How a violent confrontation became a chance to lead

Dec 17, 2020

Sections Strategy Video

In May 2020, as protests raged around the United States following the murder of George Floyd, Ghian Foreman found himself in the middle of a tense confrontation between demonstrators and police. The president and CEO of the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and the president of the Chicago Police Board, Foreman hoped to be a neutral arbiter who could defuse the situation. Nonetheless, he was struck by a member of the police.

On this episode of “One Leader, One Story, One Lesson,” hosted by Chicago Booth’s Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, Foreman explains how he reacted to being hit, and how that reaction helped him de-escalate the situation rather than allowing it to continue to spiral.

Video Transcript

John Paul Rollert: I’m John Paul Rollert, and on behalf of the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Chicago Booth Review, I’m delighted to be here for the inaugural episode of “One Leader, One Story, One Lesson.” Today we have joining us Ghian Foreman. Ghian is the president and CEO of the Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative and the president of the Chicago Police Board. Ghian, it’s great to have you here with us. 

Ghian Foreman: Thank you very much. Glad to be here. 

John Paul Rollert: So Ghian, I’m so glad you could be here with us because there’s this problem I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about recently that I think is familiar to all sorts of leaders. And that is, when you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, when you’re under a tremendous amount of pressure, when you feel like you’re being pulled in all different directions, how do you keep that presence of mind to be able to continue making the very best judgements and decisions in those high-pressure environments? Now, you had a profound experience earlier this year that I think really speaks to this question, and I was hoping you’d share your story. 

Ghian Foreman: Sure, so, thank you. I have a poster on my wall that I look at every day in the office and it says, “The mental must always stay calm. You must let nothing move you, be it good or bad, for when the mental cannot be moved, there is no longer good or bad, there just is. And when there just is, you have the power to form and shape.” So you could think about that one a little bit on the back end, but basically what this saying says is, is that if you can stay calm and take a step back and survey and use the tools that you already have, you’re prepared for these situations, right? You have to take in a lot of data and you have to be able to execute, live with those decisions, be it good or bad. 

So, as you might know, serving as the Chicago Police Board, one of our roles is, is we are like the end of the road when it comes to police accountability. And of course, right now we’re dealing in a historic, monumental time. We’re dealing with police and community relationships, given all of the current events, as recently as a couple of the earlier days this week with the Breonna Taylor case. And so, there was the first night of the uprisings in Chicago took place, and so, over the course— 

John Paul Rollert: And this is early in the summer, roughly June, when this is going on? 

Ghian Foreman: This is the end of May 2020. And so, while the looting is taking place and it’s escalating and it really is concentrated downtown, of course, I’m speaking with all of our elected officials, all of the men in the mayor’s office and the superintendent’s office, and it’s a really bad situation. And so, I’ve always been one of those people criticizing the mayor or the police, the superintendent, or whatever on the back end, always Monday morning quarterbacking is always pretty easy, but in this particular case, I happened to be on the field, right? And the play is called, so—

John Paul Rollert: And is that because by being president of the Chicago Police Board, you have to see these issues from both sides as best as possible? 

Ghian Foreman: So, that’s one part of it, for sure. And it’s a very important part of it, right, because I have to have the frame of mind to stay neutral to be able to understand everything. The other important part of it is, is that I served as the vice president of the police board under Mayor Lightfoot when she was the president. So we have a very good working relationship, and I would dare to say that, she counseled, she asked me for advice on certain issues, and so we kinda go back and forth to make sure that she’s getting complete information when she ultimately has to make a decision that she has to ultimately be the one to live with. And so, I have to have the presence of mind to be able to present her with the clear evidence. If she asks me for feedback on something, I have to be able to process it quickly, think about all the potential ramifications, upsides, downsides, and then be able to make a decision that ultimately one can live with. 

And so, it was a terrible night. Nobody got a chance to sleep, and so I got an opportunity to talk to the mayor early the next morning, and obviously she was upset, right? Just like the majority of people were upset, and it was my job to then make sure that she saw a different opportunity, to understand what are the alternatives. There were some people who looted because they were frustrated. There were some people who looted because there was an opportunity. My big message was: How do we create this as an opportunity to create something for the future? This damage is done. Nobody wanted that. How do we do that? The mayor ended up inviting me to come to the press conference to speak. I spoke at a press conference, really felt like a big portion of the population were motivated by not only my words—the mayor’s words, the superintendent’s, and some of the other speakers’. And it was a crazy situation because even getting to the press conference that day I had to use my police credentials to get to the location. 

John Paul Rollert: Because effectively—

Ghian Foreman: At this point in time, the city is locked down. Bridges are up. Highways are shut down. You can only take the streets. You can’t get into the Loop. I have to make phone calls to the highest level, show my police credentials, in order to get on to I-55 or 90/94. Everything is shut down. So it’s very dystopian. I’m the only car on the expressway. 

I’m in a rush to get . . . We give the press conference. On the way back, I can’t use police credentials to get back home, so I have to take the streets, and sure enough the looting is into the communities at this point, kinda worst-case scenario. So now there’s mayhem all over the city. As my wife would say it, I make the unwise decision to park my car and get a couple of friends because I saw looting taking place in an area where a lot of my personal real estate holdings are. So I feel very vested in that community. It’s the community I grew up in, and although I don’t own those particular stores or those particular businesses, it’s a part of my community. 

So I put it on social media. I had about 15 people, friends, some people I didn’t even know come out. We worked hand in hand with the police. We were able to get the looting settled to a minimum, really stopped. So we were able to stop one place for the looting, but the city was pretty much out of control. I went home, felt very tired, took a shower, picked up my camera, decided to just kinda go take a walk. And just a neighborhood walk, a walk that I’ve made 100 times, and I’m walking down the street and I started to see a crowd approaching. 

John Paul Rollert: And at this point, you’re actually right near the University of Chicago. You’re right in the middle of Hyde Park, right? 

Ghian Foreman: I’m on 53rd Street, Hyde Park. I grew up in Hyde Park. I used to bag groceries at what’s now Hyde Park Produce. It was Mr. G’s. So I’m taking my normal walk, the same walk I’ve taken every week of my life practically. It is footsteps away from where I grew up and from where I live right now. And I’m walking down the street, and all of a sudden, I see a sea of people walking toward me, and I’m like, what is going on?

I didn’t really pay a lot of attention. There were police lined up. My normal thing when I speak to police, they don’t know who I am, that I’m the president of the police board. I typically speak to them. Good afternoon, officer. Good afternoon, officer. Be safe. That’s my typical thing. I don’t think too much of it. 

And it’s looting taking place, so of course the police should be here. And I see a young man who I mentor who previously had some trouble with the law. I see him and just again, I’m not thinking anything, but I see the protests and I tell him, man, be safe. Forty-five seconds later, I saw a melee occur. I saw the police hitting protesters with batons. I saw protesters hitting police with bottles. It was a complete melee, something that in my role as police board, I typically get a chance to see from an evidence perspective, when I’m reviewing a case. This is the kind of information that we have to observe. And now I’m in the middle of it, so I had to— 

John Paul Rollert: And can I ask, having seen that as a matter of evidence, what is it like actually being there in the middle of a riot? 

Ghian Foreman: It was a hard place to be. It was a place where you had to quickly draw back upon all of your training that you’ve ever had, all of the resources that you ever had, to try to make a decision to stay calm. What are your options here? It’s not like instantly you have to make a decision tree. 

This is an aside, but I tell you when I was in business school, there was a guy in one of my group studies, group classes, and we had a case study, and I never figured it out, right? We would all sit down. We’d read the cases, 10 pages or 12 pages. We’d sit down. We’d talk about it. Whatever answer he decided, that he said the first time we talked about it, it was right. He did this thing two or three times, and so finally I said to him, how do you keep doing this, man? How do you get the right answer every time, the very first time we talk about it? You covered all the bases. You didn’t get a B+. You didn’t get an A-. You got an A+. How do you do this? 

And he said, well, look, man, I was a fighter pilot before business school. You worked in business before business school. I was a fighter pilot. I had someone talking in my ear. I had what my eyes, could see out in the sky. I had someone sitting in the back seat telling me what to do. And I had all these gauges that I had to observe all at the same time. No one gauge was more important than another. The person talking, the person in the backseat, all of it I had to have the ability to take in. 

And so that was essentially what I had to do. The 10 years of training that I had being on the police board, I had to kind of call all of that into play at this one particular incident, and so I immediately went to being that neutral arbiter, trying to stop the police from hitting the protesters, trying to stop the protesters from hitting the police, or—and quite frankly, being civil with each other. And in the process of doing this, I was struck by one of the police officers. 

Now, typically the supervisors would typically know who I am, but this is a special occasion, right? This is an occasion like no other. I’m going out for a walk. I have on a hoodie, right? Like I would normally wear, I have on my sunglasses, like I would normally wear, but I have on a mask. You don’t know if I’m 46 years old or if I’m 26 years old. The police officer had to, he also had to take in a lot of information at once and make a decision. Did he make the right decision? I don’t think it was necessarily the appropriate decision, but kinda given the situation that he was in, I kind of understood and said, “Wow, here’s an opportunity.” Rather than looking from a punitive perspective, I looked at it from a perspective of, how do we get a victory here? And so there was a lot of information that I had to take in at once. When I was hit— 

John Paul Rollert: Can I ask? I mean, you’re hit. You’re bodily hit. I’ve never been hit like that before by a policeman or anyone else. I mean with a bat, I presume, or a nightstick. The natural human response is just to shove someone away. I mean, how did you keep your restraint? Take me into it. What was going through your mind at that moment? 

Ghian Foreman: Yeah, so I’m African American obviously, but I’m also Native American, and so I’ve heard stories from my family from the Trail of Tears. I’ve heard stories from my family from escaping the KKK. So all of that is already in me from a DNA perspective, but I’ve also heard the stories over time. I’ve seen Eyes on the Prize. I’ve seen Martin Luther King. 

My immediate reaction was like, how in the beep is this happening to me? How did I get here? I was out for a walk. How did I get here? I literally felt like I time traveled back to something that I saw on channel 11, on public television because that’s what . . . I read history. I watch history. And again, I’ve studied martial arts. I’ve studied boxing. So your immediate reaction is, you get hit? Pop. You hit back. 

I had to calm myself immediately to say, no, that’s not the right way that we need to do this. It’s not going to help the situation. And by the way, my leg really hurts so I’m probably going to lose this fight, so this is not the route that we need to take. So I had to take a deep breath to let the mind calm down because if the mind is calm, you have the power to form and shape. 

So I used my resources appropriately at that point. I spoke to the commander. I thought the situation wasn’t being handled right, but at that point in time, the commander had a lot that he had to deal with. I saw a lieutenant, a lieutenant who I’ve known from working in the neighborhood. This is not a whole bunch of brass. He’s a supervisor, but he just became a supervisor relatively recently. And he became the leader at that point in time. He directed me and said, “This is what I need you to do.” He was directing other officers. This is what I need you to do. 

So he stepped up in a moment in time when I was being an extraordinary leader. I was being patient. I was calming the situation. There was someone else who came up to be my leader at that point in time. At that moment in time, the crowd and the police were nose to nose. It was a bad situation. I approached and asked everyone to take a step back, for everyone to take a deep breath, and it allowed everyone to kind of regain their composure to figure out, what does a win look like? Because that day, everybody lost, and for the last couple of months, everyone has been losing. 

So the point is that, that moment in time is only a snapshot for the rest of the things that we have to do. If I had a knee-jerk reaction right there, that doesn’t allow me to come up with a good long-term solution to solve the problem that we’re really thinking about. So when I think back to, how did business school prepare me? It certainly did not prepare me for something like this, but it did prepare me with the ability to make decisions based on the evidence that I have, rational evidence, and so that was kinda what I drew upon. I didn’t pull out a case study and say, this is what I’m gonna do. I had to take a lot of information at once. Think about all of the possible outcomes, choose the best one, and like Jay-Z says, “You gotta be willing to live with regrets.”

John Paul Rollert: I’m curious, Ghian, this ability to take a breath, take a step back, which is difficult under the best of circumstances—and what you’re describing is far from those types of circumstances—it seems like this is something that we too rarely do. And I’m curious, for you, how do you do that? Whether it’s in the boardroom or in the situation you’re describing out in the streets. Take a step back, take a breath, and have that presence of mind to kind of make the best decision in a set of really high-pressure circumstances. It seems like that’s something we have a difficult time doing these days, and I’m curious how you do it. 

Ghian Foreman: It’s perspective, and quite honestly, I’m not sure that I would have been able to have this perspective had I not been hit. When I got hit, I called a high-ranking member of the police department, and I can laugh and joke about it at the time. I mean I couldn’t walk for about six days, but I was laughing and joking about it. I’m a guy who very rarely you don’t see me without a smile. And so I say man, do you guys get hit with this thing in the training academy? And he laughed. He said, “Well we do, but we have on pads.” And I said, “Well, I could understand why this is a very effective tool. You don’t need to hit a person five, six, seven, eight, 10 times. You can hit them twice, and they’re out for the count.”

John Paul Rollert: So I’m curious, Ghian, so much of the experience of leadership is people watching you, evaluating you, seeing what your reactions are in real time, and so here you have a situation where you have the protestors on the one side and the police on the other, and you show this incredible restraint in the face of tremendous physical bodily harm. Now that it’s all said and done, I’m curious to know how other people have reacted to you in light of the way you handled this situation and the leadership you exercised. 

Ghian Foreman: Yeah, so it’s a good question, and I’m going to answer it, and at the same time, it really doesn’t matter to me because I know that what I did was the right thing for the right reasons. I mean I’ve had people who think I’m a hero. Some of my daughter’s friends were out there, and they say I’m the OG now and so, the goal, because they saw me stepping up and stopping the police. Police saw me stopping protesters. So they thought, wow, he’s a really fair guy, right. And guess what? Both of those perspectives can be right at the same time. 

I didn’t choose a side. I had to have the peace of mind to kinda calm down, to be able to say, again, what is this best, kind of, option that where everybody gets a win. And so, I think it’s important to have the presence of mind to understand short-, medium-, and long-term goals. And if one can have that presence of mind to calm down, observe, take in as much information . . . Right? 

Again, I’m gonna bring this back to business school terms. Efficient markets, right? If the information is out there, it’s publicly available, we know how to price this thing. So let’s take in as much information as we can. We know that some things aren’t right with police-community . . . We know that. So if we can all . . . What can we agree upon? Much easier for us to figure out what’s different. To figure out what we have in common, what we can all agree upon, that’s a lot harder work, a lot harder work. 

If you’re married, you know exactly what I mean. I just celebrated 23 years of marriage, and it’s because we have to find . . . We can always find a way to argue, what can we find that we can agree upon? And this is the hard part, and so, sometimes it’s the little details that we just have to spend some time working on. 

John Paul Rollert: So, Ghian, reflecting on this experience and the extraordinary leadership you exercised during it, I’m curious, by way of a final question, is there one central lesson that we can take away from your experience? One that we can not only apply, say, to our professional lives, but maybe our personal lives as well? 

Ghian Foreman: Man, this might not be what your audience is looking for, but I’m just gonna keep it real. There’s so much of imbalance right now that exists in our world. It’s not even a tale of two cities. During this pandemic, a group that I’m a part of, we gave out 10,000 bags of groceries. That problem didn’t go away because school started. That problem didn’t go away because we had to get back and focus on our jobs. That problem absolutely still exists. 

There’s a ton of kids that don’t have access to get onto their computers right now and learn. My daughter has access to go to two, three rooms in the house, two, three, four computers in the house, but that’s not what we’re living with. 

I was 24 years old the first time I ever called the police for hearing a gunshot, because I was used to hearing gunshots. I didn’t think . . . It was normal. I could tell you if a gunshot was six blocks away. Why did that impact me? I can tell you that bullets went through the windows of my office six or seven times when I worked on the Southwest Side of the city, and my wife begged me not to work there, but these are the conditions that people live in. 

The first time I heard an AK-47, it scared me. I thought it was a dragon outside of my office, and a young man who lived on the block, so calmly, who was an intern for me, said, “Oh, that was an AK-47,” and kept typing like nothing happened. And so, it’s easy for us all to get upset when there’s a shooting on Rush Street or Michigan Avenue, but there’s 10 shootings on 63rd Street or the West Side or the far South Side every day, but there’s no outrage. So until we can see ourselves in the same vein that we see the rest of humanity, we’ll continue to have these problems throughout time. But if we can look together and say, man, how much do I really need to be OK? How much am I willing to invest in the lives of somebody like me? There was a guy who invested in me who let me bag groceries at his grocery store, and so I think that this is the conversation that we have to really start having. 

John Paul Rollert: Well, Ghian, it may not be what people are looking for, but I think it’s what they need to hear. 

Ghian Foreman: I hope so. 

John Paul Rollert: Ghian Foreman, thank you so much for sharing your story. 

Ghian Foreman: Thank you very much. It’s my pleasure.