The “Secret Sauce” of Leadership Development: Interview with Jon Foley

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: I recently interviewed Jon Foley, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), about what academics need to become effective environmental leaders. In his development as a leader, working with networks was key. He also talked about the need for training, which provides skills and “moral encouragement.” Here’s what he had to say:

KK: Can you describe a specific moment or experience when you really felt like you were making a difference as a leader?

JF: That’s a tough one. I’m not sure you’ll never really know. And you’re never done, of course.

I feel that you go through career transitions. Initially, your sole focus is to do the science your peers respect. That’s great; and when you do the science your peers respect and the public notices, that’s really great. When you do the science that’s respected by your peers, the public notices, and then thought leaders are asking your for help, that’s the third level that you reach. That’s been very rewarding — and intellectually, incredibly stimulating.

If you put yourself in a position of leadership and visibility, you have to learn to have a thicker skin, because you’ll be exposed to more criticism. It’s a different world where you can get a few more bruises, but the rewards are so much greater than that. Don’t stress out about it; just realize that you can get a little bit beat up.

KK: You’ve described these levels of career development. From the outside, it looks like you just made your way up them. How did you figure out how to do that?

JF: I think we’re all experimenting in our own ways. That’s where this network of people working on leadership issues that Leopold helped create has been so incredibly powerful. We got these crash courses on communications and media relations, and those were really helpful. It also introduced us to 19 other crazy people who were trying to do the same thing, and that was even more valuable. Those two weeks you’re together, doing this course, you become fast friends. That was the most important two weeks of my professional life — and of my life. Probably second only to the birth of my children, in terms of the influence it’s had on my life and career. I am still incredibly grateful and indebted to the Leopold program for kicking off things.

But is there a simple how-to guide? No. I think that’s where we’re struggling, because we‘re trying to figure out how to “train the trainer” and replicate that experience for younger people when they are in school.

KK: Why do you think developing the next generation of leaders is important? How do you think it’s different and similar to regular graduate education?

JF: The Boreas Program borrows a lot of inspiration from the Leopold Program in the sense that there are elements of preparation, like workshops, preparing you to gain specific skills. Skills preparation lays the groundwork. The secret sauce that Leopold had, and I think Boreas has, is that it also gives you the moral encouragement to go out and try these things.

That’s where it’s different than regular graduate training. But there’s a similarity, too. Let’s say you get a PhD in chemistry. You’re not going to have your committee members beside you for the rest of your life. Eventually, you have to go out on your own. A good graduate program gives you the tools for how think about these things and encourages you to innovate your own path. I think that’s where Leopold and Boreas try to do the same thing. The skills are not as obvious sometimes, and they don’t fit as neatly into a traditional disciplinary rubric. But they are nevertheless rigorous and important.

KK: If you’re thinking about your own moral encouragement, what advice do you have for aspiring world-changers?

JF: I try to remember my inner 13- or 14-year-old. The person who was really passionate about science, wanting to go save the world, or do something great. The person who got up and watched Carl Sagan and wanted to be one of the first astronauts to Mars. That was me as a kid. I think we lose sight of that through all those dissertation chapters, committee meetings, prelims, defenses. Being a post-doc, getting your work published, writing proposals — it’s a pretty demoralizing, hard life in some ways. A lot of the creativity and spark can be beaten out of you if you let it. My first advice would be don’t let it. Keep that inner spark. Let that be your moral compass. That should be guiding your career more than a path to getting tenure. We’re not in the business of getting tenure. We should be in the business of changing the world. And if you change the world, well, you do good scholarship.

The final thing is that for most people right now, it’s a choice to do this kind of more public service science. Thankfully, it’s become a lot easier to do that over the last decade or two. Personally, I don’t think that’s even far enough. I don’t think this should be optional. It should be the way we do things.

If we start to think carefully about the kind of science we should be doing, and the greatest public good, it doesn’t just mean creating a patent, or some new miracle drug or technical solution. What it is that we as a civilization need to know in the long-term? That could be very long-term investments in basic research, but it is also being thoughtful about our social compact. Being accountable to our fellow human beings is not a bad thing at all. All we are doing is reinventing what we knew in the late 19th century, of the land grant, and the Morril Act, things that a lot of us at state universities know about. I hope this kind of training and leadership become the norm. Maybe that will slowly happen over the next decade. That would be very, very cool.


Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.







Zoos vs. Ecosystems: Jon Foley on the Importance of Networks in Leadership

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Jon Foley (Photo by Josh Kohanek)

Note from Kate: As the director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), I’m interested in developing effective environmental leaders. In Boreas we emphasize that leadership is more than a set of skills; it’s a way of working. Networks are a key part of working effectively as a leader.

I’ve been inspired in this regard by Jon Foley, the director of IonE, a Leopold Leadership Fellow, and a recent recipient of the Heinz Prize in the Environment. I interviewed him about leadership and promising paths he sees for developing the next generation of leaders. This is the first in a series of posts drawn from our conversation.

One question I asked Jon was how, as an academic, he works in networks to help solve environmental challenges. Here’s what he had to say:

Confidence and license to try things

JF: Within the academic community things like the Leopold Leadership Program provide networks that universities sometimes don’t provide themselves very well. I remember when I did the Leopold training over ten years ago, it was with a cohort of 19 other people. It instantly bonded into group that became a go-to network of confidantes, advisers, friends, and champions for things that we wanted to do. That gave you license to try a little bit harder to do something a little different…. It’s the unusual couple of people in each institution who want to try out this crazy stuff… it’s kind of your tribe, so to speak.

Reaching beyond the academy

JF: What the Leopold program exposed us to was to really build your network of other folks outside the academy. Get out of the Ivory Tower as much as you can. Leopold exposed us to people in the media who became not just one-time acquaintances but eventually colleagues themselves: reporters who may use you as a source because they know you and trust you and your work; editors who recognize your work; people who ask you to write op-eds. That takes years to develop. But those are important nodes.

Defining your role: what to take on, and when to find partners

JF: I can’t reach the same number of people as a good op-ed writer can. Or a good media person can… Or, in businesses and government, there are key gatekeepers, decision-makers who are highly influential, who you might be able to reach. They can carry your message better than you can into halls of influence and decision-making and power that you might not even be able to enter. You have to figure out where the strategy is and who can help you get the job done.

Networks as ecosystems

JF: My sister-in-law once came up with this analogy: biodiversity matters, but if we’re all in a zoo, if we have two academics in a cage, and a couple policymakers in another cage, and couple reporters in some other cage, that’s not a vibrant ecosystem. What we need is them all interacting together like a real ecosystem. Again, that’s the idea that if we get out of our comfort zone and start circulating among unusual characters, we might find that a lot of interesting interactions are possible in very rich ways that we never thought were possible. I’ve certainly benefitted from the networks of other kinds of people that I’ve built up over the last couple years. I’d like to think I’m benefitting them. At least it seems so, since they keep referring more people to us and our institute. It looks like it’s going both ways. But boy, is it really different than anything the normal academy prepared me to do.

Networks as catalysts for better science

JF: The stuff I’m working on today has nothing to do with what I was doing ten years ago, or even five years ago. A lot of it was guided by the questions people have been asking over the years. It’s been driven more outside of the academy, rather than inside.

KK: So, you’d say the mutual network is making your science…

JF: Better.

Engagement, Not Outreach

JF: I hate the word “outreach,” because it’s a very static notion of knowledge. It assumes we have the knowledge inside the Ivory Tower: all we have to do is put up an antennae and broadcast it to the world, and we’re “outreaching,” telling people who don’t know stuff what we know. That’s so naïve and wrong. It’s mutual engagement — saying, “Hey I can help you, but you’re helping me, and let’s form a powerful, synergistic relationship somehow.” That’s where this networked leadership and engagement model really can be effective. It will make you a better scientist. It will make you a better scholar, thinker, teacher, and leader within your university. To those who used to argue that doing this stuff is sacrificing your science is total and utter bullsh*t. Because if you do this well, it will make you think more critically about the work you’re doing, why it’s relevant, how to communicate it better. It will certainly make you a better teacher, at least. And it will hopefully make you a better scientist. In my case, I think it did a lot.


Check out my next post for a conversation with Jon about leadership development in graduate education and beyond.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.

Developing Relationships Is Important Work: It Supports All the Other Work

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

The Boreas Leadership Program hosts regular social events to facilitate connections among students from across campus

We were nearly an hour into the first meeting of the Boreas Student Advisory Team, and you might think we hadn’t done much. No data presented. No brainstorming lists created. No reports given. No decisions made. But I was very pleased with what was happening.

I run the Institute on the Environment’s Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota. Boreas works with graduate and professional students on developing leadership skills, networks and practices to change the world. Each year we form a student advisory team to help improve our programming.

Sharing stories

Back to the first meeting of the Student Advisory Team. We were taking the time for each person to tell her story, and we all listened. There were no surreptitious glances at smart phone screens around the table. Several months later I can remember most of the stories. We heard stories from a policy student back in school to figure out next steps after years spent working with HIV-affected teens in Kenya and a PhD ecology student who lobbied on federal climate legislation before starting graduate school to pursue her love of research. A horticulture student I’ve known for a couple years confirmed his dreams of running a sustainable farm, but surprised me with something I’d not heard before: the story of his overseas military service. Each person took 5 or 6 minutes to share his life story and his hopes for future career and impact. It took about an hour.

I’d set up this part of the meeting with a simple idea. Relationship before task. I explained that in work situations, including academia, we often want to jump right into the task at hand, trying to make progress quickly. We forget that great work, transformational work, takes more than jumping into action. To do the work that needs to be done, especially hard work like moving toward a more sustainable society, will take great leadership. Great leadership is hard, but it’s made easier when leaders have the kinds of relationships that offer both support and well-meaning accountability. After explaining my reasoning for starting our work together by having us share our stories, I modeled that process by sharing my own life story. And I was pleased as others followed my example.

Building relationships in a climate network

I got the idea of “relationship before task” from my time with a group of people called the Young Climate Leaders Network. This group is an informal network of climate leaders who help make progress toward climate solutions, from starting an innovative solar business, to getting elected or running far-reaching issues campaigns. We were brought together for three retreats over the course of year in order to facilitate relationships and the development of game-changing strategies.

At the first meeting, our professional facilitator reiterated the idea of “relationship before task” again and again, posting it in our meeting space and structuring nearly the entire agenda for the first three-day retreat around building relationships. When you have a bunch of people who want to get things done, it can be hard to remember that relationships of deep support and compassionate accountability will ultimately facilitate better leadership in all of us. However, we all reflected on the idea that this focus on relationships mattered in our work as a network and as individuals. I expect experiences in the Leopold Leadership Program are similar.

Seeing results with graduate students

The story of how we began our work in the Boreas Student Advisory Team this year may not sound like much, but I’ve found it to be amazingly helpful for creating strong team dynamics that allow us to work effectively together. The team socializes with each other and holds each other accountable for showing up for different parts of the programming. We’ve already made progress on a community-building idea called the Boreas Booyah!, and I’m excited to see how it develops.

“Relationship before task” is a simple three-word mantra I use to slow down and be intentional about understanding where each student is coming from and where she is hoping to go. I’ve used it as a focus in creating conditions in the Boreas program in which students can develop their own supportive culture, a culture I believe will promote individual and collective leadership development. I expect it could be used in developing lab cultures as well as productive relationships within wider professional networks.

As we transition into a new year and a new semester, there will be many tasks at hand. We’ve also just come through a season in which we focus on relationships with family and friends. Perhaps this year it will be useful to bring some of that relationship focus alongside our focus on tasks and see what kind of transformations we can create.

What’s working for you in building relationships with others who are working on change initiatives? Leave a comment.

Kate Knuth, Program Director of the Boreas Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, served three terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is pursuing a PhD in conservation biology. You can follow the Boreas Leadership Program and Kate on Twitter, @BoreasIonE and @KateKnuth.