As of yesterday, I had been in my role as my department’s Acting Executive Director for one year. I lead an IT organization in a higher education institution. The day before, we held our quarterly department meeting to review our accomplishments as well as upcoming projects. As a typical practice after events, I asked for feedback on how the meeting went and how well I did. The staff I spoke with had positive comments. One staff shared feedback that made me think about my leadership role as an Asian American and the perceptions of leadership in higher education and even in this country. The comment that made me think about these topics was this “Joe, you were certainly much more assertive and more confident yesterday. You’re a lot different from when you started last year. My initial concern was because you’re so nice, I didn’t know how well you’d be able to deal with other directors and those more senior than you when it came to conflict. It seems you’ve adjusted well and I see you as more confident and more assertive.”
Throughout my career, one personal trait that’s been perceived as negative when it came to my leadership style has been my assertiveness, or rather lack of. From the feedback I’ve received, I’ve been seen as not direct and not confrontational when dealing with conflicts. Whether that’s because of my personality or because of my cultural upbringing, I don’t know why I have not been seen as “assertive” as other folks would like me to be. However, when folks assess my assertiveness, they’re probably comparing it to other leaders either from their experience or what they see in popular media.
I grew up in a Filipino household that values harmony and conflicts are dealt with in not-so-direct ways. When it came to conflict, saving face or preserving dignity of those involved, mattered a lot in my family and in the Filipino culture. In my career, these approaches have been in conflict with how those I work with expected me to deal with issues. Because I have not always been direct in confronting issues, I have been seen as weak and unsure of myself. Perhaps, others have expected me to be dominant and controlling. I’ve been more inclined to use influence and persuasion to lead. The challenge for me then has been reconciling my personal tendencies with the expectations of the workplace when it comes to being an assertive leader. Actually, the challenge has been on determining when to use the style I’m more comfortable with vs. what others may consider as assertive.
As I think about this issue of assertiveness, I wonder which opportunities I missed because I was not seen as assertive leader. Moving forward, I wonder whether how this perception will shape my career. I also wonder about my prospect of moving up the management hierarchy in higher education where there’s a glaring lack of Asian American leaders who can mentor me, where my qualities may not match the Western qualities associated with leaders, and perhaps bias against me because I don’t fit the prototypical leader that hiring committees are comfortable hiring.