By Greg Silverthorne, MBA
— A graduate of Brown University, I was frankly elated when my alma mater announced in 2001 who would be the 18th President of the university. In my humble opinion, I feel Dr. Ruth J. Simmons was an extraordinary leader of the Ivy League university; she chose to step down from that position, in June 2012, after 11 years in office.
Ruth J. Simmons, 18th President, Brown University (2001 – 2012)
A role model for me, I feel the lessons touched on -in an interview Dr. Simmons did- serve as ‘leadership food for thought’. A 2011 New York Times article, based on an the interview that Adam Bryant conducted with Simmons, is the basis of the eight (8) leadership lessons I highlight today – in my 1st post for this blog.
8 Leadership Lessons
- 1 – First and foremost, be an amicable leader. Support the goals of others, when possible. Avoid publicly criticizing people.
After speaking candidly about being “impossible” as a young girl (she was the youngest of 12), the following exchange took place:
Bryant: But at some point, particularly when you became a manager, you realized you couldn’t be so impossible.
Simmons: 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.
- 2 – Promote and reward team orientation, not “individual glorification.”
- 3 – Establish a high-trust environment where people are “comfortable offering criticism.”
Simmons: “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.”
- 4 – Know “it’s not all about you”. Ego-driven leaders are not effective leaders.
- 5 – Always promote a ‘pleasant environment’.
After being asked about the leadership lessons she took from an experience by Adam Bryant, Simmons replied:
“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.”
- 6 – Understand that bad experiences can be important ‘learning moments’ too.
When asked about her “most important leadership lessons”, the exchange below took place. It was, she stated, a critical turning point in her career.
Simmons: I had some bad experiences, and I don’t think we can say enough in leadership about what bad experiences contribute to our learning.
Bryant: Can you elaborate?
Simmons: I worked for someone who did not support me. And it was a very painful experience, and in many ways a defining experience for me. So having a bad supervisor really probably started me thinking about what I would want to be as a supervisor. That led me to think about the psychology of the people I worked with. And, in some ways, because I had exhibited behavior that was not the most positive in the workplace myself, it gave me a mirror to what I might do that might be similarly undermining of others. So I think at that juncture that’s really when I started being much more successful.
- 7- As a leader, always be open and alert to the fact that ANY moment could be “the most important lesson” in your career. Be an observant, continuous learner, not an arrogant, ‘know it all’ ostrich.
Simmons stated in the 2011 interview with the New York Times reporter: “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 [with a bad supervisor] would be so defining for me . . . 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.”
- 8 – When taking on a new position, when communicating your approach, speaking to your broad principles is the way to go.
Simmons: “Initially, you have to say something about how you approach your work. I try to do it by speaking to principles rather than trying to give people a lot of detail about management style and so forth. I have always thought in leadership that it’s much easier to convey to people what they should do in different situations if you convey the underlying principles.”
In closing, I salute Brown University for seeking out such an awesome educator. I salute Ruth, Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, for the awesome way she presided over the university for over a decade. I had the great pleasure of meeting President Ruth J. Simmons in her first year in office – at the Brown Club of Philadelphia. A humble, but confident professional, I’m not at all surprised at what she accomplished after our brief encounter in Philly!
So the next time someone asks you what type of leader you are -or aspire to be- consider telling them: “I lead like Ruth.”
- The exchanges in this post were drawn from a New York Times article:
“I Was Impossible, but Then I Saw How to Lead”, by Adam Bryant, The New York Times (December 3, 2011, Sunday Business, p. 2)
- This interview with Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown University for 11 years, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant. The emphasis added to quotes above are my own.
- Dr. Simmons stepped down at the end of the last academic year. She continues as a Professor of Comparative Literature and Africana studies at my alma mater, Brown University.
Photo credit: Brown University, News Bureau
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