Leadership Lessons from one of America’s top CEOs

August 4, 2014


When William C. Foote, the retired chairman of USG and current board member for both Kohler Co. and Walgreen Co., appeared at Parish Catalyst’s Dynamic Discipleship gathering in Dallas this July, he opened with the question, “What can a corporate CEO share with an able and energetic group of priests?” While acknowledging some of the obvious differences between leading a parish and leading a corporation, Mr. Foote shared insights from the business world that are definitely portable to religious leadership contexts.

Lesson 1: To Lead, Serve.

Mr. Foote’s fundamental belief is that leadership is about serving people—shareholders, customers, employees. In the case of a parish, the parishioners are simultaneously the “shareholders” and the “customers.” (And in the case of some lay leaders, also the employees!) Paraphrasing Warren Bennis, a major pioneer in the contemporary field of leadership, Foote explained that talent is one thing; its triumphant expression is another. True leadership is about our ability to express our God-given talents. Got talent? Great. But how will you express that in a way that truly serves?

Lesson 2: Rely on Referent Power.

Leading people involves a use of power. You may be reticent to wield power. You might not even like the sound of the word. But there are many ways to exercise power, and Mr. Foote recommends referent power: power that is derived from followers. It flows from the communication and voice that you share with your team. In dialogue with your team, you establish power while also drawing on the strengths of everyone involved. The team is more powerful as a team. As Mr. Foote pointed out, there are great quarterbacks who don’t win Super Bowls and great generals who don’t win battles. You need your team to buy in and share their ideas. This referent power is honed through authentic, transparent communication.

Lesson 3: Find Success in Circumstance.

Circumstances create opportunities for good leaders to rise up. Success is not reserved for the brightest among us, nor is it the sum of our wisest decisions and most sincere efforts. In the best-selling book Outliers (2008), Malcolm Gladwell says success is a gift, and successful people are “those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” Mr. Foote found success in the midst of difficult circumstances. When he became the chairman of USG, he inherited an ugly litigation problem: an emerging asbestos crisis that was creating a $3 billion liability for the company. With the help of his team, he saved the company from dissolution, settled all asbestos-related personal injury claims, and preserved shareholder value, a feat that Warren Buffet called “the most successful managerial performance in bankruptcy that I’ve ever seen.” Solving this problem gave Mr. Foote a chance to shine. He turned the problem into an opportunity. What challenging circumstances do you and your parish currently face that could be turned into opportunities for success?

Lesson 4: Be authentic.

Many leaders do not set out to be leaders. They set out to express themselves—as Warren Bennis expressed eloquently—“fully and freely….To become a leader is to become oneself.” As your parish leadership team works to identify “who they are,” reflect upon what makes your parish truly special. Don’t just think about your strengths in general, but think about those strengths that set you apart. What can you do better than most others? What is your parish uniquely good at? There’s your focus for leadership development.

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