Just steps from Washington Square Park—the site of countless rallies for equal rights—it seemed like progress that the NYU Women’s Leadership Forum could host a springtime panel titled “The Meaning of Leadership: Tips and Insights from NYU Women Leaders.” Moderated by NYU Deputy President Diane Yu, the candid conversation featured women faculty members, deans, and administrators sharing personal stories about their paths to power within the university. Panelists included Ann Marie Mauro, G. Gabrielle Starr, Alison Leary, Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, Erica Foldy, Allyson Green, and Lynne Kiorpes.

The overarching theme? There’s no single right way to lead.
Here are some ideas overheard at the discussion:

Lead? Who, me?
“Most of us don’t just get a tap on the shoulder one day, like, ‘okay, you’re now a leader.’ It’s something that develops over time as opportunities come your way. You gain experience, you gain confidence, you get feedback, and then you look back and say, ‘Oh, this is something that I’m good at, that I’m developing a track record in.’”
Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison, vice dean of faculty, Stern School of Business

“I’m very grateful that I came from parents who never said I couldn’t be a leader, and who in fact said you can do anything if you work hard, and that with opportunity comes the responsibility to participate and give back. I started to recognize later that not all children got that message, so I really started then to work actively to mentor.”
Allyson Green, dean, Tisch School of the Arts

“I never set out to be a leader—I talk in terms of leadership behavior and not ‘being a leader’ per se. But I realized I was evolving into leadership roles as a result of people looking to me for guidance. It came from being outspoken—I was often the person in the room who was willing to say what everyone else was thinking. As I look back on some of those moments where I might not have yet developed the tact and diplomacy that I’ve developed since then, it’s a wonder a survived. But because I became that person who just through my natural personality was willing to make waves, people started looking to me to see what I was going to see or do. And with that came a lot of responsibility.”
Alison Leary, executive vice president for operations

“When I was in 10th grade I got selected to be part of this thing where they gather 15-year-olds that are supposed to be the future leaders of America. It was like a youth indoctrination camp. People clapped their hands and sang this little song: ‘To act enthusiastic, you have to be enthusiastic.’ It was devastating. I could not wait to get back home, and that’s what my sense of leadership was.

A lot of faculty members are deeply ambivalent about the idea of leadership, because that isn’t what we’re supposed to be serious about, and we don’t even want to think about people who are in leadership. They’re something else, a species called administrators. Getting over that has been a very slow process for me. I’m not a joiner, but I’m an inveterate dare-taker. If someone throws out a gauntlet, I can’t help it—it’s like my hand reaches out to say, ‘I smite you back, sir!’ If there’s a challenge that needs to be answered, I’m usually the one who says, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ That’s the story of the accidental dean.”
G. Gabrielle Starr, Seryl Kushner Dean, College of Arts and Science

Mentors matter:
“Probably the most influential person for me was my graduate mentor, Davida Teller. As a woman who went to Swarthmore and then UC Berkeley and wanted to be a scientist, she had a really hard time finding a job at first. She was offered a little bit of space to research in the same university where her husband—who graduated at the same time from UC Berkeley—was hired. So she had to kind of work her way into the system, but she was very patient and very persistent. Throughout her career she focused on elevating the appearance of women in science—highlighting their excellence and that they’re just as good as any man. It was an ongoing battle, and one that was in my consciousness as a graduate student and thereafter. So whenever I think something is hard, I hear her saying in her quiet, determined way, ‘Yes, you can do this, you just have to put your mind to it.’”
Lynne Kiorpes, Visual Science Laboratory co-director, Center for Neural Science, FAS

Living your values:
“My daughters come first in my life, as important as my work is, and my commitment to the university. As a woman in a relatively high position who has always put my children first, I want to say to advance without compromising your values and your children. It comes down to some creative management—you learn how to walk fast, type fast, write fast—but don’t be afraid to live your values and keep your priorities straight.”
—Alison Leary

Diversity and inclusion:
“How do you have productive conversations related to difference? What you need is candor, curiosity, and commitment. Candor means that you’re willing to say your truth. But you also need to be genuinely curious about what other people are thinking and feeling, and where that comes from, for them. And even where that comes from for yourself—where do your beliefs come from, and why are they so important for you? Then you need the commitment to actually stick with the conversation.”
Erica Foldy, associate professor, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

“There’s some recent research that introverts are as effective leaders as extroverts, and in fact in some cases may be better leaders. Women vs. men isn’t the same as introverts vs. extroverts, of course, but I do think there’s something interesting there for women who may have a more collaborative style of leadership and don’t necessarily want to be in the spotlight. The lesson is that this can be an asset rather than a liability. One of the things that makes introverts better in certain cases is that they’re better at listening, and better at supporting others who are taking initiative.”
—Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison

Teambuilding:
“I try to look at people for who they are and what strengths they bring. I don’t expect everyone to be perfect at everything. I look at it as the pieces of the puzzle. I think it’s important to let people get to know each other as people, and have some fun, some humor, to create candor and closeness. That’s where you start to see where affinities might be.”
Ann Marie Mauro, clinical associate professor, College of Nursing

Self-Awareness:
“I have a relatively casual style. I know it and I embrace it, because I couldn’t be any other way. But often people will interpret my casualness for weakness, and think it means that I’m willing to let them run away with a discussion, let them make whatever comment they’d like, and that my stylistic casualness means that I’m permissive of infraction. There’s a lesson that my dad taught me, that I think is especially important for women: you have boundaries, and if people cross them, there are going to be consequences. For me the struggle is to police those boundaries. I like being friends with people. I like telling jokes. I like self-deprecating humor. I like all of that stuff. But at the same time I have to be very self-conscious about where I’m going to draw the line and how.”
—G. Gabrielle Starr

“I’m so quick to offer my own opinion before I ask for others’ opinions. I often think of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit in the Seven Habits for Highly Effective People: ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’ When I take that pause and stop and let the other people speak first, we always have a better conversation and always have a better outcome. When I speak first, I shut people down, not because I’m brilliant and have offered a pearl of wisdom that stunned them into silence, but because they attribute to me authority and respect and deference that I might not necessarily have earned in that moment.”
—Alison Leary

“My first love was dance because I didn’t have to speak. I moved with my body and not my words. So becoming comfortable with having to talk in front of people was hard. I still go into a sweat. It’s something I’m working on all the time.”
—Allyson Green

“I’m thinking of the work of Joyce Fletcher, a leadership scholar who makes a distinction between relational practice and relational malpractice. Relational practice is connecting with people, encouraging growth, collaboration, bringing people into the decision-making process—all those good things. Relational malpractice is when it’s all that and you don’t put any of yourself in. You’re so depending on other people’s opinion and other people’s thinking that you can’t necessarily claim your own authority. So I think if I have a weak point, it’s that I sometimes engage in relational malpractice and probably need to go more back toward the center.”
—Erica Foldy