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Cultural Humility: A Core Skill for Inclusive Leadership in UK Higher Education



Ayo Barley, MD of Bakare Barley has been appointed as Chair of the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education (YCEDE) External Advisory Board.

Read on to find out her views on why cultural humility is an important skill for all working in Higher Education,


Culture is an undeniable aspect of human interaction and plays a fundamental role in shaping our thoughts, behaviours, values, and beliefs. In a continually evolving and increasingly interconnected global society, cultural awareness and understanding are paramount. Two concepts — cultural sensitivity and cultural humility — have been proposed as potential solutions to enhance cross-cultural interactions. However, they offer distinct perspectives and applications, particularly in the sphere of leadership. This article focuses on cultural humility, emphasizing its value as a tool for fostering inclusive leadership, particularly in the UK higher education research culture.

Cultural Sensitivity Vs Cultural Humility

Cultural sensitivity and cultural humility represent two essential dimensions of multicultural competence. However, they are not synonymous and depict unique approaches to understanding and engaging with other cultures.

Cultural sensitivity refers to an awareness of and respect for cultural differences. It implies acknowledging the existence of diverse cultures and the variations within them. It involves developing specific knowledge and attitudes about another culture, thereby enabling individuals to behave appropriately and effectively within that cultural context. However, cultural sensitivity can sometimes inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes or ‘othering,’ as it can imply a sense of understanding another’s culture through our lens.

On the other hand, cultural humility goes a step further, advocating for a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique. Developed by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia, cultural humility is about recognizing and challenging power imbalances in the patient-physician dynamic and developing mutually beneficial and non-paternalistic partnerships. It involves an ongoing process of learning and understanding, acknowledging personal biases and prejudices, and developing and maintaining respectful relationships. Cultural humility allows us to see the ‘other’ as an equal, moving beyond an ‘us and them’ dynamic. Unlike cultural sensitivity, which can often assign static characteristics to a particular culture, cultural humility emphasizes the fluid and multifaceted nature of individual identities. It insists on the need to approach others’ cultures with humility, recognizing that our understanding will always be limited and evolving.

Cultural Humility as a Core Skill for Inclusive Leadership

Inclusive leadership signifies a leader’s ability to make all individuals feel valued and essential, thereby encouraging their contributions towards organizational success. It requires self-awareness, empathy, openness, and a genuine commitment to recognizing and leveraging diversity.

Inclusive leaders embody cultural humility. They recognize their cultural lens and biases, actively challenge their assumptions, and demonstrate a genuine willingness to learn from others. This mindset enables them to cultivate an environment of respect, openness, and inclusivity, where diverse perspectives are valued and utilized.

In higher education, particularly in the research culture, cultural humility can make a remarkable difference. By fostering an environment that values and incorporates diverse cultural insights, leaders can stimulate creativity, innovation, and a broader perspective on research inquiries and methodologies.

Application of Cultural Humility in Leadership Practices

It’s one thing to grasp the theoretical underpinnings of cultural humility, but another to understand how to implement it in day-to-day leadership practices. In this context, the application of cultural humility in leadership involves a combination of self-awareness, constant learning, and active engagement with diversity.

Embracing Self-Awareness

Self-awareness, the first step towards cultural humility, encourages leaders to examine their own cultural identities and the biases or prejudices they might harbour. It implies acknowledging our limited understanding of other cultures and the existence of power dynamics that could potentially influence our relationships and interactions. For instance, university leaders might have to confront their unconscious bias towards certain research areas or methodologies based on their cultural backgrounds or previous experiences.

Committing to Lifelong Learning

Cultural humility isn’t a destination; it’s a journey — one that involves lifelong learning. This learning is not just about consuming information but also about engaging in conversations, questioning our assumptions, and stepping out of our comfort zones. For leaders in higher education, this might mean actively seeking to diversify their teams, creating safe spaces for dialogue and disagreement, or taking the initiative to learn about the cultures of their international students or colleagues.

Fostering Engagement and Collaboration

Lastly, the application of cultural humility in leadership demands active engagement with diversity. It encourages leaders to value and seek diverse perspectives, recognize the unique contributions of every team member, and build partnerships based on mutual respect and understanding. In research culture, this could translate into interdisciplinary collaborations, participatory decision-making processes, or initiatives aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices within the academic community.

While these practices might seem challenging initially, their long-term benefits for creating a more inclusive, innovative, and resilient research culture are immense. They are practical pathways for leaders to manifest cultural humility in their everyday leadership practices and thus cultivate more inclusive and diverse academic environments.

Conclusion: The Way Forward

Cultural humility, although not a panacea, can serve as a crucial tool for fostering an environment of inclusivity, respect, and mutual learning within higher education and beyond. By adopting a humble, self-reflective, and open-minded approach to cultural differences, leaders can create spaces where everyone feels valued and included. In today’s interconnected world, cultural humility is not just an asset but a necessity. It is a journey of continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning.


As we cultivate this mindset in ourselves and encourage it in others, we can look forward to a future where cultural diversity is not just tolerated or accommodated but truly respected and celebrated. Therefore, it is vital for the leaders in higher education, especially in the research culture, to embrace cultural humility, not as a one-time training or a tick-box exercise, but as an ongoing commitment and a way of life. In doing so, we can redefine leadership, shape more inclusive institutions, and truly harness the power of our diverse, global society.

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