Monday, May 16, 2011

Foster on Leadership Part 2

Today is my last day teaching on leadership. As a part of the curriculum, I included a few interviews with leaders, in the hopes of giving kids real-life insight. The following is the second half of my interview with Jerry Foster, Vice-President of Research and Development at Plex Systems. You can read part 1, covering contemporary challenges and important traits for leaders, here.

How do you go about making tough decisions?

JF: Lots of thought and prayer. Get lots of advice, including from people who don't think like you. If you are a guy, it is critical that you get a woman's perspective on a situation. They have insight into how people will react that I guarantee you never thought of.

Never make a tough decision when you are tired or angry. Rarely make big decisions through email. If you are making a decision you know will be unpopular (and once in a while this is necessary), explain your reasons in great detail. I have found that even if people don't agree with me, if I can get them to understand where I am coming from, they are much more apt to follow. If you are unable to articulate the reasoning behind your decision, perhaps you need to rethink your decision.

Give your followers a chance to air their thoughts, suggestions, and concerns. Nothing will frustrate people more than being forced to do something without any avenue to express their emotions. It doesn't mean you have to act on all that emotion, but it sure helps keep the communication lines open.

Finally, this is something I have learned over the years. If I have a really tough decision to make, sometimes *I* don't make it. I get all the relevant people in a room and I say, "Here is what is going on. Here are our choices - A, B, and C. Here is how I perceive them, but I'm stuck. We need to come to a decision. What should we do?" This can be an amazing process. It can push significant growth in the trust and camaraderie of your team. But most importantly, when everyone comes to a consensus, you have total buy-in and cooperation with the direction that has been decided.

How can someone prepare to lead?

JF: Two things come to mind.

1. Find someone you know that seems to be a leader. It can be anyone - a teacher, a coach, a pastor. Watch them closely. See how they react in tough situations, or better, with difficult people. If possible, get to know them on a personal level and ask them to mentor you. Work with them, observe, and absorb.

It is very important to note here, that just because someone has a title of authority, does not mean they are a leader. And likewise, some great leaders don't have official titles. But people are drawn to them and follow them naturally anyway.

2. Experiment leading very small groups with short timelines. For instance, organize and lead a small study group for a test. Or volunteer to plan a particular event. These situations will help you learn how to lead in a low-risk situation. You get great experience, and you learn what things you need to work on, as you take on bigger leadership roles. Leading people is often an art, not a science, and often the only way to prepare is to learn on the job and get the experience under your belt.

Please share anything else you think might be valuable for students to hear.

JF: There are varying degrees of leadership. At some point in your life you will have to lead someone, even if you are just leading your kids (which is probably one of the more crucial leadership roles that has ever existed!). But, not everyone is cut out to lead a huge team, or be the CEO of a company, or be a manager. That's ok! I'm not saying don't stretch yourself, or try new things. I'm simply saying, your heart will tell you where you fall on the leadership spectrum, and you can work very confidently from that position.

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