No Apologies: An Asian American Leadership Blindspot

May 15, 2023
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • DEI
Illustration of an individual watering a bar graph.

By Christopher Huang, AACRAO Vice President for Information Technology

My registrar career started in 2006. Since that time, I’ve served at five institutions and led teams of various sizes. I would describe myself as humble and meek, a servant leader. My personality may fit some general perceptions people have about Asian Americans, that we are passive and not overly aggressive. 


Looking Inward

In a recent engagement with a consultant about team effectiveness and office morale, I had an ‘aha’ moment. Ahead of an all-team meeting where we would review a report about concerns with my leadership, the consultant’s recommendation was that I try not to apologize during the meeting. What?! Apologizing is what Asians do best. It’s part of the fabric of our culture (a sign of humility) that was instilled in me by my parents. The Asian and Asian American culture is one that emphasizes humility and conformity, over assertiveness. As a humble and contrite leader, apologizing seemed like an appropriate response to me, in order to help soothe office tensions and for our team to move forward.

The consultant shared that apologizing too much can be viewed by others as a sign of weakness, and that others could think less of me. Really? As a leader, this was a paradigm shift for me. The consultant had lived in Japan for several years, and was familiar with the behavior of leading with an apology and its place in Asian culture. Apologizing is so common, that it’s almost like the American equivalent of saying, “Hello.”

There is a saying that “perception is reality.” A quick Google search on Asian American perceptions, I came across an eye-opening article: A cultural clue as to why East Asians are kept from C-suites, from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, which “reveals inequality fostered by an American focus on assertiveness.” In short, East Asians are not in as many leadership positions, compared to South Asians, which is attributed to our lack of assertiveness. I encourage you to read the full article.

Appreciating Diversity

As leaders and administrators on your campuses, I am sharing my experience to increase cultural awareness and cultural competence. I hope that sharing this nugget of information might change how you perceive Asian Americans as leaders on your team and understand their behavior, hopefully in a positive light, instead of as a sign of weakness. Additionally, perhaps this might prompt you to start a conversation to know more about their experience.

As a leader, I have blind spots and I am thankful that the consultant provided this feedback about my behavior. I want to be viewed as a competent leader, we all do.  I hope my experience gives you another tool in your leadership toolbelt, and increases your cultural awareness about Asian Americans and our experience.


AACRAO's bi-weekly professional development e-newsletter is open to members and non-members alike.