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Bill Mains: Learning the Art of Leadership

Bill Mains is the director for leadership and sustainability in the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara, and a well-loved mentor to many students. In this conversation, we cover how Bill made his way to Santa Clara and discovered his passion for leadership education. We get into a few of the programs he has helped run, including the contemplative leadership and conscientious capitalism courses, and cover common leadership myths, Bill’s favorite book, and much more.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: Were there any experiences from your childhood that helped shape you?


Bill Mains: As a kid, our family moved around a lot. Last I counted, I went to seven different schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. I always had to meet new people from different cultures and trying to figure out how I could fit in to those places.


I’m the oldest of 12 children, eight biological and then my parents adopted four others who we all consider our full-blooded siblings. There were financial challenges with that many children on a single income, but my parents made it work, and it’s formed me partially into who I am today.


GC: How did you get interested in leadership and sustainability? 


BM: Leadership education has always been with me. It was something I gravitated towards in high school with sports teams and clubs, and in college being in a fraternity, student organizations, running track and singing in the choirs. In graduate school I had lots of opportunities to grow as a Resident Assistant.


Sustainability comes from my family. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I felt a strong connection to the earth and what it provides. A lot of the people who weren’t involved in agriculture in the areas where I grew up were involved in trades work or manufacturing, so I learned through friends’ parents.


We always had the biggest gardens, and we would shop at co-ops. It instilled in me an appreciation for all things sustainability. Coming to Santa Clara, I saw and interest to bring my expertise in leadership and sustainability together, and helping students who have an interest in those areas find ways that they intersect.


GC: One program that you are currently helping run is the Conscientious Capitalism class. How did it start, and what has come out of that program?


BM: This guy named Chip Adams founded the center for conscientious leadership in Menlo Park. Something that he noticed throughout his career is that he would meet with young people, and they wouldn’t have a clear understanding of why they were doing what they were doing. They found themselves going along with cultural norms or societal pressures rather than doing what truly spoke to them—doing something that was really a full representation of how they wanted to be in the world. With my work in what I called “contemplative leadership” and Chip’s “conscientious leadership,” it seemed like a nice blending of our interests.


Chip has created a course called Conscientious Capitalism and I helped flesh it out. It’s a fantastic course geared towards seniors across the university. We have amazing speakers that come in to provide inspiration, and we do Harvey-Kipp business case studies to look at what makes people tick and why are they making the decisions that they make.


Most importantly, we have small group leadership development teams where students are encouraged to explore deeply who they are and what they value to determine a sense of purpose and intentionality then get support.


GC: Are there any common myths about leadership?


BM: There’s a former dean and professor named Barry Posner and his partner Jim Kouzes, they put forward in their book dispel the myth that you have to be born to be an effective leader. That’s just not true, leaders are not born. Leaders are made. You might be born with certain qualities that make it easier to be a leader; you might be more charismatic, outgoing, authoritative or detail-oriented, but those are skills that can be learned.


The biggest myth that I try to dispel is that only certain people are born to be a leader. There’s a leader in every person that just needs to be refined and developed, and anyone can be an effective leader if they just work at it.


GC: Has your role in leadership education translated into your parenting at all?


BM: Yeah, all the time. In some respects, I’m a leader in my family in that I set expectations and consequences both through what I say and what I do. But, I’m also a follower, and my children are leaders. I’ve learned through them to have more of a sense of wonder and of possibility and negotiation and communication. The hallmark of any good leader is to know when to be a follower and remain humble. Having children is definitely a humbling experience.


GC: What book should every college student read?


BM: My favorite book of all time is called “Watership Down.” It’s a book about rabbits, so it might seem like a silly story for a grown man to like, but there are wonderful messages.

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