by Raymond E. Crossman, Ph.D.
Why have higher ed leaders missed the memo about authentic or vulnerable leadership?
Higher ed presidencies are not designed to reward authenticity and vulnerability. Neither boards, nor faculty, nor donors and alums, nor search firms, nor our professional associations, nor any contemporary model of a successful university president substantially views vulnerability as a way or means for leading. As a result, college and university presidents are often careful not to share their perspectives on even prosaic day-to-day issues and most often remain silent about controversial issues. Student and faculty contempt for administrators may be unjustified but it is certainly widespread; leaders are often perceived as remote, out-of-touch, and untrustworthy. Public confidence in higher ed and its leaders is also eroding, matching our general growing lack of trust in our institutions and leaders.
As a university president, I am deeply aware of the challenges of our work with increasingly and easily outraged stakeholders across and outside our institutions. The presidency is a tough gig, and for me and many of my peers, it’s getting harder and harder to know how to be the leader who is congruent with the reasons one wanted the gig in the first place.
But I’ll confess that when I attend national meetings with other college and university presidents, I often wonder whether many of my colleagues have been replaced by robots.
The virtues of authentic and vulnerable leadership have been widely explored, often embraced, and unevenly realized by the business sector — but this is not a significant part of the leadership conversation in our sector. So to be clear, here’s a definition of the construct: authentic leaders communicate about and use their vulnerability while solving problems and resolving conflict, respond to feedback with reflection and self-awareness, and share and center their values in decision-making.
The traditions and conventions of higher education enforce the practice of leadership that is more tidy than what authentic leadership looks like in practice. Those same traditions also perpetuate colleges and universities that effectively disenfranchise everyone who is not, or everyone who does not act like, an affluent straight, white male. Authentic leadership facilitates engagement to address the design problems of higher education.
Leaders and aspiring leaders who are members of historically disadvantaged or oppressed groups are wired for authentic leadership. Our experiences of vulnerability become an asset.
For example, my early years of physical and emotional abuse as a gay boy became a resource as I realized the power of authentic and vulnerable leadership. Working out my deal as a young person in a heteronormative world without LGBTQ precedents was simply what I had to do. Likewise, later working out my deal as a leader involved questioning assumptions, listening carefully to myself and others, and exploring untried solutions — it was already a practiced and therefore concomitant competency. I also noticed early in my presidency that things went better when I talked about my process openly. Then, after I made the professional disclosure of my HIV status in recent years, I’ve been surprised that my queer intuition is clearer and that I can better listen. When I step forward also with the queer exuberance that is distinctive to the culture of gay men my age, I am better able to appreciate others and support change within the systems I work.
Humility is another aspect of authenticity and vulnerability. I, and many leaders who have experienced oppression due to intersecting parameters of our identities, come to our humility through our history and experience. Psychologist Kevin Cokley at University of Michigan Ann Arbor describes the “corrosive effects of self-doubt” associated with membership in historically disadvantaged groups, and at the same time, he explains how self-doubt can be an asset for leadership. Leaders such as Viola Davis, Michelle Obama, and Maya Angelou describe consistently feeling self-doubt, wondering whether they are good enough, and experiencing imposter syndrome. At the same time, says Cokley, these fierce leaders describe self-doubt as a gift and their insecurity as a superpower. The transformational success of these three women attests to the power of humility and authenticity. When I’m in touch with my humility, without falling down the pit of self-deprecation or internalized heterosexism, my leadership maintains relevance as I more closely listen to the participants across the university I steward.
Our institutions and many of our leaders suffer from an absence of self-doubt and humility. Given that higher ed is not reaching those most in need, the Supreme Court may soon make our work more difficult, and the lack of diversity in college and university presidents is ongoing and durable, authentic leadership is required. Optimism is warranted and essential, overconfidence is not. Brene Brown says that leadership is, “finding the potential in people and processes,… [and] the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage” — emphasizing the skill set of vulnerability, self-reflection, and self-love. Leaders with complex, vulnerable, and intersectional identities provide authentic leadership — diversity in leadership is important to meet today’s challenges in higher education and human rights. If we are to steward the genuine conversations and change we need, we must expect and support authentic leadership from all our leaders.