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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Flakes, PE

11 Leadership Takeaways from Dr. Ruth Simmons, the First Black Woman to Lead an Ivy League College


Dr. Ruth Simmons, an American professor and academic administrator. Former president of Prairie View A&M University, Brown University, and Smith College. Currently an academic administrator for Harvard University and Rice University.

Dr. Ruth Simmons is a renowned scholar, educator, and leader. Dr. Simmons served as the President of Brown University from 2001 to 2012, becoming the first African American woman to lead an Ivy League university. Dr. Simmons also served as the President of Prairie View A&M University from 2017 to 2023.


In her role as a leader, Dr. Simmons has always been committed to diversity and inclusion. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to attend an executive discussion where Dr. Simmons was the keynote speaker. At the event, Dr. Simmons shared her insights about inclusive leadership. Below are my takeaways from her discussion.



  1. Establish yourself and your values. Dr. Simmons discussed how she established herself as a leader by being outspoken and determined to do things in line with her values.

  2. Seek out mentors who will challenge you and help you grow. Dr. Simmons talked about how she was mentored by a professor who pushed her hard and criticized her often. This helped her to grow and become a better leader.

  3. Do not be afraid to take on challenges. Dr. Simmons shared a story about being asked to be the "black face" to run Afro-American studies, even though she had no experience in this area. She took on the challenge and eventually became president of a university.

  4. Teamwork is important. Dr. Simmons talked about how teamwork is essential for organizations and individuals. She also compared teamwork to driving, saying that both require rules and standards to be successful.

  5. Honest feedback can be helpful, even if it is difficult to hear. Dr. Simmons shared a story about being told that her work was the worst thing her boss had ever seen. Initially upset, she took the feedback to heart and redid her work. She now credits her boss with helping her become a better leader.

  6. Be aware of your own biases. We all have biases, whether we realize it or not. We must be aware of our biases to avoid making decisions based on them.

  7. Be compassionate. Compassion is essential for good leadership. It allows us to connect with others and build relationships.

  8. Be grateful for the help that we receive from others. Dr. Simmons cited an example of her teacher who helped her pack for college when her family had no money and provided her with clothing.

  9. Be open to every opportunity to engage with other people. You never know who might be able to help you. Dr. Simmons spoke about how she was helped by Harold Shapiro, the president of Princeton, even though she disagreed with him in the past. Shapiro was willing to help her because he believed in her potential.

  10. Be authentic. Dr. Simmons talked about how she is both tough and emotional, and she believes that this is a strength. She is not afraid to show her emotions, even if it means crying in front of others. She believes people can accept both sides of her personality because it is authentic.

  11. Articulate your ideas clearly and persuasively. Dr. Simmons talked about how important it is to be able to engage people and help them understand different perspectives.

Dr. Simmons's insights about leadership are valuable for anyone who wants to be a more effective leader. By following these tips, one can develop the skills and qualities that are essential for success in leadership roles.


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Photo attribution courtesy of Perrymy on Wikipedia.

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