Fighting Back

Fighting Back

Peter Drucker became my best friend the day he declared that one of the three toughest jobs was being the president of a small college. I selfishly agree. Leading a university challenges every natural instinct I have; for instance, the instinct to defend myself and fighting back. Thankfully, it has never come to fisticuffs. Most of the confrontations have been quite civil.

In the small university, everyone assumes that the president is the final authority on everything – grades, financial aid, hiring, firing, student discipline, and interpretation of any policy. Rather than calling those who specialize in these things, they call me directly. They have heard something they did not want to hear and they want me to overturn the decision. It has taken me 10 years to learn a few basic lessons about fighting back.

  1. Getting involved in their issue is rarely productive. Only once or twice have I found anything that needed to be corrected or improved. If I have hired well, if the people in place are good at what they do, and if I trust the appeals process, it is best for me to excuse myself politely from the fight. In so doing, I affirm the employees who have done the work rather than making them nervous.
  2. Playing dumb can get you somewhere. Sometimes I know more than they think I know. A student contests a grade. They don’t know that their professor told me they were under-performing, seriously. So I can ask leading questions about study habits, sleep schedules, video games, and how they intend to inform their parents if they fail the class. Or what about the parent whose young adult is as pure as the driven snow and certainly could not have destroyed campus property? My review of the security footage suggests differently. I could win with the digital evidence, but maybe I do better to talk about the relationship that exists between parent and student and how they might teach a very valuable lesson by allowing their child to take responsibility without their cloak of protection.
  3. Just take the punch and go on. Often, I have to make an unpopular decision on the basis of confidential information. When attacked over the decision, it is my instinct to defend myself. But what is fighting back like when your hands are tied behind your back? I know that if everyone knew what I know, they would agree with the decision I made. They can’t know it. Stop wallowing in your wishes. Take the punch and go on.
  4. They probably don’t mean it. Over the years I’ve heard several lines multiple times: “I’ll take you to court,” “This will be on the evening news,” “I had intended to make a large donation, but unless you …,” “I insist that you terminate this employee or you’ll regret it.” Had I acted on threats, I would have created a knee-jerk organization fueled by fear. If you are wise in your actions, trust your work.
  5. It’s my job. Disappointed people will make it personal. I don’t have to return the favor. I can treat them with better dignity than I am being treated. That’s why a board of trustees entrusted me with this role.

Life works better when you learn how to respond to the things that make you want to fight. And you live longer.



  1. Thanks for sharing those 5 powerful tools. One more tool that I use frequently to avoid taking offense and wanting to fight back, is to tell myself that “Hurt people hurt people.” I remind myself that for this person (or these people) to be so difficult, they must be going through some pretty miserable stuff in their own lives. That doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it does help me replace anger with sympathy and compassion.

  2. Scott Strawn says

    Thanks for these words of wisdom Dr. Boone. Very helpful!

  3. Darla Sansom says

    Dr. Boone,
    As always, I’m encouraged by your words of inspiration and insight! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Sharron Stout says

    As I read this, I was reminded of the years I spent under your ministry at College Hill. I am sure you faced all the issues you write about as college President. God led you then and still leads with love and grace. Thank you for your continued stand in putting God first in your life

    Sharron Stout

  5. Thank you, Dan, for these words of wisdom. I’m only four years into my presidency at Milligan College, but I can relate to pretty much everything you said here. Leading an institution of higher education is a wonderful calling – but remarkably complex at the same time. Your post is a great reminder that the best response to “aggression” is gentle kindness.

  6. Thank you, Dr Boone, for this insightful essay. I have passed it along to several of our leaders here in Africa.

  7. Nicole (Crofford) Hill says

    Needed these reminders today. Thanks Dr. Boone!

Speak Your Mind