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.