The Makings of a Leader
I sat quietly in a conference room just outside of Eric’s office, awaiting his arrival from another meeting to begin our conversation. Behind me was a rendering of Electric Works, and I recalled how my admiration grew for Eric’s leadership skills in all the instances I’ve heard him talk about the future of Fort Wayne—most notably the development of Electric Works.
The often fashion-forward leader of Greater Fort Wayne spoke with such passion and conviction that I often left those gatherings ready to make Fort Wayne a better place, myself, and follow a leader like Eric into the Summit City’s future. I saw myself in Eric and, when I reached out to interview him, he graciously gave me over an hour of his time.
Unsurprisingly, I left this meeting with the same impression as the others before it—once again, I was fueled by the motivation to do my part to make Fort Wayne a better place.
To be a good leader, you have to be a good follower.
Immediately, Eric began describing the impact that his parents had on his leadership style. He particularly highlighted their focus on improving their community, which happened to be the Butler/Auburn area. He also reminisced on an important meeting he had as a 17-year-old.
“Derald Kruse sat me down to do a lifemap. It was a ‘beginning with the end in mind’ concept—start at 80 and look back to see what you’ve done. He helped me decide on what I wanted to study in college, made me think through what I wanted my life to be, and it was because of that relationship that I craved mentorship.”
That meeting put Eric on a path which would lead to his appointment by then-governor Mike Pence to lead the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and, most recently, a three-year stint as the CEO of Greater Fort Wayne, arguably the most influential economic development group in northeast Indiana.
Throughout Eric’s careers, he’s led large numbers of people—that being said, I wanted to know what he sees as the most important decisions he makes as a leader.
“One decision of great importance is who you surround yourself with,” Eric said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by super talented people. I empower and push them to achieve more than they thought they could. I get the most joy out of watching the team take risks and try creative, out-of-the-box things. It will either succeed or fail, and we have to learn from it.”
You must be authentic and demonstrate a tremendous level of grit. Accurately understanding who you are and what you do is crucial—you can’t be a leader if you can’t get people who want to follow you.
When looking for who to surround yourself with, Eric recommends that you “find talent that is hungry, humble, and smart.” Individuals who are high in character are who Eric looks to hire. The hiring selection can be boiled down to three C’s—”Character, chemistry, and competence, in that order.”
In all his high-pressure leadership roles, what are characteristics Eric believes every leader should possess? I asked him this and, after a long pause, he responded, “You must be authentic and demonstrate a tremendous level of grit. Accurately understanding who you are and what you do is crucial—you can’t be a leader if you can’t get people who want to follow you.” And then, after another (shorter) pause, Eric looked me in the eyes and added, “And have humility.”
One Fearless Leader
As for the biggest challenge that leaders face today, Eric answered my question on this by highlighting the technological evolution that is constantly creating innovation and change in the business world.
“How are leaders going to lead effectively in the information age?” Eric posed the question. “You no longer have time to strategize the information that is out there. Also, that information may or may not be accurate.”
One mistake he has frequently seen other leaders make is lacking boldness and retaining a fear of healthy conflict. “Putting yourself out there with a bold agenda or plan could cause damage to your reputation if it does not work out,” he explained. “Some leaders will only stick with what is safe for that reason. Also, a lack of healthy conflict within your organizations—healthy conflict is not based on personality or preference, but on solving a problem.” Several past Insider Influence interviewees have also noted the importance of healthy conflict.
What is Eric doing to continue growing as a leader? He reads—when I conducted this interview, he was reading a book on the history of China—and, much like 17-year-old Eric, he has kept himself surrounded by exceptionally talented mentors and coaches.
While his tenure at Greater Fort Wayne has come to an end, I suspect we will still see Eric impacting the region in other ways. Most likely through mentorship, bold ideas, and conflict—healthy conflict, of course!
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