Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


The right fit

Q: Are successful people blunt by nature? In recent weeks, retired NFL star John Riggins has been scathingly critical of his former team, the Washington Redskins. Is his take-no-prisoners rhetoric typical for achievers? Do the tactful accomplish more?

Are successful people blunt by nature? Heck, no!


Let me try that again: Some of the most successful people I know are superb diplomats, quietly making points while getting the job done. Others are battering rams, blowing through opposition to achieve results. Many successful people have elements of both styles in their repertoire, choosing the most effective communication mode for whatever circumstances they face.

Learning how to communicate effectively in various circumstances is definitely an acquired skill. On my first day as Trinity's president in 1989, I met with the faculty, giving what I thought was a glorious speech about the College's future. When I finished, there was dead silence.

Later, the academic dean told me, "If you want to last in this job, do not ever speak that way again." I was stunned. What I thought was a call to action was heard as a dictatorial mandate devoid of collegiality, academe's most cherished value. Over the years, I've tried to pick and choose the right moments for direct or oblique speech, but more often than not, I have found that successful leadership requires direct and clear communication, even at the expense of popularity.

Gender differences abound in communication patterns. Women often tend to strive for a diplomatic tone because a woman who speaks bluntly is sometimes perceived as harshly aggressive; a blunt male speaker is more often heard as forceful in an acceptable way.

I once overheard two women CEO's discussing what it takes for women to be successful members of corporate boards of directors. They were bemoaning the tendency of younger women to be impatient with the unspoken rules for women's behavior in groups of powerful men. "They won't be welcome if they are confrontational," said one of the women leaders, "they have to learn to get along." I found myself pondering the relationship between getting along and getting ahead, and wondering about the consequences of silence. Success should not subvert candor.

Truly successful people earn enough respect that they can speak honestly and bluntly when circumstances require. They achieve that respect by choosing diplomacy whenever possible, saving the battering ram for only the most urgent occasions, and never, ever, used to bash individuals publicly. John Riggins, certainly competent to criticize the performance of the Redskins, undermined his own credibility by attacking Dan Snyder personally.

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 16, 2009; 9:14 AM ET  | Category:  tactless or truth-tellers Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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