July 3, 2020

Corner Office | Ruth J. Simmons: Ruth Simmons of Brown University, on Amiable Leadership


Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. Probably the first time I was a boss was when I was associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Southern California. I was in my early 30s.

Q. Was that an easy transition?

A. It was. If I had to ask myself why, I would say it’s because I’d probably been building to the point where I was capable of doing those things without actually knowing that I could. And if you ask me how far back that went — this assemblage of skills and experience — I’d probably say that it went back to my childhood.

Q. How so?

A. I realized that I was an inveterate organizer from the earliest age. I’m the youngest of 12 children. And although I was the youngest, I tried to organize things in my family. When there were disputes, I tried to mediate. And I intervened in school as well to tell teachers what they were doing wrong, or at least to tell them what I didn’t like about what they were doing. I intervened sometimes in classes to take a leadership role. By the time I got to college, I was impossible.

Q. Why impossible?

A. I was impossible. I thought that it was very important to take a principled stance about various things, and some of them had meaning, and some of them probably didn’t mean very much.

I think somehow this sense of myself came from my mother, who instilled in us very strong values about who we were. And this was quite essential at the time I grew up, because in that environment, in the Jim Crow South, everybody told you that you were worth nothing. Everybody told you that you would never be anything. Everybody told you that you couldn’t go here, you couldn’t go there. She would just constantly talk to us: Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else. Always think for yourself. Don’t follow the crowd. So we grew up with a sense of being independent in our thinking.

Q. And what about your siblings? What did they think of their confident youngest sister?

A. They didn’t like it very much. They thought I was not normal, because I was very different from everybody else in my family. My oldest sister went to my mother one day and said that she thought there was something wrong with me, and that something needed to be done.

Q. But at some point, particularly when you became a manager, you realized you couldn’t be so impossible.

A. It was living, frankly. And the experience of understanding that the ways in which I was trying to solve problems and to interact with people were getting in the way of achieving what I want. And that’s what did it for me. Ultimately, I came to understand that I could achieve far more if I worked amiably with people, if I supported others’ goals, if I didn’t try to embarrass people by pointing out their deficiencies in a very public way. So I think it was really experience that did it more than anything else.

Q. When the college promoted you into a management role, was it something you wanted?

A. I was stunned, and a little skeptical. In my early career, I learned to be very leery of people asking me to perform in these higher-level positions.

Q. Because?

A. Because this is coming out of the civil rights movement. The idea of taking somebody off their path to do something that is useful to you, as opposed to thinking long term about what they might contribute to the profession, was something I thought was a bit odd. When I was a Ph.D. student at Harvard, I was asked to drop out of my Ph.D. program and become a full-time staff member at Radcliffe. I was, first of all, the only black student in my Ph.D. program, and they wanted me to drop the program in order to become an administrator. So I just thought that was very odd, and I always remember that. I was skeptical of letting others create that path for me.

In the end, however, because there were so few African-American faculty at the time, I realized that I would see very few minorities in my classes. And that the only way I could influence what was happening with regard to minorities was to take a central position. And that’s why I ultimately did it. It never occurred to me that this would be a path that I would stay on or that I would accomplish anything at a significant level.

Q. What do you consider some of your most important leadership lessons?

A. I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.

Q. Can you elaborate?

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0c6b05fac51d73bfbe1f0e91a1212f72

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