02/20/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Run Scared

It is almost time for spring training in baseball, so a baseball reference may well be in order. As a longtime baseball fan, I remember the legendary Satchel Paige quotation about never looking back because someone may be gaining on you. Now Paige, arguably the oldest player ever to play the game professionally, joked about never looking back because he wanted to deflect questions about his age.

The Paige "philosophy" is a good one to use in running a college or university, though. It is very easy to grow complacent and smug when something good happens. An unexpected gift suddenly appears; the admissions office has a banner year; faculty members are recognized with major national awards; or the development office breaks a fundraising record.

Be content with the successes your institution experiences; never be satisfied. Not only may someone (or another college) be gaining on you, but, given the law of averages, you may soon anger a prospective donor (I managed to do so a few times), have a poor year in admissions (we did twice), lose a key faculty member to a competitor (I can recall three), or fail to reach your development goals.

During my first three years as a college president, I refused to visit other campuses. Despite being a confirmed optimist, I knew just how shabby and worn my campus looked (the college landmark was fenced off, and a consultant had recommended it be demolished), and I didn't want to put my optimism to the test. Instead, I "ran" as hard as I could to raise the requisite funds to spruce up the campus and renovate our landmark, and I encouraged those working with me to run hard, too. Only after those tasks were completed did I feel comfortable attending meetings on other college campuses.

Running scared served me well. It will serve other presidents well, too. Doing so does not mean panicking personally or pressuring others needlessly. It does mean you should both work as hard as possible and recognize how ephemeral success may be, unless you steel yourself and your institution for a change in fortunes by preparing for unwanted, but inevitable, contingencies.

From my experience, whenever I felt we had things under control, we ran into problems. Complacency breeds failure. Don't succumb to it. Instead, keep the pressure on everyone, including mainly you.