Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.


Authentic success

Q: What are the three (or so) biggest mistakes -- professional and personal -- you've made on the road to where you are today? Were you able to overcome them?

Pretending to agree. Settling for less. Trusting without verifying. My biggest failures came when I ignored my instincts.

Pretending to agree seems like a good professional coping skill, at least on the surface. College constituents have many different ideas about what the president should be, should look like, should do, should say.

Early in my career at Trinity, I tried to be responsive to the many expectations. I found myself going along with ideas that, deep down, I thought were not quite right, but out of a strong desire for "peace in the family" I set aside my reservations.

Fortunately -- or not, depending on your point of view -- I soon learned that pretending to agree was a trap. When I finally said what I really thought, or took actions contrary to the ideas of the people who wanted to control my actions, I was accused of not telling the truth, of failing to listen, of being obtuse.

My real failure was not being candid from the start. I learned that effective leadership demands authenticity -- I had to liberate myself from being so eager to please everyone that I repressed my own leadership abilities.

I became much more successful as a leader when I grew comfortable with revealing more of myself in the job, worrying less about pleasing others who, I discovered, were bound to be critics no matter how hard I tried to appease them. I learned that it's better to be criticized for having ideas and taking bold actions than to be regarded as a pleasant-but-ineffective placeholder.

Pretending to agree also fostered my second mistake: settling for less than the best. Part of that overwhelming desire to make people happy meant that I was willing to accept whatever people chose to give -- whether colleagues at work or volunteers or charitable gifts. I was not demanding enough; setting standards high and demanding greater performance runs counter to the idea that everybody can be happy.

Once I learned that my real job was to "disturb the peace" -- a phrase that one of the Sisters of Notre Dame at Trinity used in describing what I had to do -- I stopped settling for less. I set much higher expectations for Trinity's performance and all who had a role to play in moving the institution forward. Yes, there was grumbling, and a few moments of outright hostility. But higher standards led to better performance and more institutional success. Success had a way of making the disagreements fade away.

Probably my biggest mistakes, however, occurred when I trusted people too much without verifying their ability to deliver results. Few people start their days wanting to be disloyal or incompetent. But by lunch time, some people manage to wreak a great deal of havoc on the workplace. I found that colleagues would sit in staff meetings ostensibly agreeing with our plans and directions, then spend the balance of the morning bitterly griping, which meant they weren't working on the goals.

One of my steepest learning curves was developing the ability to discern who could be a truly talented team player and leader versus, who was taking up space and wasting time. Developing the ability to confront and deal with inadequate performance was one of my hardest but most necessary lessons. Personnel decisions are the most important choices any leader must make, and learning to build a talent pool that is worthy of trust is key to institutional success.

Today, I hope that I am more authentic, have higher standards, and am more astute about sharing my trust. But I'm never quite satisfied with my own performance on these issues. I try hard to avoid one of the biggest leadership mistakes possible -- complacency.

Starting each day with the belief that I really can do better sustains the momentum I need to lead Trinity to even greater success.

By Patricia McGuire  |  July 29, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and failure Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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President McGuire did not say that she ignored the opinions of others. She said she found her own voice and learned how to use it. As women, we are frequently told to smile and be quiet. I found her piece very inspiring. She is the President after all - she is supposed to lead and make decisions so you can't fault her for doing things her way.

Posted by: elnicho | August 2, 2010 5:23 PM
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Great, your biggest "error" was to please others, to entrust others, to accomodate other points of view. You fixed that with a "my way or the highway" approach. You lay out what YOU think, what YOU want, what YOU know is right, and others will follow--or "off with their heads." What other encouragements matter?

This is not a very inspiring or plausible formula for success or leadership. Either Trinity's situation was unusually torpid, already devoid of heads, or soon it will seek another.

Posted by: jkoch2 | August 2, 2010 5:00 PM
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