Being the First

On September 1, 2013, an interview was published by the Magazine, Diverse Issues in Higher Education in which I was asked about the challenges of being the first woman and first person of color to serve as President/CEO of Des Moines University, a 117 year old health sciences university. The first questions was, What are some of the challenges that you have had to face as the first female and African American president? Here is my answer…

I would begin with citing the obvious challenges of any new leader, regardless of gender or race. Being a new comer in any environment can have interesting challenges given longstanding cultural dynamics. The difficulty comes from trying to establish rapport, build consensus, create vision, and set strategic priorities, all while trying to assess and learn a new culture. I believe I was selected for the job based on a genuine appreciation for my past experiences and skills, yet, you really have no way of knowing how those experiences will translate or be received in a new environment until you get there. I had to fall back on some basic principles of leadership which fall into the category of servant leadership or even more basically…. following the Golden Rule. So, there is a curiosity of new leadership that sometimes gets in the way of being able to mobilize a new team toward a collective vision. The curiosity typically stems from stereotypical thinking which comes from each individuals past experiences. And, like most institutions, there had been experiences with previous Presidents that colored expectations and impressions of me.

So, I came to a place which had some preconceived notions of the role of the President which did not necessarily fit with my experiences. Being the First Woman President as well as first African American, added elements which made for some interesting dynamics. Although subtle and on the surface in most instances these factors clearly had an impact underneath it all.

There is actually some research from an organization called Catalyst that suggests that female leaders are scrutinized in a different way than males and I believe there is clearly a double standard. Catalyst has found that often there is an impression of a female leader of being either “too soft or too tough” but never “just right”. There is also an impression of either being competent but not necessarily well liked, or being liked but not necessarily being considered competent. My hope is to change this dichotomy and encourage women to just “be” who they are with an understanding that no matter how much they may try, they may or may not be perceived as they really are. So, I find myself having to be cognizant of some of the stereotypical thinking, acknowledge the double standard, respect the opinions and perceptions others may have, while trying to stay true to who I really am.

Through it all, I believe I have gained the respect of my campus community, and continue to work to demonstrate that a Female President can be “just right”, “competent”, AND liked! That is my challenge!

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