The Blind Leading The Sighted

When Chad Foster's world faded to black in his teens, he persevered. Now he teaches resilience and the value of leaning into discomfort.

These days, says Red Hat executive Chad Foster, if you’re not the disruptor, you’re bound to be a disruptee. But the kind of risk-taking required to transform one’s established, legacy company into a leading-edge digital competitor forces some CEOs well outside their comfort zones.

“It requires adaptability, flexibility and some resilience for people to think beyond the way things have always been done,” says Foster. “There’s this technology that empowers all of that—but then there’s the human element, which is where I come in.”

Foster understands resilience and the need to persevere in the face of great obstacles and painful change. He lost his eyesight as a teenager, and when his world faded to black, he had to find a path to a new way of living. He currently works at Red Hat, the world’s largest open source software company, and over his career, he has secured more than $45 billion in contracts. He was also the first blind graduate of the Harvard Business School leadership program.

Today he speaks to current and future leaders at companies such as Google, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GE and Microsoft, encouraging them to get comfortable with failure and cultivate resilient mindsets in the face of intimidating change. “It’s about leaning into the discomfort,” he says. “There are small steps that people can take on a very personal level and at an organizational level to get comfortable with discomfort because that’s a key element to growth.”

You had to live outside your comfort zone on a daily basis for a very long time. What lessons from that period stay with you?

Yes, life was out of my comfort zone for a long time. It’s little things that can get you comfortable with the discomfort. I recently traveled to Southeast Asia by myself. But clearly, on my first business trip as a blind associate or leader or consultant, I didn’t go to Singapore the first time. I started much smaller and gradually got more and more comfortable with the discomfort. Eventually, once you start to recognize that feeling, you can start to reframe the discomfort in a more positive way. This is a big part of my belief system—learning how to reframe situations to yourself so that you can create a better narrative about the change, about the discomfort, about the very natural anxiety that all of us face. Then you can start to use it to your advantage.

If failure is a given because companies need to be taking risks, how can CEOs create a culture that is resilient and ensure that people are not so afraid to fail that they’re holding back?

It gets down to, for one thing, helping everyone understand how to envision what success looks like. And what I mean by that is, we’re oftentimes presented with a set of circumstances and so we have a basket of facts in front of us. The way we choose to interpret those facts will influence, to a great extent, our mindset, and our mindset will influence our words, our actions and our outcomes. So I think it’s really important for CEOs to help do that interpretation for their leadership teams to make sure that they understand, hey, if there’s a failure, how do I interpret that? How do I internalize it in a way that’s productive?

That is a journey that I think a lot of people miss out on—being able to consciously and purposely interpret the facts and the circumstances of a situation. Because frankly, when you figure out how to be very intentional about how you consume a situation and control your mindset going into that situation, your outcomes can be very, very different, right? So for me, when I went blind, I could have just chosen to tell myself, “Well, Chad, you have really bad luck.” And that would have been one technically correct interpretation. But a second interpretation would have been, “This actually happened to you Chad, because you’re strong enough to deal with it. You’re mentally resilient enough to overcome it and you can actually use this as a platform to reach and inspire millions of people around the world.” Technically both of those interpretations could be correct.

So we have to be very intentional about how we choose to interpret situations. Because at the end of the day, we will become those interpretations. We become the stories that we tell ourselves. So being very conscious and intentional about the stories that we have playing on that reel in our minds is very important. Leaders can help with that to not only interpret the situation, but then to paint a vision of what success can look like given the circumstances.

So it sounds like we need to be talking a lot about mindfulness and intention. 

Right. You have to really step out of just being reactionary. The natural human response—and for me it was too—was to just to react. And I’m not gonna sit here and pretend that I didn’t have a few hard years. I had a few very difficult years to where I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it from day to day when I was going blind and I didn’t have the best stories playing in my mind. It was a very, very difficult period for me. But I did learn to make it to the other end of each of those days. And then, in hindsight, I learned that the thing that got me over the hump, the thing that carried me through was being very intentional and conscious about how I chose to receive the situation.

Because it really is a choice, right? We are very fortunate in the fact that we can actually choose our perspective and we can choose how we want to respond and we don’t have to just simply react. And so creating some space to be mindful about that, to be intentional about that, can allow us to be much more effective in how we actually respond to challenges.

There have been many studies showing that the loss of one of the senses can result in a heightening of the remaining senses. Does your blindness give you any competitive advantages in the world of business?

I think it allows me to reflect in a way that maybe sometimes isn’t possible for someone who is dealing with the distraction of what their eyes are telling them. So if you just sit back and think for a second about how most of what goes to your brain comes from your eyes—that can be a dizzying amount of information. But without that going to my brain in particular, I have freed up that capacity to do something else with it. So a lot of times I will use that for conceptualization. Where a lot of people are looking at what’s in front of them, the world around me is virtual. My world is a virtual concept. I can’t see what it looks like so I’m literally conceptualizing and visualizing in my mind the world around me. So I would say that my ability to conceptualize and to virtualize the world around me is better then it used to be.

And I don’t really have the same fears that I had before as it relates to what my eyes are telling me.  I’m not distracted by some of the facts that intimidate a lot of people, so that does give me a bit of an edge in certain situations. But certainly, you pay more attention to the remaining senses that you have, and I definitely do that. I see that come into play particularly when I’m thinking about how to solve a problem. It seems like I have more opportunity to reflect and contemplate a way to resolve that problem.

Do you personally still try to make that effort to get out of your comfort zone on a daily basis?

Oh, absolutely. I just got back from a ski trip with my daughter in Park City, Utah. It was her second time skiing. We’d gone out there over the Christmas holidays. For me, getting her for the first time on a black diamond with me skiing—that was a little bit out of my comfort zone. I’ve skied before and I started skiing after I went blind. But that’s just one example. I’m always trying to stretch, whether that’s psychologically or whether that is physically or in the case of bringing my daughter along for the journey, teaching her to ski, that was a very emotional stretch for me—it’s pretty scary, having your child out there. But I knew that she would benefit from it in the long run and what a change it was for her own personal confidence.

How do you stretch professionally?

Well, one is attempting new skills that I’m not as proficient with. My experience throughout my career has been deal making and deal strategy. So taking on something like speaking, as an example, up until five years ago, I didn’t consider myself a speaker, but I realized very quickly that I have a gift to be able to reach and inspire people. And I have a little bit of a talent for speaking, too, but I’ve never done it on stage as a keynote presenter. And so for me to get up on stage and present for 60 minutes, with zero notes, because I can’t read the notes and I can’t use my computer while I’m giving a keynote presentation because I can’t wear the earpiece—that just doesn’t look right—and I don’t know braille because I went blind when I was in my twenties so I never learned it.

So what I needed to do was commit the entire 60-minute presentation to memory and get up and present in front of 3,000 people. The first time you do that is a pretty terrifying experience. But I thought to myself, you know, if I’m going to really take my own advice and my own counsel and I have this remarkable ability to help people, then I have a social and moral obligation to do that. So getting on stage for the first several times was way outside of my comfort zone because not only is there the very natural vulnerability of putting yourself out there and sharing who you are on a very personal level, but then there’s also the mechanics of making it happen as a blind person, being able to compel the audience, to tell the story, to remember everything, every point that you want to make and doing so on a stage that’s oftentimes very unfamiliar and making sure you don’t fall off the stage—all of these sort of nuanced things that a lot of folks wouldn’t think about that I have to consider and contemplate before I get on stage.

Going to Harvard must have been outside your comfort zone. 

Definitely. I had been in the corporate world for awhile and my company said to me, “Chad, you’ve helped us win over $45 billion in contracts, what can we do for you?” And I thought about it for a day or two and I said, “Send me to Harvard.” But then after they actually agreed to do it, I started to reflect on it thinking, oh gosh, what if I don’t get in? You know, that’s not, that’s not a good look, right? That’s a pretty scary thing. So getting over the fear of actually putting myself out there to get into the program, that was the biggest obstacle that I had.

One of the things you’ve said is that you shouldn’t take yourself so seriously because that can really impede your growth and get in your way. How can CEOs, who run multi-million or billion-dollar companies, maintain that humility? 

So there’s a difference between taking your profession and your decision seriously and taking yourself too seriously. I’m very lighthearted as a person but I take my job very seriously, as I’m sure the CEOs do as well. The responsibility that job comes with cannot be overstated. But I think at the end of the day, they have to make sure that they keep enough lightness and stay true to who they are. I have to stay authentically me in a way that allows me to have the levity to be at my best because I find that if I don’t have fun in my day, then I can’t be the best version of me. My thinking is actually not at its peak. So I’m a better problem solver, I’m a better human being, I’m a better friend, I’m a better husband, I’m a better leader if I’m more relaxed, if I’m casual, if I stay authentic. CEOs do have the weight of the world on their shoulders. But if they don’t have enough balance in their life to have some levity, have some fun and stay authentic and true to who they are, then their decision-making capability goes down. So I think it’s really key for every leader, every human being to have that balance and to have that levity and to not take themselves too seriously. Certainly, the demands of the job are very serious, but at the end of the day, we can only do the best that we can do, pour 110% into each one of those decisions, and after that, the chips are going to fall where they may. Honestly, if they’re not staying authentic to who they are and they’re not having fun along the way, people are going to see that so it’s going to affect not only them and their decision-making capability, but the people around them as well.

Do you have any aspirations to be CEO someday?

You know, I used to have aspirations to be CEO. I was very much achievement oriented. And it feels great when you win a billion-dollar deal. But nothing in this world that I’ve found can compare with the feeling I get when I help another human being in a deep and meaningful way. So my whole line of thinking has shifted in the last few years to more about the achievement of helping other people, to my purpose, why I’m on the planet, the reason I came out of going blind happier and more successful. I think it’s because I have this opportunity to help people and that really is what fuels me is, how can I help the greatest number of people and have a meaningful impact on the world around me? If that means becoming CEO someday, that’s great. If it doesn’t—that’s okay, too.