Chad E. Foster of Red Hat: 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country
Listen — When you talk with someone, don’t listen for your chance to talk. Listen to help the other person be understood. Listening is not about sending messages. It’s about learning from one another.
As part of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chad E. Foster.
Chad E. Foster is a motivational keynote speaker, sales/finance leader, and inspirational change agent who works at Red Hat/IBM. He was the first blind executive to graduate from Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development and has been featured with NBC, CBS, Forbes, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, USA Today, and Chief Executive Mag.
“People are often surprised at what I was able to achieve in spite of being blind but to the contrary, I feel I am successful because I am blind, not in spite of it,” says Chad.
After losing his eyesight while attending college in his early twenties, Chad started at a top consulting firm, and has built a career in the technology industry where he has directed financial strategies and decisions resulting in more than $45 billion in contracts.
Determination, ambition, and resilience are the key drivers to his incredible journey. The Atlanta Opera has commissioned an opera inspired by his life story and his first book, Blind Ambition: How to Go from Victim to Visionary, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Bookshop, Books-A-Million, Google Play, and other fine retailers.
Today, Chad speaks to corporate audiences and professional athletes to help them develop resilience in the face of uncertainty and show people how to overcome their own blind spots.
He lives with his wife and his 2 children in Atlanta, GA and is a daredevil of his own, enjoying snow skiing every winter.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
At 3-years-old I was taken to Duke University Medical Center where doctors told my parents “try to prepare for the day when Chad’s vision is gone. In the meantime, enjoy life while you can.”
It’s hard to imagine how difficult the long drive back home to Knoxville, Tennessee must have been for them. They cried the entire ride. Imagine hearing the news that your toddler will eventually go blind from an incurable retinal disease (retinitis pigmentosa “RP”).
Despite the grim prognosis, I was an active boy. Doctors advised my parents they should put me in a special school for the blind. Instead, they signed me up for soccer.
For the next fifteen years I lived as “normally” as I could. I played sports including soccer, basketball, football, and I even wrestled in high school. I began lifting weights in high school as well. When I visited a top retinal specialist at 14-years-old, he remarked that riding bikes, jet skis, motorcycles and learning how to water ski and drive cars are not things people with RP typically do. It’s possible I have something less severe than RP. It’s possible I would not go blind.
Hearing that news, my teenage ego swelled with pride as I continued my magical thinking. I would beat blindness. I would be the outlier. While enrolled at the University of Tennessee however, life took a fateful turn.
I was 21-years-old when darkness came knocking on my door. While reading a routine literature assignment, the evening quickly devolved into anything but ordinary. The text on the pages dissolved into a sea of bubbles. I squinted my eyes. I rested to refresh my eyes. I switched on a bright lamp to create more contrast on the reading pages. No matter what I did, nothing enabled me to see the words on the page in front of me.
The cold reality sliced through me like a knife through butter. This was it. The doctors’ predictions had come to fruition. I’d read my last page of print. Perhaps I’d watched my last football game. Seen my last sunset. Life as I had known it was coming to an end. I awoke to the morning of my new dark reality.
A Boa Constrictor of hopelessness wrapped itself around me and squeezed me tightly. It was hard to move. Hard to breathe. At university I’d entered the medical field because I wanted to help others and now I wasn’t even sure if I could help myself. I began to mourn the death of my imagined future self. We ask children all the time what they want to be when they grow up and none of them, and I mean none of them, say they want to be a blind person.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
While I’ve enjoyed many books over the course of my career, I’m compelled to mention the book I recently wrote that HarperCollins Leadership published — Blind Ambition: How to Go from Victim to Visionary.
I now know that I’ve been given a beautiful gift of blindness, disguised in some ugly wrapping paper. I’ve learned the keys to happiness, resilience, and success, and I’ve captured those lessons in my book.
I lost my vision to help others find theirs.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“We become the stories we tell ourselves” is my favorite quote. It’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout the course of my life and it’s so simple, yet so profound. If you tell yourself a story of “I’m a victim” then that’s who you’ll be. If you tell yourself a story of “I’ve got this and I’m going to make it look good” then that’s who you can be.
I could’ve told myself that I went blind because I have terrible luck. Instead, I told myself that I went blind because I’m one of the few people on the planet with the strength and toughness to deal with it and use it to help others. Technically, both stories could be true. I reframed my struggle (blindness) into a strength (mental strength), enabling me to take on all life’s twists and turns.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is putting others before you. It’s caring about other people. It’s having the courage to make the right decisions, and taking the hard actions even when they’re not popular or easy.
I learned these lessons from my friend and mentor Ben Gieseman. While on his team my wife and I were going through marital problems and had separated. She wanted to move back to Atlanta to be near her family and at the time we were living in the Northern Virginia area. Not only did he approve a job transfer on the spot, he also offered his house just in case I needed a place to stay while we figured things out. How often does that happen in a multibillion dollar company? It doesn’t happen — not with anyone else.
Ben cared and that’s why those of us on his team would run through walls for Ben Gieseman.
In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
My friend and mentor mentioned above, Ben Gieseman, taught me many lessons in leadership in the time I worked for him. WE won billions of dollars in contracts and had an absolute blast doing it. Last year the final lesson Ben taught me is that our time on this earth is precious and it’s limited.
Ben Gieseman passed away last year at 53-years-old from an inoperable brain tumor. He left behind his lovely wife of 25 years and their three beautiful children. I had the honor of speaking at his celebration of life in June 2021 and it was fulfilling to see the hundreds of people in attendance who he had affected. Everyone had great stories about how he’d helped them.
Whatever you want to do with your life. Whomever you want to talk with. Whatever dreams you have. Goals you want to pursue. Help you want to giv. The time to act is now. Don’t delay. Our time is precious and it’s limited.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Our ability to have meaningful dialogue with those who have diverging points of view. This resonates with me because I’ve faced similar challenges while going blind.
I thought I could imagine what others face before I went blind. I’ve lived over twenty years in the mainstream majority and another twenty-plus years as a disabled minority. The ignorance, assumptions, and behaviors were breathtaking.
The key to navigating complex dynamics like these starts with talking with one another.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It started with consumers of information. Interestingly, the general public-including myself-are the chief culprits. When we collectively decided to stop paying for news, we forced the news and media industry to migrate to a different business model.
News and media went to the online advertising model to fund their reporting and news. For example, CraigsList crushed paid classifieds so the media had to rethink monetization. All roads for news and media led to advertising.
Advertising creates incentive for sensationalism. Will readers click on an article if it’s not catchy? Well, based on the evolution of the media, we’re a society subject to clickbait. The news became less neutral and more polarizing.
Next, social media followed the same trend. With advertising as the dominant business model for social media companies, consumers began being served content that was both polarizing and tailored to their beliefs. Social media giants quickly realized it’s easier to keep people reading if they’re being served content they agree with. The more they read, the more ad revenue social media companies earn. So, when people hear others that don’t believe what they believe, people astonishingly wonder “how can they think that?,” because they think everyone is reading the same content — but they’re not. Everyone is reading opposing content and borderline indignant when others disagree.
Finally, the pandemic caused everyone to communicate virtually, creating layers of abstraction between diverging points of view. We then saw a rise in “keyboard cowboys,” who found it easier to hide behind their computer screen and hurl insults/blame at those with opposing views instead of meeting others where they are. Technology is great, but it makes it easier to dehumanize those whom we don’t agree with.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
I’ve had people ask me who feeds my dog for me. I’ve had people tell my wife “tell your friend his dog is very cute,” as if I’m not capable of speaking, hearing, or evidently, marriage — she was my “friend.” I’ve had people tell me that the reason I went blind is because I wouldn’t let people pet my service dog while in harness.
People are shocked when they learn I work. They must assume I’m jobless and living off of the government. I’ve faced so many assumptions it’s hard to put into a short article.
But here’s what I know to be true: anytime we think we can imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, we’re wrong. Full stop. None of us can imagine. I thought I could imagine. When I went blind, I quickly recognized that I had no clue.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
1 . Listen — When you talk with someone, don’t listen for your chance to talk. Listen to help the other person be understood. Listening is not about sending messages. It’s about learning from one another.
2 . Learn — Begin each conversation with a genuine sense of curiosity and just a dash of humility. Try to avoid the trap of knowing you’re right. Give the other person some credit in that they might have an experience you don’t.
Genetically, we’re 99.9% alike. It stands to reason that the differences among us must be due to the different experiences in our lives. We only know what our limited experiences have taught us.
When entering difficult conversations, it’s helpful to tell yourself, “I respect this person and their point of view. They believe what they believe due to the information they’ve collected. They must know something I don’t. I wonder what that is.” This short reset can create a learning mindset which makes us more capable of sharing, learning, and influencing others.
3. Empathize — Try to imagine facing what others face. Imagine going through their experiences. Really attempt to paint a picture of what they tell you. Listen to learn, and experience what they’ve experienced as much as you can. Don’t question it. Believe them and try to put yourself in that situation
This inevitably brings us closer together.
4. Use Less Technology — Technology is great when it’s the only option. For communication, especially those tough conversations about sensitive matters, do it in person. Be with the person and share the space with them. Feel the energy and human connection.
And if you have to use technology, ensure you’re not sending a communication electronically that you would not have the courage to send face-to-face.
5. Pay for News — We need to get back to paying for news! We need — desperately need-fact-based neutral reporting. We need to get away from the advertising model for information.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
Share this with your friends and encourage them to listen to diverging points of view in person. Help them understand how crucial it is to listen to learn and not send messages. Seek to understand first, then we can be understood. Urge them to pay for news and avoid ad-based news services.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m an eternal optimist. We can-and must-resolve it. The world is headed for the creation of a new world order if we don’t. There are certain organizations out there that want to wage a disinformation war to fracture the unity amongst us to sow the seeds of chaos needed to rebalance power in the world. We can fix it, but it starts with you — the reader.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
You have one life to live. How do you want to live it? Our time is limited. Leave the earth better than you found it. Make a difference. Do it tomorrow may not come.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson- because he has the social reach to impact the way millions of people think about making a difference in our world.
How can our readers follow you online?
Amazon Book Page: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1400222648?tag=hcleadership-20
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!