On My Mind / Essays On Success

Success through conflict

"Fire McGuire!"
 
From the windows of Trinity's president's office I could see the placards and hear the protesters chanting.  But these were no wild-eyed students.

No, these were nice ladies in sensible pumps and pearls vociferously greeting Trinity's trustees as they arrived for a board meeting one morning in 1995. The protesters, several Trinity alumnae, believed that I was harming our beloved alma mater through making changes aimed at strengthening the college. 
 
The trustees did not fire me, and we persisted in enacting the changes outlined in our strategic plan. Trinity became very successful.  Fifteen years later, I look back on that day as a defining moment in my leadership education: Conflict is an inevitable part of change, and learning to work with conflict is an essential skill for success.

One of the great mythologies about leadership in American life is that everyone has to agree in order for the leader to achieve success. Can President Obama be successful when his approval rating has dropped below 50 percent? 

Of course!  Even President Reagan saw some poll numbers below 40 percent. Invariably, once the leader starts making tough decisions, some people will disagree and some will start making signs demanding the leader's ouster.
 
Fear of conflict can inhibit change. Failing to make necessary changes can be more harmful than the conflict that comes with bold decisions. President Obama is perceived as too cautious, too eager for consensus, causing him more trouble than some of his actual decisions.
 
In higher education, where powerful interest groups abound, change often bows to the fear that somebody will be upset. "The alumnae won't like it" was one of the most paralyzing phrases I heard in my early years as Trinity's president. I insisted that Trinity needed to change, to offer more programs in business and health care, recruit more students from the Washington area, even change our name to signify our status as a university. 
 
As predicted, a chorus of opposition greeted these changes. Some graduates said they would never contribute money again. Others painted signs of protest.
 
Conflict creates reaction, and the swing of the pendulum generates creative energy.   For every critic, ten supporters came forward; for every dollar withheld in anger, thousands more emerged in support of Trinity's new directions.

Over time, I learned to leverage conflict creatively with direct responses, realizing that candor wins over many skeptics. I became more confident in spelling out Trinity's competitive challenges and explaining how changes could preserve cherished traditions. For example, we enlarged Trinity's undergraduate women's college by adding Nursing, a discipline that prior generations rejected as incompatible with liberal arts.
 
Trinity is successful today because my colleagues in leadership and I learned to work through conflict, evaluating the arguments without letting one point of view hold us back. Now I appreciate the noise outside my window: If I don't hear some noise, I'm not doing my job.   Through managing conflict well, we have achieved success.
 

By

Patricia McGuire

 |  September 2, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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"Trinity is successful today because my colleagues in leadership and I learned to work through conflict, evaluating the arguments without letting one point of view hold us back. Now I appreciate the noise outside my window: If I don't hear some noise, I'm not doing my job. Through managing conflict well, we have achieved success.."

"One of the great mythologies about leadership in American life is that everyone has to agree in order for the leader to achieve success."
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And if the noise you hear is nothing but a chorus of "No"! If the arguments you hear are obstructionist and fraudulent? If your opposition ONLY wants to see you fail? If you make changes for "consensus" and your opponents vote "No" anyway?

Welcome to Obamas' world.

Posted by: shadowmagician | September 2, 2010 9:58 PM
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I refuse to believe this big, fat tub of lard. Conflict creates reaction, and the swing of the pendulum often generates negative energy. Fear of conflict can prevent death and destruction.

Pelosi leveraging conflict for the last two years will get her party kicked out in two months.

Posted by: alance | September 2, 2010 5:07 AM
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