Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Respected, not beloved

Q: Adrian Fenty was hugely successful when he ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., four years ago, winning every precinct in the city. But now, voters say he's arrogant and doesn't listen, and he's lagging in several polls in advance of September's primary. Now Fenty is admitting his failings, and apologizing to voters. Can tigers change their stripes? And would you want him or her to, if it means watering down the original, well-received agenda?

36 is a wonderful age to take charge -- old enough to have a smidgen of experience, but young enough to be bold, brash, and yes, even a necessary brat at times. I know. Like Adrian Fenty when he was elected mayor, I was 36 years old when I stepped into a major leadership position, in my case, Trinity's presidency. And like the young mayor, this then-young president made a lot of bold changes along with a lot of brash mistakes.

Now, two decades later, while reflection tells me that I could have done a few things a bit more gently to make a few people happier, I regret nothing; Trinity's success speaks for itself.

An effective leader of a complex organization -- especially one that needs as much change as a struggling city or university -- will surely have moments when some constituent complains about arrogance, obtuseness, failure to consult and downright blindness to the will of the people served.

But great leadership is not about satisfying every demand; rather, great leadership expresses the vision of a better future and motivates the majority of the community to embrace that vision and the actions necessary to achieve it.

The late great Bartlett Giamatti, former commissioner of baseball and president of Yale, wrote this far more eloquently in his wonderful book about higher education, A Free and Ordered Space. Leadership, he wrote, is "...the moral courage to assert a vision of the institution in the future and the intellectual energy to persuade the community or the culture of the wisdom and validity of the vision."

Successful leaders tend to develop fairly tough hides to fend off the daggers of the disappointed and disaffected. Criticism goes with the territory; someone who wants the word "beloved" to appear in stories next to his or her name should consider work as a pastor or preschool principal. Effective leaders are rarely beloved; what we must achieve is respect.

Adrian Fenty needs to worry not about whether he is beloved, but rather, whether he has the respect of the people of the city. Certainly, he can rightfully claim many successes in his time as mayor. Unfortunately, however, he may have breached fundamental rules that are necessary to earn respect as a leader: take no personal privileges, advantage no friends, tell the truth fully and completely at all times.

Whether the issue is contracts awarded to frat brothers or secret trips abroad paid for by foreign governments, Mayor Fenty should have 'just said no' to the temptation, or at least been more open in his explanations. Whether fair or not, he is now paying a price for the appearance of arrogant self-benefit.

The issue is not putting on a humble mask now, in the middle of a campaign, and pledging to be nicer; 'nice' is not the issue. A reputation for candor, integrity and genuine selfless leadership must be earned, not acted out in TV ads.

Communities need consistent leaders, not chameleons. A tiger who tries to be a pussycat may be even more dangerous when provoked. I don't mind a consistently tough and uncompromising leader, even though I might disagree sometimes with his or her actions. I worry much more about a tough leader who suddenly adopts a penitent posture in the middle of a tough campaign. Such posturing may be the most transparent act we've seen.

Leaders must certainly grow and change. After long service in a leadership position, I sure hope that I am less rash and reactive, more thoughtful and mature in my actions. But I am still a tiger, and I wear those stripes very comfortably. I have confidence that my integrity is intact, and that while probably not beloved, I am respected.

By Patricia McGuire  |  August 30, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Success and controversy Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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