Faulty communication is what sinks a lot of leaders. Somebody said to me recently that they had read the response of a university president to Black Lives Matter and it read as if it had been written by a public relations person. I often say, ‘Whatever it is that is your response, make it your response.’ People have to begin to learn who you are, what your voice is, what your values are. When a crisis emerges, it will not be a surprise to anybody how you respond, and they will recognize you in your response.
The heart and mind should never be far apart. I often remind people that authentic leadership is about reflecting who you are and what your values are. When your leadership is not aligned with that, it’s very hard to be successful.
None of the rules matter. You do what you need to do to offer promise, to constantly push the envelope trying to do new things to meet your mission.
In terms of how one manages to do something innovative when the call is almost always to do things in the same way, I would say you have to do it loudly. And by that I mean that so often, people believe when they’re in a leadership role that they are at risk if they do not follow the guidance that they are given or the terms of their contract or a host of other constraints. I always felt that my leadership was best when I wasn’t doing that. There is some risk-taking one has to assume in this. What people are looking for in a leader is not someone who just knows how to follow the rules. They’re looking for people who know how to offer something different. The more you do that, the more your stock goes up.
When I was approached about my first presidency at Smith, I said ‘I think there’s been a terrible mistake. You can’t possibly know who I am and want me to be president of Smith. We talked about it and I said, ‘I can only be president on the terms that I understand as authentically relating to who I am as a person.’
They accepted that and I became a president. I said, ‘The first thing we’re going to do is create an engineering program at a women’s college. The response was, ‘We don’t do that here. We’re a liberal arts institution.’ But the overriding mission of the university was to create opportunities for women where they did not exist before. If you’re no longer useful as a women’s college, you might as well be just another college.
Bring whatever you do to a test: Are we doing what we should in order to fulfill our mission in the best possible way? We look first to our students and ask, ‘Are we doing the right thing for them?’ Come hell or high water, we must push hard against any restrictions that will prevent us from doing that.
None of the rules matter. You do what you need to do to offer promise, to constantly push the envelope trying to do new things to meet your mission. A lot of people are kind of bored with education because they think that we don’t have enough good ideas and we are just trying to keep things the same. Well, some of that is probably earned by us. What an opportunity there is (amid crisis) to push the envelope and to say why we are doing this now.