Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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No coasting

Q: A new collection of Charles Schulz's writings shows that the creator of "Peanuts" was always insecure, even as he drew and wrote the world's most beloved comic strip. How much does success color one's self-image? Does a job well done necessarily bring satisfaction?

A little bit of insecurity can generate huge success.

When I first became Trinity's president in 1989, I received a lot of criticism because I was very young and inexperienced. I was brash enough to want to prove my critics wrong.

But for a long time in my early years, I awoke each day with the fear that this might be the day when I would blow it, be exposed as a fraud, make a mistake so huge that my critics would feel vindicated and I'd be sent packing.

I can remember sitting at one event with a large number of Trinity graduates, each one of whom had a very strong opinion about what I should be doing. I could feel my anxiety growing as I looked about the room and realized that the fate of their college, and, hence, their own academic and professional reputations rested, to a great extent, on my ability to make good decisions. I did not want to fail, but I was not sure I could succeed.

While such thoughts were important to get me up and energized every morning, I soon realized that I had to manage the expectations of others more effectively and stop worrying about what everyone thought.

There's a thin line between insecurity's power to motivate or debilitate. I realized I needed to be less focused on how people perceived me and more focused on how the team I led could be successful. I developed a clear philosophy of the "total team effort" -- an institution can hardly be about one person's work, and the leader needs to set the tone through recognizing everyone's contributions. As I developed my view of the team, I grew more confident in my ability to lead, and, at the same time, less anxious about my own role.

Leaders can be notoriously insecure. We are aware that all eyes focus on us, and those eyes are most often critical, dissecting our every move, utterance, article of clothing and hairstyle.

But those of us privileged to work with great communities of talented people also have the luxury of reducing our insecurities through the success of the team. We enjoy safety in groups, and the groups can often blunt our errors and augment our successes.

Artists like Charles Schulz, and many famous actors and performers, do not have the shelter of the group to help offset their personal insecurities. Artists and actors work alone, to the greatest extent, and depend completely on the approval of audiences to measure the success of their work. Even when hugely successful, they remain vulnerable to unvarnished public scrutiny.

The more successful they become, the more daunting the scrutiny -- few reviews are as savage as those reserved for the third or fourth books of an author once hailed as a genius whose later work becomes pedantic; or the Oscar-winning actor whose brilliance fades into a sad string of B-movie performances.

Success does not mean an end to insecurity. I still get up very early every morning with some sense of eagerness to prove that I can still do this job well for Trinity. Whether that's insecurity or motivation depends on one's vocabulary choices. What I do know is that so long as I feel the need to prove my worth, I will do a far better job than if I felt I could just coast along based on my past reputation.

Coasters soon become losers; worriers are more likely to sustain success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  April 29, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and happiness Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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