It’s okay to be neurotic

There’s no shortage of management self-help books. By and large, they all probably give sound advice as to what to do and when; what methods, strategies, and tactics will prove effective given a particular set of circumstances. Robert Greene’sĀ 48 Laws of Power is an example of a narratively compelling book, organized into a list of easily digestible “rules” of leadership and influence. It’s also an example of the persuasiveness of romantic stories over scientific studies. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like the book and believe there is some “good stuff” in it. But historical anecdotes should not be confused for empirical evidence. (If you want to read a scientifically grounded book, read Stephen P. Robbin’s The Truth AboutĀ Managing People.) But I digress.

Other than the unwarranted authority and decisiveness by which self-help books dispense advice, I take issue with the lack of consideration of the people who are supposed to enact their advice. Although you might know what you should do in a particular situation, it doesn’t mean you will. Normal people can be, among other things, insecure, conflict averse, shy, socially awkward, afraid of looking stupid, critical, judgmental, and self-conscious. It’s also difficult to act appropriately in the moment when you’ve never had experience with a similar situation. So while it might be all well and good to give someone strategies on how to manage conflict, where is the motivation, will, and strength of character supposed to come from? Intellectualizing a problem does not put fire in the belly.

My advice starts from the assumption that you went to grad school for reasons other than acquiring power; that as a high-achieving intellectual, you are prone to introspection, self-doubt, procrastination, and dysfunctional perfectionism. This is obviously a gross misrepresentation of many academics, but I think this is a more useful jumping-off point when offering my counsel to a professor-turned-administrator than assuming you’re a budding … let’s say, Charlemagne.

So if you are wary entering your new administrative role because you don’t think you are a natural leader or you lack the requisite background, that’s normal. If you’re neurotic or blindingly insecure, you’re not alone; so are many other successful leaders. These are things that can be managed and compensated for. The mere fact that you volunteered for this new role–no matter how reluctantly–suggests to me you already have the prerequisites to be a successful leader: a service orientation and a desire to help your department, faculty, and university.