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It’s Not All About You

Before I’ve mentioned how much I enjoy the ‘Corner Office’ section of the Sunday New York Times.  The leaders profiled are well-selected and there’s something new to be learned each week.  Most of all, I find what is said is natural, sensible, clear, and so obvious you wonder how many leaders miss these basics.  The one I cover today is from the paper of December 4, 2011.

Ruth J. Simmons has been president of Brown University for 11 years, though is stepping down at the end of the year to become a professor.  In her interview, entitled “I Was Impossible, But Then I Saw How to Lead,” she made a few remarkable statements that tie back to other brief articles I’ve written about being true to yourself, about considering the organization, being open and being able to change your style when you recognize you need to.

Ms. Simmons makes these few outstanding yet basic points, all of which she has learned — as we all can by having good mentors, superb colleagues, paying close attention, changing behavior, having great coaches and open communication:

  • From her mother, she learned: “Never think of yourself as being better than anybody else.  Always think for yourself.  Don’t follow the crowd.”  Have you noticed how real leaders often assemble disparate and apparently unrelated ideas and put together a cogent argument for taking a different approach?
  • Working kindly with others pays dividends:  “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.”  We might all view this being a team player, but it’s more than that.  Its entails being fully in the moment, learning from others, and not envisioning yourself as better than someone else.  Everyone has something to add.
  • Bad experiences as well as good ones lead to better understanding:  “I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.”  Don’t let bad experiences demotivate you.
  • Having worked with someone who did not support her, she learned the primary lesson of this article:  “It’s not all about you.  It’s very important in a leadership role not to place your ego at the foreground and not to judge everything in relationship to how your ego is fed. And that seems to be all-important if you’re going to lead well.  The other thing is just how unpleasant it is to work in an environment where you’re demeaned or disrespected.”  As an employee you should never be mistreated; at the same time, it’s essential that you treat others well by leaving your ego behind, lead with kindness and let yourself learn from others, without any expectations other than to participate in the conversation.
  • Ms. Simmons learned a lot about management, about problems, and herself by listening and not judging too quickly what is valuable and what is not, a topic also covered here before.  What you learn could surprise you:  “I talk about this all the time with students.  What I impart to them is that they should never assume that they can predict what experiences will teach them the most about what they value, or about what their life should be.  And I would never have guessed that that experience would be so defining for me.  After all, if I look at it in the arc of my career, it was a tiny job, and in a place that hasn’t really been that significant frankly to me.  And yet that experience taught me so much that I carried it with me for all those years.   So my lesson to my students is 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.”
  • We have also covered here previously the absolute need to be honest and direct, that criticism does not need to create conflict.  Ms. Simmons has one of the finest examples of this and how not to prejudge others:  “Probably the most important experience I had in that regard was working at Princeton in the dean of the faculty office for a man named Aaron Lemonick.  He was an unlikely sort of mentor for me. He was Jewish and from Philadelphia.  I was a Baptist from the South.  But we had an immediate connection for a very important reason, and that is that he said what he thought, and I said what I thought.  And the first time that we met and we spoke, we both understood that we’d found something valuable.  He was very focused on details, and it was the first time in my career that I had worked with someone who was so focused on every minor thing, or everything that I thought at the time was minor.  We couldn’t have been more different, but he was very demanding of me, and he didn’t patronize me.  It was the first time probably in my entire career that I actually met somebody who did not patronize me as an African-American and a woman.  The lesson of that, of course, is that as you’re trying to help people, you can give very honest criticism, but if you do it in the context of genuinely wanting to help them, it makes all the difference in the world.
  • We all know that teams and groups of colleagues should have a shared objective.  “I thought it was absolutely essential for all of us as a team to understand that we were there not for our own individual glorification, but to help everybody else thrive. And that meant working together well. I emphasized that more than anything, and I stressed that I would not have any tolerance at all for people who did not, in fact, strive hard to be a part of that team. It meant being interested in others’ work. Being willing to facilitate their success. Being willing to generate ideas as well as generate criticism of what they were doing.  I wanted to establish an environment in which people were comfortable offering criticism, because others understood that underlying that criticism was a fundamental support for who they were, and what they were trying to do.”

Ms. Simmons represents not only an accomplished leader in the difficult arena of higher education.  To me she embodies an enlightened manager who adroitly and unconsciously applies the human qualities inherent in all of us to the fundamental challenges of management and learning and working with others.  I think she did this because she saw value in others, kept her ego in check, and knew when to push and when to hold back.  Clearly, she’s received the best from her staff and that’s quite an accomplishment.