Practicing humility, from the top down

How leaders react to criticism sets examples for the entire campus community

As 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.

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 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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