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How to be a Transformational Leader, With Elaine Larsen

Elaine Larsen, President of Larsen Motorsports and driver of the Florida Tech Jet Dragster, took a big risk in turning her fledgling passion for drag racing into a multimillion-dollar business. How did she do it? By combining her husband’s love of aviation with her enthusiasm for being behind the wheel. Building a jet dragster and becoming a world racing champion, however, was not enough to maintain success.

Elaine made Larsen Motorsports a sustainable business by having a vision and keeping her eye on the future.

“We have changed with the times, and I don’t mean just following along with others,” she said. “We have to keep changing the way we think, in business and our designs. We make trends; we don’t follow them.”

Elaine does this not only by staying on top of industry trends, but also by making it her mission to inspire the next generation. She requires the Florida Tech students working at Larsen Motorsports to experience every “lab” in her organization, from the fabrication bay to the business component. This allows her to guide students as they “figure out what they want to do and what they’re good at,” helping them find their niche just as she found hers.

During a Florida Tech-sponsored webinar, Elaine discussed the lessons she has learned about being a leader on and off the race track. Here are seven of her tips for becoming a transformational leader.

Go Beyond Gimmicks

Simply being a female in a male-dominated industry is not a sustainable advantage. Elaine needed something more, and being a talented driver and performer allowed her to keep attracting sponsors.

“A girl driving a race car – that’s a cute game,” Elaine said. “But what’s going to get you into the game and get you bigger sponsors and more money, and what’s going to grow the business?”

So, combining their passions for aviation and racing, she and her husband, Chris, decided to build their own jet dragster, which Elaine would continue driving. That’s when they found their true niche.

Master Your Subject

Becoming an expert in your industry is a major component of being a leader. That includes knowing your strengths and understanding your market. For example, motorsports is a diverse field and, even though she’s a world champion in dragster racing, Elaine acknowledges that she wouldn’t know what to do with a Formula One car.

“Go out and do your research; go out and find someone who is the expert,” she says.

Staying up to date and on your toes is also imperative. Elaine asks herself: “What am I going to do today that’s going to keep me in the game?”

Know Your Limitations

Recognize that you don’t know everything and be open to learning new things. Each day, Elaine tries to ask herself, “What am I going to learn today?”

Also, admitting that you can’t do everything may be tough, but it’s necessary. You need to be able to ask for help and learn how to delegate. Elaine emphasizes that the next person you work with may be the secret ingredient to success – someone who can take your project to the next level.

Measure Success by Self-Satisfaction

Winning the big race isn’t as important as knowing you’ve made yourself better.

“You have to be satisfied,” Elaine says. “You have to know that when you put your head on the pillow every single night that you have given it 110%, that you have taken your company … in the right direction so that other people, hopefully, will be motivated to follow you or take on leadership positions.”

Be the Boss

Learning to be the boss was the most difficult thing for Elaine.

“We always want everyone to like us. We don’t want to necessarily mess with people. You don’t want to make them sad,” she says. “But, at the end of the day, you’re the one who is the boss, you’re the ones who are making those hard decisions and, when the bottom line isn’t met, you’re the one who has to face the consequences.”

By sharing your vision with your employees “they can get on board and understand that you’re not just flexing your muscles to be the boss just because you want to feel the power.”

Put Your Eggs in Different Baskets

Although you shouldn’t lose sight of your core mission, you can learn how to diversify your offerings. Larsen Motorsports aims to inspire the next generation of jet dragster drivers, and one way to do that is by promoting education in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math.

Elaine and one of her employees do speaking tours about STEM and also have an upcoming comic book, Adventures of Blaze, that features lesson plans on STEM subjects.

Embrace the Next Generation

The next generation should be even better than your generation – if you do your job right. Don’t worry that the spotlight won’t be on you and don’t compare. Instead, Elaine says, be confident and know that you’ve “been through the ranks, you know your stuff.”

“Experience can never be replaced. Make sure you share it, because when they succeed you succeed.”

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