How Authentic Leadership Can Foster Psychological Safety

Higher Ed Leadership Series

As higher education executives, you have the power to create a highly engaged, more productive team. Navigating the complexities of leadership while developing a high-functioning team can be both challenging and rewarding. But leading a team of subject matter experts can be intimidating— especially if you’re freshly stepping into this leadership role. Balancing egos, understanding personalities, and resolving conflicts, all while ensuring a workplace culture of psychological safety – it’s like traveling to an unfamiliar place without a GPS; one wrong turn and you’re lost! Today, we’re here to help you find your way again, to dive into the heart of authentic leadership and how it intertwines with the concept of psychological safety, a key driver of team productivity. 

Setting the Tone for Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is a powerful catalyst for creating a culture of psychological safety within academic institutions—not just for your team but also for students. Whether you’re new to leadership or a seasoned executive, embracing your authentic self is key to building trust and connections with your team members. Sharing stories about your personal life or career journey, as you feel comfortable, can foster a sense of empathy and connection among your staff. 

Cultivating authenticity starts with embracing vulnerability. It’s about having the courage to be imperfect and genuine in our interactions— as we discussed last week, it’s allowing yourself to make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of what makes us human— having grace and holding space for yourself and your team to make mistakes sets the tone for openness and trust. Remember, it’s not about being flawless; it’s about being real.      

Modeling Curiosity and Interest

Curiosity is the fuel that drives innovation and growth within an organization. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to model curiosity and demonstrate genuine interest in the work of our institution and our team members. When we show curiosity about the institutions’ goals, challenges, and initiatives, we inspire our team to do the same. 

Imagine a leader who attends a colleague’s presentation not out of obligation but out of genuine interest. We create a culture where everyone feels valued and heard by asking thoughtful questions and seeking diverse perspectives. Stay informed about industry trends and encourage your team to share their insights—it’s through curiosity that we uncover new opportunities for growth. Engaging with institutions’ goals and initiatives can amplify your impact and influence. Embracing curiosity empowers your team to explore new possibilities and drive positive change. 

Engaging with Subject Matter Experts

Leading a team of subject matter experts requires a delicate balance of support and collaboration. As a woman of color leader, leverage your unique perspective to champion diversity and inclusion within your team. Recognize your colleagues’ expertise and provide opportunities for professional growth and development. 

Engage with your fellow subject matter experts authentically. When we demonstrate genuine interest in our coworkers’ work, we foster a sense of belonging and appreciation within our team. Recognize their expertise publicly and encourage them to share their knowledge with others. Encourage collaboration and knowledge-sharing, creating a dynamic environment where everyone can thrive. As a bonus, when your team is highly engaged in their work, they will, in turn, develop students who are highly engaged in their studies— their success will be amplified. 

Authentic Leadership as a Superpower

Authentic leadership is a powerful tool for empowering women of color leaders in higher education. By setting the tone for authenticity, modeling curiosity, and engaging with your team of subject matter experts, you can create a culture of psychological safety that fosters innovation and collaboration. 

To my women of color leaders in higher education, remember to embrace your authentic selves and lead with curiosity and compassion. Stay tuned for our upcoming posts in this series, where we’ll explore additional strategies for creating psychological safety and how you can develop a highly engaged and productive team. Together, we can build a brighter future in higher education.

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