1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 In the course of the interviews I’ve conducted with academic leaders, many of them related difficult moments at which they needed to face the displeasure of the people with whom they work. (Deans, it might be noted, seem to do a lot of this.) All of these leaders, in various ways, shared a common mantra: “It’s not about you.”

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 This mantra carries a number of reminders that are important for thinking through academic leadership today. Many of the folks I talked to who used this phrase were seeking ways to bear up while facing public criticism and even anger. “It’s not about you” becomes a means of holding off the reflexive tendency to become defensive or even angry in return, recognizing that however personal the criticism may feel in the moment, it’s driven by the situation, the structure, the role. It’s a call to a kind of internal equanimity that might allow a leader under fire to try to hear and understand the substance of what’s being said, rather than shielding themselves from the emotion that carries it. “It’s not about you” is also a reminder to decenter the self in favor of a collective good; as Evviva Weinraub Lajoie put it, “you need to think about the best interests of the community, of the project, of the institution, and so you have to check your ego at the door.”1

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 5 Checking your ego is not always easy, but the approach to leadership for which this book advocates — one that focuses on bringing people together, on building coalitions through deep listening, on creating transparency in decision-making processes — requires a willingness to do so. An engaged mode of working is necessary to create transformative change, but it depends on the ability to live with discomfort. The change and the discomfort go hand-in-hand; as Edgar and Peter Schein note in Humble Inquiry, allowing oneself to be unsettled is a key aspect of the learning process. As they note of the sorts of deep questions that leaders must raise, “when you genuinely ask, you temporarily empower the other person in the conversation and make yourself vulnerable, for a time. You have also opened the door to the possibility of deepening a relationship.”2 Opening oneself to really hearing what others are saying entails lowering the protective barriers of assumptions and personal experiences and privilege in order to let other perspectives in. The knowledge gained and connections developed when these barriers are down can be extraordinary, but lowering the barriers also creates the possibility of receiving criticism and anger. Without that willingness to be vulnerable, however, real relationships and deepened understanding are impossible.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 There is a kind of leader — especially one in a highly visible position, likely to have been trained in traditional styles of management that privilege the tough figure who speaks firmly and decisively from a position of authority — who may worry that the passivity and openness implied in deep listening set them up to appear “weak.” This concern is particularly focused on the emotional responses that such listening may evoke: for a leader to reveal their unease, sorrow, uncertainty, or regret may feel too much like showing their belly. They may feel overexposed and vulnerable to attack.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 And they are vulnerable, certainly — but vulnerability does not mean weakness. In fact, the association of vulnerability with weakness is part of the problem that we face across many areas of public life today. Leaders, we have long been told, are supposed to be firm and forthright. Decisive. Respected. Looked up to — and therefore elevated above the crowd. This remove creates protection, but it also creates distance. If you think about leadership as grounded in relationship-building and connection, however, you’ll begin to recognize that our leaders need to come down from their platforms in order to reach the people with whom they need to work. This is not weakness, but it does require a willingness to make oneself vulnerable.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 4 But if vulnerability is not weakness, what is it? Brené Brown has described vulnerability as “having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”3 In fact, it’s letting go of the need to control the outcome. It’s a willingness to engage directly with the people in your institution and the people that your institution serves, both those who agree and those who disagree, and to see what you might do together. Vulnerability is a willingness to try ideas out, and a readiness to acknowledge when your ideas are wrong. Vulnerability is an admission that you are human and that your knowledge is partial. The best teachers reveal this kind of vulnerability all the time; as a graduate student I interviewed told me, “it was a real exercise in vulnerability for me to have a student ask me a question, and to stew for a second and then just come right out and say ‘you know what, I don’t know, but I’m going to write that down’.”4 Revealing to a classroom full of students that you need to investigate a question before providing an answer is an exercise in vulnerability. The same is true of revealing that you need the input and advice and support of the people around you in order to make the best decisions you can. Vulnerability is thus complexly intertwined with humility; in fact, vulnerability might accurately be described as the way that humility feels from the inside. As Sarah Buss notes, “to be humble is to appreciate one’s fallibility. It is to know how little one knows…. And it involves being disposed to learn what one can from [other] people. To be humble is to appreciate that when one disagrees with someone, it may not be this other person who is confused and mistaken.”5 That willingness to consider — even, as Buss says, appreciate — that you might just be wrong requires a willingness to make yourself vulnerable.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 In this, you might begin to get a sense of why vulnerability’s apparent opposite — invulnerability — is not merely impossible but also undesirable. Invulnerability isn’t strength. However much leaders might be encouraged, or encourage themselves, to “grow a thicker skin,” armoring yourself against criticism is counterproductive. On the one hand, you do need to have the internal resources that make it possible to sit with and listen to criticism, and that “thicker skin” might be a useful metaphoric way of describing those resources. On the other hand, a thicker skin might also be a way of deflecting blows or fending off an entirely human reaction to them. As one of my respondents noted thinking, after she was told she should grow a thicker skin, “why wouldn’t I want to feel this?”6

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Armor-plated leaders might be protected from being hurt, but they’re also prevented from interacting with their environment, from sensing change, from connecting. Engaged leadership in fact requires vulnerability: removing the armor, grappling with difficulties, experiencing changes in the environment, and accepting criticism. Only through such willingness to be vulnerable — to have the courage to show up unarmored — can that engagement produce the learning and the relationships necessary to moving an institution in a better direction.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 This is never more true than during times of crisis. When your community is frightened or hurting, it’s crucial to be with them not just rhetorically but in action, to acknowledge and reveal not just their fear and pain but your own as well. This is risky: if you haven’t earned the trust of your community, it’s easy for public expressions like this to sound like a calculated, empty form of faux empathy, of the “I feel your pain” variety. And this leads us back to the question that started part of this project: How can you enact generosity in hard times? In no small part the answer requires built the foundations of generosity before times get hard, by having established the generous principles and practices that build trust and then relying on those principles and practices to help get you through.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 If you have that trust, you can build upon it by sharing your own concerns with your community. But if you haven’t yet built that trust? Acknowledging that, admitting mistakes, and expressing your genuine desire to repair the breach can begin the process. (I’ll talk more about trust ahead.)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 The key here is recognizing where the concerns of your community in the midst of crisis are concerns you genuinely share, and where they are concerns that you need to understand — where those concerns are about you and your willingness and ability to work through the crisis with them rather than at their expense. When your community is looking to you for solutions, it’s vitally important to share not just what you do know but what you don’t, what you need their help with, where pockets of uncertainty make clear answers difficult. And it’s especially important to remain in open communication — and that this communication not become a one-way transmission of announcements and updates, but an opportunity for dialogue.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 I’ve had experiences with leaders who are good at this kind of openness, and I’ve had experiences with leaders who are disastrous at it. Far too many of us will recognize the description of the university president who effectively builds walls around the office, using an inner circle of advisors to keep others away. Directives and pronouncements emerge, but crucial information that the president needs to know may never make it to them. Worse, they may receive that information without being required to acknowledge or act upon it. Worst of all, the distinction between those two circumstances — between engineered ignorance and willful ignoring — is invisible to the community, which is left to deal with the consequences alone. As a result, rumors spread unchecked and discontent festers.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 On the other hand, I’ve worked with some phenomenal leaders, and I hope that you have as well, leaders who can provide models for the kinds of openness and vulnerability we should all work toward. For the last several years I’ve worked directly with a dean who, in the midst of a painful crisis of conscience for our institution, spoke openly and honestly enough with the college that we were able to see his emotional response and understand that he was genuinely in the same turmoil we were, and that he would work with us to forge a new path. That ethical, human response to a traumatic moment was personally risky, but it inspired the trust necessary for creating change both in response to these events and in other areas — about which I’ll share more ahead — that would benefit from the risks involved in open, frank communication.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Frank communication is of course not a one-way process; a person in a position of leadership has to be willing not just to share their own emotional responses but to create space for the responses of others. As Heifetz and Laurie argue, this disposition to listen to “voices of leadership from below” is “the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn.” Those voices are often airing crucial forms of dissent that can surface new ideas.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 But, in fact, whistle-blowers, creative deviants, and other such original voices routinely get smashed and silenced in organizational life. They generate disequilibrium, and the easiest way for an organization to restore equilibrium is to neutralize those voices, sometimes in the name of teamwork and “alignment.”7

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Squashing the dissent squashes the new ideas, and while the consensus implied in “alignment” might be desirable, manufactured consent will ultimately create growing disalignment, as resistance and distrust grow.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 This is not to say that all dissent is the same. Nearly any academic will recognize the degree to which one loud, usually entitled voice can dominate and derail a meeting, or a classroom, such that no productive exchange is possible. As Robin Schulze shared with me, there comes a time when a dean, for instance, has to be willing to face the difficult act of saying “enough” to the toxic voices. And this in itself is a vulnerable moment, because, as she noted, “you will be accused of everything.” But, she went on to say, the cost of not stepping forward is too great:

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 We have to realize that everybody who’s doing this, they’re not just doing it to us, they’re doing it to all their colleagues, and it feels exactly the same way for all their colleagues. So, if there’s anything that’s more important than doing something about it — there probably isn’t, because these are fragile ecosystems, these academic departments and the culture that you create.8

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 But it’s crucial to distinguish between the truly toxic and the more productively critical; shutting down the former can be necessary to the functioning of a community, while shutting down the latter can cause the community to disintegrate. Accurately judging that distinction requires some careful soul-searching on the part of a leader — is what’s at stake here genuinely collective, or is it just my ego? — that might best be supported through conversations with what Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick have defined as a “critical friend… a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique of a person’s work as a friend.”9 A critical friend can help you see what ego won’t allow you to recognize, and can provide a safe environment in which to begin the process of removing your armor.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 A key goal, however, is developing institutions in which we can all be critical friends to one another. Getting there, however, requires beginning somewhere, and that beginning requires being willing to take on a bit of risk. There is risk involved in opening up your decision-making processes, in inviting participation, in remaining open to ongoing communication. And there are certainly risks involved in allowing those you work with to see your own uncertainty, your frustration, your anxiety. But not doing so presents guaranteed problems: invulnerability breeds communication failures and active distrust. Acknowledging and revealing your vulnerability can be painful, but it creates the possibility for real trust and communication to grow.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 One word of caution, however: few things are more infuriating than the performance of vulnerability. Wearing your worries on your sleeve can wind up looking like a transparent attempt to fend off criticism through an appeal to sympathy. Genuine vulnerability is not about display, but rather about being wholly present in a difficult situation, opening up real communication, and inviting participation in thinking through solutions. It also requires follow-through: keeping the lines of communication open once decisions have been made, ensuring that the reasoning that went into the decisions is in line with the values that your community upholds. Not everyone will agree with those decisions, but your willingness to show up, to accept criticism, to hear new ideas, can help maintain trust in difficult times.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0
  • In your role as a leader, how do you find yourself attempting to be invulnerable? What habits or structures of self-protection have you built? What would you need in order to let go of those habits or structures while managing your own fear?
  • How can you practice vulnerability with those you lead? How can you let your community in on your processes and challenges in ways that might help build greater understanding and trust?

  1. 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0
  2. Lajoie, Interview.
  3. Schein and Schein, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, 18.
  4. Brown, Dare to Lead, 36.
  5. Respondent 14, Interview.
  6. Buss, “An Introduction,” 10.
  7. Respondent 3, Interview.
  8. Heifetz and Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” 69.
  9. Schulze, Interview.
  10. Costa and Kallick, “Through the Lens of a Critical Friend,” 50.
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