Do you love dreaming? How many ‘dare to dream?’ Daring to dream isn’t just about dreaming. It’s about attaining new technical skills and knowledge and taking bold, disciplined action to make those dreams a reality. Our fearless’s bold leader today inspires us to dare to dream and take action to make our dreams come true. Dr. Astrid Tuminez was raised in the city slums of the Philippines. Her unstoppable pursuit of education and excellence paved her way to success from the Phillippines to Harvard, Moscow, MIT, Wall Street, and University President. She is the current, seventh, and first full-time female president of Utah Valley University in Utah, USA. Tune in and learn about ‘Dreaming‘ and remarkable leadership lessons from a pioneering woman who redefines conventional thinking in academic leadership and beyond.
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Dare to Dream with Dr. Astrid Tuminez in the USA
From Philippines’ City Slums to Harvard, MIT, Wall Street, and University President
Our bold leader joins us from the Midwestern sub-region of the Western United States. Her life epitomizes the power of dreams, the power of doing, and making dreams a reality. She was raised in a rural village and the city slums of the Philippines. Her unstoppable pursuit of education and excellence paved her way to Brigham Young University, Harvard, MIT, Wall Street, and University President. She is the current seventh and first full-time Female President of Utah Valley University, the largest public sector university of enrollment in the great State of Utah.
In school, she went from the backseat in the back row to the front seat in the front row. She graduated summa cum laude at Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Russian Literature, a Master’s degree at Harvard in Soviet Studies, and a Doctorate at MIT in Political Science. She is also the published author of Russian Nationalism since 1856. We warmly welcome influential world leader who proves that dreams are free. Welcome Dr. Astrid Tuminez.
President Tuminez, thank you so much for being part of this conversation. It’s a great privilege to have you with us.
Thank you for having me.
I thought of a beautiful place to begin, you have a remarkable story of somebody who has dared to dream, and you once said, “There is power in dreaming and power in doing.” Can you share a little about your path of dreaming in the world? You came from a rural farming village of Pali in the Philippines, moved to the city slums, and then came to America and went to Brigham Young University, Harvard, and MIT. Can you take us back in time? Can you share with us where did it begin? What ignited the dream?
As you mentioned, I was born in a small farming village called Pali. It’s in the Central part of the Philippines. The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,000 islands. It’s about an hour South of Manila by plane. My mother hired herself as a farmhand, and my father didn’t do much then. I was the sixth child when I was born, and another child was born later. So my family decided we wouldn’t have much of a future if we stayed in the village. She saw that there was only one elementary school, and the quality of teaching was not very good.
My mother hauled her six children to the city; the only place we could afford to live in was the slums. We did okay. In the slums, the houses are built on stilts in the sea, and you’d have sand underneath the house when it’s low tide. When it’s high tide, your house is in the water. It was a little bit precarious during typhoons and storms. We had no electricity, running water, plumbing, and on many occasions, no food, but that’s where we were.
In the slums, when you talk about dreaming, I discovered early on as a child that as I stared up at the holes in the roof of our hut, I could see the stars, which made me wonder about a lot of things. The power of dreaming was further developed in me when the Catholic Daughters of Charity found my family and allowed us to go to their school. What informed the dreaming was not the lazy time but the fact that, once I got educated by the nuns for free, I could read books and magazines, and suddenly my dreams were informed by this knowledge I was gaining about the larger world.
There is power in dreaming, working hard in school, and empowering those dreams in a way with the spirit of a warrior where you want to fight and get things done. That is a potentially powerful combination. I always tell people, “Dreams are free. You don’t need permission to imagine what life can become.”
I am quite struck by your time when you first went to school. They had a naming and shaming system where you went from the backseat in the back row of the class with zero grades to the front course class in the front seat. Can you share with us a little about what ignited you into action?
They put me in the first-grade classroom on my first day of school. I had a wonderful teacher named Ms. Tureja. She was very strict, in a way, an authority figure who was scary. I couldn’t read. I didn’t know how to spell my name and numbers. There was a system in the classroom. There were six rows of chairs. The dumbest girl was seated in the last seat, the last row, and the smartest girl was in the first seat, the first row.
I was mortified that I was in the last seat, the last row. That’s part of the culture of naming and shaming, which I joke about; sometimes, that works. It’s difficult for children, but in my case, I looked at that girl in the first seat, first row, and suddenly I felt a fire in my belly that I didn’t want to be forever in that 6th seat, the 6th row, and be feeling bad. I wanted to feel good.
What happened was once Ms. Tureja taught me to read and write, it became an unstoppable pathway or race for me. I love books, and I started reading everything. I did well in Math, like adding and subtracting. It was the first time in my life that I realized I was good at something. When you grow up in a very socioeconomically hierarchical society as the Philippines was and is, you often don’t have very good self-esteem, self-confidence, or even a sense of self. You are reactive to everything around you. That sense of the power of reading and writing was a big deal for me. I moved my way rather quickly to that first row, and that sense of accomplishment created a foundation to build upon in the ensuing years.
When you think back to that moment in the classroom, was it a young lady sitting in the front?
Yes. It was a school only for girls.
What steps did you take to pivot out of that feeling bad in the backseat in the back row to navigate your position to the front?
I go back to the mechanics of reading and writing. That’s very technical. I learned some technical skills, and then added on top of that then was my work ethic. Once I had those technical skills, I went to the library, looked at the Dr. Seuss shelf, and started on one end on the left side and all the way to the right side, reading every single book. It begins with the mechanics and then the inner work of feeling that I was worthy and good at something.
Since it was a Catholic convent school, I have to mention that we had a very strict religious upbringing. That was also a critical part of that equation where from a young age, I was taught by the nuns and my teacher, Ms. Tureja, about focusing on right and wrong, good and bad acts, which is a dualistic way of thinking, and I am less like that now. As a child, it was so important that I learned ethics and morals, the guardrails for behavior, and then the striving for the idea that “If God wanted me to become more and if I was divine and a child of God, therefore I had a lot of potential.”
Also, a big part was the spiritual side. The technical, the mechanical, and then this very spiritual side. I then started to have an ambition. It felt good to accomplish things. Growing that ambition and that step by step every grade through high school, I could do good things, great things, accomplish, be an example to others, and even help others. As I did, I helped a lot of classmates with homework.
That act of helping others was also part of the process for you.
It then also created a social life. I saw that parents trusted me more than they trusted their kids. That feeling of being responsible and maybe that was already the beginning of a sense of leadership that I could lead and that my friends would follow, and I could be helpful.
I also read a summary about your parents of how your mother was very indented and resilient, and your father was very calm and positive. To what extent do you think that mindset of positivity of possibility is essential? Where did you draw it from if one doesn’t have a mentor or a parent who instills that? Was it your parents or other sources as well?
My parents both had very difficult lives. My mother was born on a different island in a village where they were even poorer. They were peasants. She was an illegitimate child, and there were a lot of stigmas surrounding that. Her father was murdered when she was fifteen years old. My father was orphaned when he was six. My mother left when I was five years old. I only had my father from when I was five until around 14, when I lived with my mother again. That is their backstory. They claimed they finished high school, but I don’t think they did. They had some high school education.
What did I learn from them? From my mother, I was so young when she left, but I’m sure ere were many observations in my subconscious, perhaps of how hardworking my mother was. She’s 88 now and still restless as far as an 88-year-old body can be restless. She was always hardworking, strongly opinionated, and stubborn, and that’s good. She has a different personality.
On the other hand, my father was quiet, unperturbed, and unflappable. I remember my little sister being ill, and we thought she might not live through the night. My father was sitting there calmly. He had this acceptance of life and whatever happens, happens. Both of them also were smart in their way. I remember a lot of arguments, and in a way, those arguments could be about some idea or the definition of something.
Even though they didn’t have that formal education, they had opinions, were stubborn, and would argue. I’m not a calm person, but I always think of my father as something I needed to cultivate in myself, that ability to be rooted like a tree. That’s a different thing. Whereas my mother’s constant movement. The balance between those two was important. I’m still learning that at my age.
I grew up mainly with my father. My kids will always talk about the two lines that I quote from my father. One is “Do the right thing.” He never lectured on choices and what we should do. He would always say, “Do the right thing.” As a kid, it made me reflect every time I had a choice, “What’s the right thing? He told me to do the right thing but didn’t tell me what it was.” The other thing he liked to say all the time in our hut was, “Put things where they belong.” When I was at Harvard, my fellow graduate student on the floor teased me sometimes that my room looked like a department store; everything had a place and was folded. I learned this from my father.
An interesting question, to what extent do you think it’s essential for leaders to understand our backstories, those defining moments that we come from? An added question is, to what extent do that self-discipline and order play a part in being able to exercise leadership and making the right choices?
Let me begin with that second question, put things where they are. There’s leadership and management, and the literature that’s almost a cliché that managers get things done and move items from A to B or wherever they need to go, that leaders do the visioning. The best leaders know how to do both things. I have never had much respect for leaders I worked with who are so great at visioning but never knew how to get anything done and order people around.It's almost a cliché that managers get things done and leaders do the visioning. But the best leaders know how to do both things. Click To Tweet
If you don’t appreciate the nuts and bolts, of course, that’s not where the bulk of your time will go. That goes back to my father’s ethos: “Putting things back where they belong.” It’s a metaphor to know what it takes to get from A to B because if you don’t have that, you don’t have empathy as a leader for what your people have to endure. Even I see myself failing in that sometimes when I’m so impatient.
I want to get to the output and results and accomplish the vision. Sometimes I have to pause and say, “It needs 100 steps, and I have to be patient.” The best leaders know how to do both the leading-visioning and the actual managing and knowing where things belong on the factory floor. You could be hamstrung as a leader if you don’t know that.
About knowing our backstories, this happened to me a little older in life. In my 20s and early 30s, I probably wasn’t self-aware as I am now. Some of this has come from failing, making mistakes, hiring the wrong people or being so stressed that I finally had to ask myself, “What is it about myself that I don’t understand? What did I inherit?” I am a student of Zen Buddhism.
I follow Guru Thích Nhất Hạnh, who just passed away. He’s a Vietnamese Zen Master. He’s known worldwide but always teaches us that we inherit our ancestors. What we are trying to heal, the hunger we feel, or the strength we have in ourselves, all of that we inherited. It’s inside us. Being self-aware, knowing our backstory, knowing why we behave the way we do or think the way we do, whether it’s a strength or a weakness, often has to do with our ancestors and how we were raised.
It’s understanding our baby selves, child selves or adolescent selves, our mothers and fathers, and when we breathe in and out. My father has already passed away. I could say, “Dear father, I’m breathing in for you because I know you struggled. You were an orphan at six years old.” Most leaders probably don’t even like to go back there because it becomes almost like self-therapy. Still, that self-awareness is important because we can then understand, take care of, and forgive ourselves, be better and be happier while working hard on the things we do as we lead.Self-awareness is important because it helps us understand ourselves better, take care of ourselves better, forgive ourselves better, and be a happier person while we are working so very hard in the things that we do as we lead. Click To Tweet
It raises the question of how we are all sinners who keep on trying, fail, pick ourselves up, and move forward. Is there a particular time that comes to mind in your own working life when you’ve had a remarkable career in academia, venture capitalism, and education? Can you take us back to a specific moment in time when you experienced a difficult crisis? Can you paint a picture for us? What was that moment? What did you feel at the moment? What was the point of revelation?
When I was in my twenties, I had a big job: running the office of the Harvard Project on Strengthening Democratic Institutions in what was then the Soviet Union. We had an office in Moscow. I had to bring ten computers and several printers to run this office. I was very young. I was working with big names from Harvard. They all had big jobs in the US government. This is a specific incident. This is the Soviet Union. I arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport. They wouldn’t let me take my computers out. They essentially wanted a bribe.
I got to the office the next day, and one of the most senior diplomats from the US government, who then worked for Harvard, gave me a long lecture in the car, basically telling me I was a failure. This gentleman who worked for Henry Kissinger gave me this lecture about Henry Kissinger’s saying, “There’s no reward in trying. Where were these computers?” We had planned to provide a couple to the Moscow City Council to help them with their work, but I didn’t have them. I felt terrible as a failure.
He went with me to one of the offices of the Soviet officials, and he banged the desks and said, “I am Ambassador so and so. Give me these computers.” I was watching all of this. First of all, I felt terrible because I felt that I’d failed as the leader of the office there. Secondly, I was bemused by the fact that the senior diplomat thought that he could get things done by yelling at the Soviet officials. Sure enough, nothing happened.
The next day, I decided to go to Sheremetyevo Airport, where customs was. I brought with me a member of the Moscow City Council. He was so scared and was shaking in his shoes, basically in front of the other people in charge of customs at the airport. I began at 9:00 AM and worked my way up every level of bureaucracy until around 4:35 PM. I was sitting in front of the head of the entire airport. I spoke fluent Russian, so that helped. The whole day this bureaucrat from the Moscow City Council was watching me. I felt nervous, but there was a sense of injustice that I was feeling, and that gave me the fire and that moral courage to work my way up through all of this bureaucracy.
I made small talk with the head of the airport, and we found a common language. He had visited Texas. I remember we talked about Texans and Texas, even though I didn’t know that much about Texas, and then finally, we got to the meat of the conversation that I had ten computers that were confiscated when I arrived. We need them for the Harvard office and for our partners.
We had things in common and laughed. I spoke Russian, and he liked that. That was it. I didn’t have to pay rubble in bribes. I got all my computers, and this official from Moscow City Council, on the way back to my apartment or hotel, couldn’t stop talking about it. He kept telling me that it was a miracle. He’d never seen anything like that happen and how brave I was. I thought, “You could have helped me any step along the way,” but he didn’t. He was too afraid to open his mouth during that entire process. That was one moment in my leadership journey as a young person.
What year was that? Do you recall?
Probably, the late ’80s or 1990. It was the Soviet days. The Soviet Union imploded in 1991. That was an interesting incident that I will always remember because it underlined for me the need for moral courage and clarity. The need for hard work and to be a warrior and spending my whole day at that airport but not yielding on the most critical principles that I believed in and getting the result in the way that I wanted to get that result done.
I don’t know how you felt at the end of it. How did you feel, and what was the turning point, do you think, in that process?
The turning point was establishing rapport with the head of the airport because, at the end of the day, he was clearly the decision-maker. It wasn’t anyone else on the lower chain of command. I convinced everybody in the lower chain of command to keep moving me up the hierarchy until I was with a gentleman. I didn’t go in there like the former ambassador the previous day who went with me to another office and started yelling at them and said, “I am ambassador so and so.” He felt so entitled, and he was completely ignored.
For me, the lesson was to know the people you are working with. If you could establish a human connection, you might be able to solve the problem together without too much yelling, mutual accusations or anger and bitterness. Although I was angry, I would say. I was frustrated by the whole process but believing that I could get it done that way was important.
Talking of the Soviet Union and Russia, with the devastating invasion of Ukraine, we’ve seen how people have stepped out onto the streets worldwide and protested from London to Tokyo to Washington and even Salt Lake City. I was wondering, with your background and insights around the Soviet Union and you also authored a book, Russian Nationalism, since 1856, and looking at ideology on foreign policy, what are your thoughts about the current crisis in Europe and for the world? What do you think is now at the heart of the leadership challenge in dealing with the world’s crises?
I have long been a student of the Soviet Union, spent a good portion of my career, eleven years total in the former Soviet Union, and working in various capacities. I witnessed the end of the Cold War. We have to go back to history to realize why we are where we are now. First of all, I want to be very clear that the invasion of Ukraine is wrong. Many other powers have invaded other states. It’s not to say that Russia is unique in that sense. Still, it blatantly disregards another country’s sovereignty and inflicts unspeakable suffering on the Ukrainians.
Having said that, we also have to go back to the end of the Cold War and German reunification and the extension of NATO. If you look at Russian history or the history of any great state, humiliation is not a thing great states deal with very well. Japan did not deal well with humiliation. Germany did not deal well with humiliation after World War I. The United States does not deal well with humiliation now, but the power of this country is not what it used to be.
In Russia, you combine that with the dictatorial government, and the personality of Vladimir Putin makes a difference. If you go back to the end of the Cold War, the humiliation that Russia suffered is a critical variable, as well as the declaration by the US and NATO that NATO would expand to Ukraine. It gave Russia too easy a pretext. That’s why there’s been a lot of support for Putin, and the Russians have finally felt that humiliation under Gorbachev and Yeltsin finally ended. They have some stability. Their core national interest is to be a strong state and not be humiliated by the world.
There’s Russian public opinion as well turning against this invasion where they know that their security may be at stake when the state embarks on wars like this that are not sustainable. At the end of the day, two sets of core interests must be balanced. Our sense of right and wrong may fall one way or the other. The first core set of interests is Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The second core interest is Russia’s feeling of security: it does not want a NATO state on its border. In the same way, the United States probably wouldn’t want Canada or Mexico to belong to an alliance that we would consider inimical to our core interest. I hope that this tragedy we are witnessing now ends sooner rather than later because there will be many losers. As somebody said, “War is hell,” and that has not changed.
When you lived in Hong Kong, you were a consultant for the US Institute of Peace. You tried to help facilitate negotiations between the Filipino government and the Moro Liberation Movement in the Southern part of the Philippines. Is there a particular moment of revelation that you had in that process, a particular moment in time that struck you as being difficult, and what was the revelation that helped move those negotiations forward from a leadership point of view?
That was one of the most meaningful jobs that I’ve ever had. I was raised Catholic Christian in a predominantly Catholic country. Muslims in the Philippines, we don’t know the exact numbers. They could be 4% to 7% of the population. It’s not very clear in the census what the truth is but in any case, they have been subjected to a lot of abuse since the Spanish came in the 1500s, and they are very fierce about their religion and culture.
I grew up in an almost racist but anti-Muslim where Catholic Filipinos thought Muslims were inferior and not Godly. Therefore, less than we were. I was raised that way. When I returned to this job, I was more mature, had worked in the conflict prevention area, and had more empathy for minorities who have been abused and whose land had been taken. I had empathy for that history.
There were four players, the Philippine government, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Malaysian government, which was the official facilitator of Peace Talks, and then the US Track II. We were non-governmental. The US Congress funded us but through the US Institute of Peace was Track II diplomacy. One of the things that I concluded was that the Malaysians did not want the Americans in the room. They were always very polite, kind, gracious, and hospitable, but they did not want us to be part of the formal talks.
Theoretically, we were supposed to be part of those official talks. I had to ask myself, “What can we do that’s different?” I could sense that the Moros or Muslims of the Philippines, or at least the leaders we worked with, were not inimical to us. They wanted to listen and be involved. In my conversations, there was maybe one incident I will call a turning point, and then it led to other things.
That turning point was visiting a village where I was supposed to talk to some of the Muslim leaders. There was a small hotel, so not very fancy but, in that context, fancy. I made everybody make appointments with me at 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 9:00 AM, and I’ve totally unforgotten my Filipino culture. In Filipino culture, hospitality and food are very important. One of the Muslim leaders called the Filipino government, asking, “Who is this person, and what planet is she from?” I was so alien. I looked and sounded partly Filipino, but I was alien and was all business.
I had forgotten first to make friends with people, show them that I care, and listen to them. That was a big failure on my part. When I got that feedback, I decided to change how I operated, talk to people more, and be friends with them. It’s big to feed people. I started doing that. You have these local dishes called pancit, pandesal, and all of these snacks for people to have and get to know them.
From that, two things came that were great with the support of the Muslim minority, and there were thirteen ethnolinguistic groups. We were able to come up with two original and helpful dynamics. One was to work with young Moro leaders. They never even get a chance to talk to one another. They are from these thirteen ethnolinguistic groups and had a lot of violent conflict among themselves.
They certainly could not negotiate effectively with the government if they were divided amongst themselves. Those were intense and honest sessions. To this day, that network still lives the young Moro leaders who are not so young anymore but have now moved up in leadership positions. That was helping the internal dynamics of the Muslims.
The other thing that came out from my learnings of being humble, listening, and establishing rapport was that we were able to bring to Mindanao, where all of this was happening, leaders from other parts of the world like Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, brought in by Pawnee Chief from the United States. People who had lived through similar experiences of a minority having their lands taken from them, having their religion, culture, and identity denigrated, and how they negotiated and painfully came up with some semi-successful measures, whether that was a constitutional amendment or the rights of first refusal to develop your land. The Moros were big on what they called ancestral domain.
From that early failure, the pivotal moment of realizing that I was a little bit arrogant, know-it-all, and more Western than Filipino, and then learning that if I kept acting that way, I would be ineffective in moving to the other side of having empathy. Having the Moros talk to one another, as I told them, the conflict was their problem, not mine. I was a fly-in, fly-out person. I could always go back to a five-star hotel in Manila and have my nice shower, and they were still stuck with this problem. They had to ask themselves where they wanted to be and how they could fight for the exact cause better than their forefathers did so that their children and grandchildren would have better outcomes.
What was the outcome of that process?
The outcome of that process at the end of the day was leaving behind some ideas and creating new relationships. We weren’t able to have a final peace agreement. In fact, two peace agreements were eventually signed, including one more recently. We also supported things like teaching Muslim history because that wasn’t part of the regular textbooks. It’s gratifying to me to see now that sometimes the things that I wrote or other historians that we supported wrote still get quoted.
Ideas are powerful, and peace processes take forever. In fact, you may have to sign many peace agreements before anything lands operationally. It’s easy to sign an agreement and make some big declarations, but a change of behavior, policy, and heart is much more difficult. Sometimes I still get notes from the young Moro leaders, not so young now, for them to remember the things they learned and the established relationships.
Did it move the process along for them to reach the end goal?
Yes. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for. Some of the work that we did on the ancestral domain was important. Especially bringing in comparables from other parts of the world because sometimes, when you are caught in a conflict, you think you are the only group of people ever to face these thorny issues, and you are not. You can derive comfort, knowledge, and ideas from learning how people in even worse situations navigate through these thorny issues. At the end of the day, violent conflict has to be an ultimate last resort. Without a decisive winner, low-intensity conflict could go on for hundreds of years.Violent conflict really has to be a very ultimate last resort. Unless there is a decisive winner, low-intensity conflict could just go on for hundreds of years. Click To Tweet
I was struck when we spoke last time about your time living in New York City, and you mentioned you’d met the late and great Archbishop Desmond Tutu and how that was one of the highlights for you. Can you briefly take us to the moment you met him and what meeting him meant to you? What was your biggest takeaway from that meeting?
I used to work as a Program Officer for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It’s a grant-making foundation, and one of our big grant areas was Africa. My boss at the time, Dr. David Hamburg, who has since passed away, is one of the pioneers in preventing deadly conflict and worked with Jane Goodall in the early research of chimpanzee behavior and evolutionary biology in Africa. He was also a psychiatrist by profession.
Through him, I had the privilege of meeting the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was in an office in New York City, I can’t even remember where it was, but he came and spoke to a group of us about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s a different model from the Nuremberg Commission post-World War II. It was so moving and powerful.
During that meeting, I laughed and cried because that was Archbishop Tutu. He would say these funny stories and then talk about an incident in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where two parties faced each other. One was horribly beaten up, and the other was the perpetrator. That moment of naked humanity and whether people had the heart and the mind to acknowledge the wrong that was done but also believe in forgiveness.
Forgiveness, repentance, and things like that are not commonly used in international politics or peace negotiations but are at the heart of the matter. I can still almost hear in my head Bishop Tutu’s laughter. That was a highlight of the years in New York, meeting him and understanding that there was a true holy man there and a warrior at the same time.
You can be holy and be a warrior and fight to transform humanity. Whether we like it or not, we often find ourselves in a mess. We are always a mess. That’s what humanity is about, yet we make incremental progress and have moments of being sublime and our noble selves as well. It was a wonderful experience for me.We're always a mess. That's what humanity is about. And yet we make incremental progress, and we have our moments of being sublime and noble as well. Click To Tweet
That’s heartwarming, and it takes me back to many moments of picturing the archbishop’s smiling face and his very sad tears as well during that Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. You make the point about humanity being an amiss and this paradox of humanity. What are the big leadership challenges in this world of turbulence and turmoil now? What are the 3 or 4 big things that keep you awake at night around leadership issues, not only in the United States of America but worldwide?
First thing, perhaps in leadership, a central challenge now is how we sublimate egos. Whether you are talking about academic leadership, corporate leadership, or political leadership, the ego always gets in the way. What I mean by that is men’s and women’s hunger for power, money, fame, or whatever people are hungry for that doesn’t have much to do with serving others.
Power is important to serve, but when people are too hungry for that, you can have a disaster if they need it too much for themselves and their egos. You can have a catastrophe in corporations, universities, homes, church communities, or international politics. That’s one central problem. How do you give power to leaders and make them not be power-hungry?
Another problem now is how leaders communicate. It is such a noisy world with social media. Technology has enabled us to say anything anytime and have millions of people see it if we are provocative enough. I worry about that and our ability to filter through emotional reactions. Emotions are rewarded on the internet, and anger is a strong emotion. Disgust is another strong emotion.
All of these emotions are instantaneous and feed on themselves, and then we have little time to reflect and even understand that most of the time, life is gray and not black and white. Communication and how leaders can communicate better and be heard because you could even be a leader with great communication skills, great ethics, and empathy, but if you are not heard in a noisy world, that could be very challenging. It’s ego and communication in a noisy world.
The third thing that I would highlight is the return of tribalism. We hoped that in a globalized world, we would get to know each other better and, therefore, more human connections and empathy and that leadership could work better in such a context, but there is enormous tribalism. Technology’s ironic impact is finding your echo chamber and staying there, especially political leaders, to get elected. You have to be extremely tribal in many cases.
How can leadership transcend tribalism? Our challenges include global warming, hunger, war, and inequality. All of this requires us to overcome our tribal selves. We are still cavemen and cavewomen. We are destroying the planet. We have weapons of mass destruction. How leadership can overcome tribalism may be a third critical challenge.
Turning to a leader we both know, love, and respect, Nelson Mandela truly was one of the great examples of transcending tribalism in a country like South Africa on the brink of the Civil War. Could you take us back to a specific Mandela Moment for you? A moment you recall when was it? How did you feel at the time? Is there a particular moment that comes to mind when he opened your mind, ignited your heart, and lifted your spirit that you could share?
Two things struck me from Nelson Mandela’s life. One was his years on Robben Island. When you think about the concept of an enemy who has wronged you, how you suffered, and how they took away your life from you and for him to come out and not have that be the defining aspect of his leadership. Not having revenge, bitterness, or anger be the defining pillar of his leadership.
Second, the use of sports. It goes back to my learnings on establishing rapport, empathy, and common humanity with the people you are trying to influence or whose minds you are trying to change. In this particular instance, sports were the common language, and it made me realize that Mandela was truly wily and clever as a fox.
Leadership is not just about, “I’m going to be empathetic. I’m going to care for you,” because that could be disastrous if it’s all care without anything else. He was so sophisticated and clever. Being wily as a fox but being humble as sheep and without any rancor or bitterness struck me. That is what I call effective leadership, moral courage, emotional intelligence, or strategic thinking. It’s everything. That’s why he was impactful, as he was a giant leader in all the annals of leadership and an inspiration to all the world.
Do you think his leadership model and example are still relevant for the world now? If so, why?
Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind that leadership is still as relevant as ever. First of all, when about those three challenges of leadership that I mentioned, Mandela answered all of them. He was able to sublimate his ego. Certainly, he was not a leader who was full of his sense of self or power for himself. He used power to empower others. He used power to reconcile enemies and give a message of hope to the whole world in terms of communication.
Again, he communicated with powerful symbolic things and forgiveness with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and stood his ground that the stories that came from him reverberated throughout the world. It’s hard to ignore the stories around Mandela. It’s communicating and then bridging tribal instincts. If you went for justice entirely, you could deepen the tribalism. His leadership is probably even more relevant now. That reminds me that I probably need to study his life again because it has been a while and glean those things as my leadership journey continues, the things that I could still learn from Nelson Mandela and his life.
In that vein, to what extent do you think the educational system is? You had a wonderful time in Singapore at the National University of Singapore. You taught and educated about 2,000 business and government leaders. You’ve had some hands-on experience in this area, particularly with your current critical role with Utah Valley University and other educational institutions around America and other parts of the world. What do you think calls for educational institutions to be doing differently in shaping, developing, and molding the leaders of today, the future, and tomorrow?
First of all, the critical role that universities play in correcting social injustice. What do I mean by that? The universities’ core business is to deliver education, but the traditional universities intend to exclude people, and I get that if you are Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. I attended Harvard and MIT, and it is right. They have to exclude it because it’s such a high level of performance. Therefore, they only help maybe between 5% and 10% of the applicants who go to them. It’s very elite.Universities play a critical role in correcting social injustice. Click To Tweet
For universities like Utah Valley University, our mission is different. There is a gigantic role for us to play. We are an open-admission university and accept everybody. We don’t care about your past or what happened in high school. We only care about your aspirations now, whether you are willing to do the work, and how we can help you.
What I mean by being an instrument for social justice is that we can educate. By educating, I suggest giving knowledge, skills, and competencies. Also, giving students life experiences, where they sit in classrooms with people who disagree with them, where they go to an arts event and see what excellence means, where they could go to an athletics event and understand hard work and hard competition. That is an excellent purpose for universities now.
Another purpose of universities is to help create a vibrant economy without ghettos. It’s linked to the first purpose that I talked about. When you think about the State of Utah, wherein our service region we are 19% people of color, and the enrollment of UVU is exactly 19% people of color, 12% Hispanic. That’s also the Hispanic population, so we are bridging these gaps in representation and access to opportunity.
On the leadership front, my own university has a way to go. I am dreaming of building a very different center for leadership that all students can access, whether it’s for minors or certain courses where it will be applied, creative, and less top-driven but more bottom-up. We are in the process of designing, and I am talking to some potential supporters.
My dream is for that leadership center to be accessible to everyone across the university and, if possible, if our faculty and my academic affairs colleagues support it and even make it a requirement in general education. All students need to understand that you don’t have to be a CEO to be a leader. You can be a leader in your classroom, church, family or any team at work. There are certain principles that you have to be aware of. We’ve talked about some of the experiences from Nelson Mandela’s life, and history is things that we could integrate into what we teach here.
A couple of fun, fast facts. You love to dance, travel, and run. It’s all high-action sports and activities. What fueled your passion for dancing?
It’s probably my culture. Filipinos love to sing and dance, and I can’t sing, so I dance. It’s almost irresistible. If there’s music, I’m going to dance. I dance a lot at this university, and people know that. They seem to enjoy it together with me.
Your wonderful life partner and husband called you on your birthday in Paris. After you met at Harvard, I read somewhere where, at that point, you realized that it would be a good thing to date him. What was it in that moment that helped you make up your mind that “This would be a good person to date?” He went on to become your supportive life partner.
My best friend in life is Jeffrey Tolk. We met at Harvard. We went on a couple of dates. I went to Europe for the summer, and I wasn’t sure I was that interested in him. I was in Paris on my birthday, staying at a friend’s home. He knew the friend’s name but didn’t know the address. He was an intern for Senator Al Gore, and there was no internet back then, so you couldn’t look it up on the internet. He went to the Library of Congress and picked out the phone book, and somehow, he knew my friend’s last name, figured out which family it was, found the phone number, and called me on my birthday, and I was blown away.
I thought if this young man had the initiative to go to the Library of Congress and find a Paris phone book so he could call me on my birthday, and most people may not know this, but phone calls were very expensive in those days when you called long distance. That’s what tipped me over the edge: I should date him and get to know him. We have been married for 33 years. We have three wonderful children, and he’s still, to this day, the life partner who would do anything for me and go out of his way to be helpful. In fact, he’s an adjunct professor here at the university as we speak.
The third fun fact, you mentioned three beautiful children. The concept of being a mother initially was a little overwhelming for you. What has been the most wonderful part of being a mother?
I first found out I was pregnant when I was living in New York City. I wasn’t planning on getting pregnant at that time. I remember crying and sobbing uncontrollably. I was 32 and frightened out of my mind. I felt so inadequate and unprepared, and how could I even have a baby? Pregnancy is something unthinkable. The joy of it was that I’d had three children, so a couple more since that first one.
Your question, “What is the most wonderful thing about my journey as a mother?” I’m not sure there is one wonderful thing in my journey as a mother. Mothers are born too. I loved the whole process and the revelation about becoming a mother. You discover these things that come out of you are like 100% human beings who will become very interesting. They challenge and make you laugh, cry, be angry, and be humble. They are not always wonderful. It is a journey of understanding, first of all, who I am and what is a mother.
Mothers are born, but then they are made as well over time. What my children have taught me the most is how to love unconditionally. Own parenting from my parents. I will describe a little bit about my background. I didn’t know a stable home. I feel like I’m failing my children and falling short all the time, but they will be okay because they are loved when I think about it. I hope that between my husband and me they know that deeply, and they will be fine. Being a mother, you have to let go all the time. You don’t control the lives of these children. They will not become like you, and that’s okay. That’s a hard concept, especially for Asians.
Why do you say, especially for Asians?
Asian culture or Asian families, you expect your children to follow exactly what you want them to do. It’s filial duty. In the West, it’s very different. It’s a hard concept for me as an Asian mother to say, “They will be their people, and I have to let go.” I have done my best for good or ill, we are products of what our parents did or didn’t do, and you can’t turn back time. At the moment, it’s what I can do for them now, where they are, and who they are becoming. That’s liberating. As a mother, I feel that I need to do more of that. I can be there to love them, but all the time, I am also letting go.
That’s a powerful concept. When you talk about we cannot turn back time, we need to look forward. Any final thoughts about leading boldly into the future and what the current moment calls us out to do and be in the world? Any final thoughts about what you think Nelson Mandela would say to world leaders now?
Nelson Mandela would say to world leaders now, “Forget your ego. Leadership is service. If you are not serving others every day, then you are not leading effectively. Every day as leaders, we have to wake up replenished. We have to find a way every morning to say to ourselves that in the next 24 hours, “I have new energy. I will try to be more patient. I will work harder and smarter. Listen a little better,” all these things are hard. I’m saying this not because I do it but because it’s hard for me.
At the end of a very long day, as most leaders work very long days, they say, “I did everything the best I could. I did it with integrity. Now, I deserve to sleep well,” and that’s it. We don’t control the outcomes. We can do our very best every single moment and be humble enough to know we don’t own the outcomes, but we lead as effectively as we can with integrity and selflessness as much as possible. That’s always easier said than done.
It is always easier said than done. It struck another thought: “It also seems impossible until it’s done.” Thank you so much. Salamat. I appreciate you.
I look forward to our ongoing conversations about bringing this leadership model to the world. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights and your very humble and authentic self.
Dr. Astrid Tuminez is a living legend that helps us understand the power of dreaming, the power of doing, and making those dreams a reality. Dreaming has often been defined as our ability to imagine. It’s creating pictures, ideas, and images in our mind, a dream or a wish unfulfilled yet becoming a reality. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination, like dreaming, is everything. It’s more important than knowledge. Logic can take us from A to B, but imagination, like dreaming, can take us everywhere.” I believe that Einstein was partially correct. It is not only imagination or dreaming.
As Dr. Astrid Tuminez powerfully and authentically illustrated with us, to dream and to make those dreams a reality, we need to dream and imagine. Still, to inform those dreams, the power of technical skills and knowledge help us do that. We need to do our inner work to light the fire within our bellies. We need to practice by doing. We need to build ambition, one step at a time. We need to draw on our spiritual energy, knowing that our divine destiny requires that we be more. Ultimately, we need to serve and help others. Dreaming like leading is a team sport.
As we bid farewell to 2022 and warmly welcome 2023, let us celebrate the many big, bold dreamers in the world now. To the people of Ukraine, Brazil, the World Cup Moroccan 2022 squad who claimed their historic fourth place victory in the World Cup in Qatar, to the woman and people of Iran who soldier on despite deadly executions. To the United States for leading an international alliance and the people of Europe for standing firm and collectively in unison to help Ukraine defend its democracy.
I want to leave you with one last dream. The legendary John Lennon wrote it. It’s called “Imagine.” “Imagine all the people sharing all the world. You may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us, and the world will live as one.” You, too, can Dare to Dream!
- Utah Valley University
- Russian Nationalism since 1856
About Dr. Astrid Tuminez
Currently leading the largest public university in the state of Utah, Utah Valley University (UVU). Home of the Wolverines, UVU focuses on creating opportunities for traditional and non-traditional students. We offer technical-vocational, four-year, and master’s degrees and have a current enrollment of 39,000+. Prior experience covered the technology, academic, corporate, non-profit, executive education, and public policy sectors. Previously led a team that supported 15 markets and over $1 billion in revenues for Microsoft. Original thinker, accomplished global speaker, widely published author and media speaker, and proven leader of teams. Proven track record in five countries. Strong interpersonal and multicultural skills. Multi-lingual. Excellent writer with numerous publications in academic and non-academic outlets. Numerous television interviews and commentary. Originated and delivered strong executive education programs to thousands of public and private sector leaders in Asia. Highly energetic, curious, and disciplined.