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Practicing humility, from the top down
How leaders react to criticism sets examples for the entire campus community
By Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh
s people feel increasingly powerless and frustrated, public
humiliation is quickly becoming the weapon of choice to speak truth
to power. Publicly challenging campus
leadership has always been part of the
fabric of campus life. But where those
incidents were once episodic, they are
becoming increasingly frequent. As
more leaders in higher education are
being called to task, we have to come to
the realization that public humiliation
is becoming a condition of leadership
in higher education. What can we learn
from such incidents, and how can we
use them as stepping stones for individual and institutional growth?
Moving from humiliation to humility
Humiliation and humility—though
often thought to be similar—are as far
apart as east is from west. Leaders often
respond to public humiliation with anger, shame and a desire to cover up the
issues that caused embarrassment. Often, public humiliation forces leaders to
harden their stance and even retaliate.
Conversely, humility can close the
distance between leaders and their detractors. That’s because humility is being self-aware, and having an accurate
assessment of one’s own strengths and
weaknesses. In some instances, humility may force leaders to come to terms
with their own humanity and the sense
that they can’t live up to the expectations from themselves and others.
50 | September 2017
The conundrum, however, is that
higher education is generally not wired
to reward humility. As a result, leaders
have little incentive to admit mistakes
and learn from criticism.
If higher education
is going to model the
qualities that the world
needs to emulate, we
must embed opportunities
for humility into our
organizational framework.
If higher ed is going to model the
qualities the world needs to emulate, we
must embed opportunities for humility into our organizational framework.
Here are five steps for doing just that.
1. Follow the leader. Humility is
best taught when it is caught. Our
leaders must practice humility early, frequently and publicly: Admit mistakes;
understand the difference between
defending yourself and defending your
organization. Administrators must be
willing to demonstrate an understanding of their own strengths and limitations, to learn from their errors and
to empower others to share new ideas
without judgement.
2. Reward humility. Opportunities
to reflect on how humility is practiced
and grown across campus should be
part of the onboarding process and annual evaluations. One way to do this is
by establishing awards that incentivize
and reward acts of humility on our
campuses, in professional organizations
and with our community partners.
3. Shape tomorrow’s leaders. Student codes of conduct and class syllabi
are great places to embed and encourage humility as a value to practice in
classrooms. Imagine the impact of
inviting students to think freely beyond
rigid positions, to admit mistakes, and
to truly see college as a place to drop
defensive postures and share earnestly.
4. Take and give responsibility.
Use public criticism as an opportunity
to think about limitations and constraints. This creates the opportunity to
clarify expectations and invite others to
think and contribute differently too.
5. Refuse to be offended. Taking
offense is a choice. It’s a decision to allow what was said or done to get under
our skin, and to replay it in our mind
like an endless computer loop. A more
constructive alternative is to work
through the emotion, forgive people,
and be grateful for the lesson that is
available for you to learn. Leaders who
refuse to be offended maintain agency
over their lives and future actions.
College and university campuses
have always been epicenters for disagreement. With the sheer array of
insights and intellect, ongoing conflict
and conversation are inevitable. It’s also
healthy and necessary for the growth of
our students. If we are truly committed
to exporting humility, then we have to
be the example. Our duty is to show
that disagreement is just as important
as the knowledge that we produce.
Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh is vice president of
equity and inclusion at the University of
Oregon, and a professor of political science.
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Alex-Assensoh, Y. M. (2017). Practicing humility, from the top down: How leaders react to criticism sets
examples for the entire campus community. University Business, 20(9), 50. Retrieved from

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