The Courage to Collaborate: Carly Fiorina Interviews Kay Coles James on "By Example" Podcast

The Courage to Collaborate: Carly Fiorina Interviews Kay Coles James on "By Example" Podcast

Nov 6th, 2019 23 min read

The Heritage Foundation


Heritage President Kay Coles James joins Carly Fiorina's "By Example" podcast to discuss the importance of collaborative leadership, diverse teams, and being willing to compromise on strategy but not on principles.

Carly Fiorina: I'm Carly Fiorina and this is By Example. On this podcast, we sit down with leaders of all types to explore examples of real leadership and the qualities of all great problem solvers. I think we get really confused about what leadership is. On By Example, we lift up the real leaders, people who are focused on changing the order of things for the better and solving real problems that are right in front of them, leading by example. Kay Coles James isn't necessarily a household name in non-politically active families across America, but her influence and her incredible body of work have certainly touched everyone in one way or another. She's served in various significant roles in numerous presidential administrations, was the Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, the founder of the Gloucester Institute, which seeks to gather and train young African Americans, and is the current president of The Heritage Foundation. As for almost everyone, it wasn't an easy ride to the top for her, either. She was a young African American girl in Richmond, Virginia, raised in the projects. She'll talk today about how she was treated differently, sometimes very cruelly, and never really had a plan to become what she has become. Rather, she began to tackle problems in front of her, and that propelled her success. Imagine being an 11-year-old child and walking in as the first, the only African American child in an entire school, and having the problem in front of you be to help integrate the classroom. That is Kay Coles James. Agree or disagree with her, she is a woman of principle and extraordinary accomplishment, and she has a lot to teach about the real meaning of leadership and the importance of diversity. I'm excited to bring you my conversation with Mrs. Kay Coles James. Kay Coles James, welcome to By Example. I'm so excited to have you here today.

Kay Coles James: Well, I am excited to be here. This is not gratuitous in any way, but I have so long admired and respected you, and been so proud of you as you took the national stage when you were running for president. I made my granddaughter sit down and watch you.

Carly Fiorina: Oh my goodness. Well-

Kay Coles James: Absolutely true.

Carly Fiorina: ... thank you so much. Thank you so much.

Kay Coles James: Absolutely true.

Carly Fiorina: Well, I have been a long admirer of yours as well, which is why I'm so excited to be having this conversation today. The name of this podcast is By Example, and what we do is lift up leaders who, by their example, show the rest of us what leadership is all about. One of the things that I say frequently and I've learned along the way is that leadership isn't about position or title. You've had a lot of really important positions and titles and you hold one now, and we'll come and talk about that and some of your other positions in a moment. But you're a leader, not because of those positions and titles. You're a leader because your entire life, you have changed the order of things for the better. You have always changed things for the better and that's why it's such an honor to welcome you to By Example today.

Kay Coles James: Well, thank you and I must admit that in almost every instance in my life, it was not planned, it was not strategic on my part. When I go back to the very, very beginning, I think it happened when I was tasked, along with a few other young African Americans, to integrate the schools in the South. I think about what was required of me in that moment. You had to be courageous. You had to be fearless. You had to be tenacious. I think very early on, those characteristics were sort of ingrained in me and have served me well over all these many years.

Carly Fiorina: It's such a wonderful reflection you just gave us. I mean, imagine for those listening, imagine you're a young person and you're asked, "Okay, let's integrate the schools in the South." It's a pretty tall order. I believe that leaders are made, not born, and that all leaders share certain common characteristics. Courage being the first and most important, because without courage, none of us can tackle the status quo. Unless we tackle the status quo, things don't get better, do they?

Kay Coles James: Absolutely. You know, I just went through a sort of challenging moment with Google, some of your listeners may be aware of that, where I was attacked and I was... by about 2,000 Google employees who felt that I should not serve on this advisory commission. It was so amusing to me when some friends began to call and say, "Are you okay? The things that they're saying about you are horrendous." It occurred to me that, you know, I've been in that position ever since I was 12 years old, when I was called names as I was walking up the steps to try to integrate a school in the South. When a junior high school teacher made a very bad joke when she was reading the menu for the day and said, "And for dessert, we're having brownies, and Lord knows why we're having those. We have enough of them here already."

Carly Fiorina: Oh my goodness.

Kay Coles James: And you know, being pro-life, being conservative, being Republican, being evangelical, being black, all of those things from the very beginning, you toughen up and you figure out who you are. And so, rather than looking back at my life and thinking about all the difficulties, I think about what a blessing, what a blessing to have had all of those experiences to prepare me to be able to stand tall today. So, I use that when I talk to young moms sometimes, especially helicopter moms who are extracting from their sons and daughters the very things that they will need to be great leaders and to be successful. They don't want them to hurt. They don't want them to have bad experiences. They don't want them to be disappointed. And all of those things are essential to learn how to stand alone, to learn how to deal with disappointment. I think all of those things are critical. Critical for what we find when we step out onto the stage of the big RW, the big real world.

Carly Fiorina: Oh, that is so true. You've said so much there, so let's unpack it a little bit at a time. First, you've said that you are an unexpected package. You're an unexpected collection of things. And so, because you're unexpected, you get more stuff thrown at you, right?

Kay Coles James: Absolutely.

Carly Fiorina: I mean, I know that from my own experience.

Kay Coles James: Oh, absolutely.

Carly Fiorina: And you've also said that social media, I think is so difficult, so critical, so vitriolic. In a way, it's just poisoning our environment and we make such quick assumptions about people. Those 2,000 employees at Google, boy, they don't know what they missed. They don't know what they missed. How foolish of them. Kay Coles James: Well, my favorite, my favorite out of all the things that they said about me was that I was a white nationalist. Carly Fiorina: Well, there you go. I mean, it's an example I think of politics infecting our ability to have a conversation.

Kay Coles James: Oh, absolutely.

Carly Fiorina: We've gotten so tribal. It's like, well, if you line up with this tribe, then you must be all those things. It's a terrible thing. I also completely agree with you that it is our difficult times, our painful times, our challenging times, our frightening times that help us figure out who we are, and are we going to be able to stand tall and define ourselves for ourselves, not let other people tell us who we are and what we're going to do. No, decide for ourselves.

Kay Coles James: Absolutely. If you don't mind a biblical reference, when I was going through one of my more difficult challenges, someone sent me passages from the Bible that had to do with pruning and being a vine, and the analogy that they said was, "Kay, they don't prune dead vines. They prune live vines."

Carly Fiorina: It's true.

Kay Coles James: Why does that happen? What happens when you prune? You produce more fruit. So, you may be going through a difficult period, but that's only to make you a stronger, healthier vine that will produce way more fruit. So, sometimes, as parents especially, we need to remember that when we see our children going through difficult times and we want to rescue them, it's better to walk beside them as they go through those than rescue them and take them out of those difficult times.

Carly Fiorina: It's so true. It's interesting, you know, we're all afraid of things and we're all afraid of being criticized, right? We'd much rather have people telling us how awesome we are all the time. And so, but for young people especially, I think that criticism is so omnipresent in social media. It's like, "Woo, I don't want anyone to criticize me. Let me curate my photos, let me do all these things." And yet, when we can stand up and move on despite the criticism.

Kay Coles James: Well, right. And I think that's what develops us into strong leaders. To rescue, to take people out of that, to allow them not to have those experiences, I think is diminishing the pool of a cadre of people that we have that can lead this great nation, or lead great companies, or lead great universities. The skillsets that are required are developed as we go through this difficult thing called life.

Carly Fiorina: Yes, it's so true. Courage is, I think first and foremost as we've been discussing such a critical element of leadership, which is to change the order of things for the better, and courage you learn. It's not that you're not afraid, it's that you learn how to get over your fears. The other thing, of course, we're talking about is character, the character, the tenacity, the consistency to get through those tough times with your principles and your soul intact. Tell us about how and when you first developed your character. You grew up in very difficult circumstances in Richmond. You were given difficult challenges as a young person.

Kay Coles James: Certainly.

Carly Fiorina: And you've tackled difficult challenges the whole rest of your life. Where did you find that reserve of character?

Kay Coles James: Well, it came early. It came when I was at home watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, and Billy Graham said that with a personal relationship with Christ, you have the opportunity to be the person that you want to be but feel powerless to become. I have said that when you live your life according to your principles of your faith, it protects you from so much. As a matter of fact, I've been asked more than once, "How in the world did you manage to spend 30 years in Washington and never get indicted for anything?" Because I was taught very early on as a matter of my faith, don't lie, don't steal, don't cheat, don't do anything immoral, illegal or unethical. And those very strong precepts that were ingrained in me from the time I was in junior high school and all the way through high school, are the very things that kept me safe here in this town, this now-called swamp of Washington, D.C. If you have determined that you will not do anything illegal, immoral or unethical, it will save you from a multitude of problems. And it makes life very easy to navigate, if that's the standard that you have. So, it not only is a great standard of faith to have that, but it is also a protection around you. I have had to resign from jobs when I was asked to do something that was unethical. I have been in situations, I've had me too moments where there were lots of opportunities to be immoral. You know, on occasion there have been times when people have asked me to do something that in my mind was absolutely illegal. But when you have a set of standards that you live your life by, it is a protection.

Carly Fiorina: It is indeed. And it is also true that for people listening, the truth is that we are presented with many opportunities, these are my words now, to sell our souls. I say to people all the time, in a way, the more successful you become, the more opportunities you have in front of you, the more there are opportunities to sell your soul, to give up those principles, to fudge it just a little bit.

Kay Coles James: Absolutely.

Carly Fiorina: And so, it is easier, it protects you when you're clear about your principles, but it also means that sometimes you disappoint people.

Kay Coles James: Oh, Carly. That happens to all the time, and particularly here right now as the president of The Heritage Foundation, it would almost be easier operating in this town if liberals and Democrats were in charge because they would not expect me to do that. But the phone calls that I get from friends on Capitol Hill, or friends in the administration that says, "I know this may violate one of your principles at Heritage, but would you..." But they don't understand, I get 10 of those calls a week. "... would you compromise this?" And so, we have a philosophy here that we will always be true north. We will figure out what the research, the data and the analysis tells us. We will figure out what is the correct conservative position on any issue, and then we're going to point in that direction and we can't be lobbied. One of my favorite sayings is, "The president of The Heritage Foundation cannot be lobbied." I cannot be lobbied to change a position. Once we know and we have... You know, within this building where we sit, I like to say, are some of the smartest people on the planet, and they do the research, they do the data, they do the analysis and then sometimes they even have the internal debate to figure out what the correct position ought to be. And so, once that process has taken place and the analysts and the researchers have defined what that position is, I can't be lobbied to change that. So, I tell all my friends, "I can really save you a lot of angst and phone calls and a time to meet if you think that what you're going to ask me to do violates one of our core principles, it's just not going to happen."

Carly Fiorina: Well, and it's so important that that true north exists. The thing about principles is, sometimes they're inconvenient.

Kay Coles James: Yes, they are.

Carly Fiorina: And of course, the political dynamic is not the same as principles. George Washington said in 1789, "The trouble with political parties, they will come to care only about winning." Politics is very tribal now, and the dynamic of winning, I win, you lose, is very different sometimes than the dynamic of principled discourse.

Kay Coles James: Absolutely. I had a reporter ask me when I first came to The Heritage Foundation as president, "How are you going to navigate this town?" And I thought about it for a minute and I said, "You know, I'm not. I am not going to navigate this town. That's one of the things that I really enjoy about what I do right now and that is, I don't have to navigate. I just have to stand."

Carly Fiorina: There you go. There you go. You know, you wrote a book in 1995. It's called Transforming America From the Inside Out, and in that book you wrote, "The real solutions are not political. The political system is but a subset." And I think that's so true. I completely agree with you. I think a lot of Americans would agree with you, and it brings me to another aspect of you that I think is so illustrative of how real leaders are. We talk about courage, we talk about character. You are a very principled person. You stick to your precepts as we've discussed, but you also are an incredibly collaborative person. You will have a conversation with virtually anyone. Your staff was telling me a story of the fact that you had protesters down on the sidewalk around the building. You said-

Kay Coles James: Yes.

Carly Fiorina: ... "Have them come up to my office. Let's have a conversation." That ability to collaborate with people who may not be like you, may not think like you, who may not look like you, it's so important to problem-solving, and we don't have enough of that, I think.

Kay Coles James: You know, I think you as a great leader know that sometimes we get to better solutions when we have people with a diverse perspective

Carly Fiorina: Oh, yes.

Kay Coles James: ... and point of view, and I love to hear the discussion go back and forth. I love to hear people talk out of their own experience, and then the decisions that I have to make are better informed. So, I think it's important to make a distinction between what are the principles that we hold dear, the values that are important and then strategically how we get there. So, I will compromise on strategy, but I will never compromise on principle. Sometimes I find in this town, it is imperative to compromise and to compromise on strategy, but people don't even want to do that. Sometimes it's important to understand that you don't get the whole thing the first time, and the strategy may be you take this piece of the pie and you keep working hard, and eventually you will get it all. But we don't want to even compromise on the strategic piece of the leadership puzzle. Carly Fiorina: You know, one of the things that I've experienced over and over and over again is that diverse teams are more effective teams.

Kay Coles James: No question.

Carly Fiorina: They're more effective teams. And you just talked about why. Neuroscientists will tell us that we learn more, we're more creative, we're more thoughtful when we're challenged. When we're challenged. I was just giving a speech the other day where I said, "Look, people will start to build diverse teams, really diverse teams when they understand it's a better team."

Kay Coles James: Absolutely.

Carly Fiorina: It's not just about being nice to each other, that's important. Being respectful of others, incredibly important. It is, a collaboration is more effective if you have different people with different experiences and points of view around the table. As you say, it doesn't mean you give up your principles or your values, it means you're empathetic enough to learn from someone else's point of view and experience.

Kay Coles James: And you know, what I find with... As we deal in the marketplace of ideas here, I have come to the conclusion that there's a lot more unity than there is diversity. What I mean by that is people say, "Who is your audience? Who do you want to go after with your conservative philosophy?" And I tell them, "Bernie Sanders voters." And that's almost like, "What? Explain that. Unpack that for me." I think that's true because I have figured out that they want the same thing that I do.

Carly Fiorina: Of course.

Kay Coles James: I don't know anybody that doesn't want people to have great quality healthcare, but we have a different perspective about how to get there. I don't know anyone who cares more about poor people than we do here at The Heritage Foundation. I came out of that background. I care deeply about issues of poverty, but I have some very different solutions about how we get there. So, we can agree on where we want to go. But boy, I would love to have a debate and a discussion about the policies and how you shape those policies in order to improve the quality of people's lives. You can talk about almost any issue, whether it's education, healthcare, housing. We all agree, we all agree with the outcomes that we want to see for human flourishing, but we have some very different perspectives. And things are so bad, so bad. How in the world can you keep any good idea away from the table? So, I am ready and up for the challenge of the debate. For me, it isn't just intellectual, it's my own family members.

Carly Fiorina: Yes.

Kay Coles James: When people are talking about the opioid crisis in America, I mean, I care about the policy, but I lost a niece, who died.

Carly Fiorina: I lost a daughter.

Kay Coles James: Oh, absolutely. So, this is real for us.

Carly Fiorina: Yes, it's real. And that ability to collaborate I think is so important. Again, sometimes politics infects the conversation so people can't... "No, no, no. You're on the wrong team. You're in the wrong tribe. I can't have a conversation with you." And yet, I find, and I know you do as well, I find in the work we do in communities all across this country, that on the ground people are like, "Can we please get together-"

Kay Coles James: Oh, yes.

Carly Fiorina: ... "and try to make this better? Can we please collaborate in an effective way?" Kay, let me ask you, you have tackled very difficult things, integrating schools when you were 12, you grew up in the projects, you've led welfare reform efforts for the Governor of Virginia, you've helped restore historic places that have been at the center of the civil rights movement. There are people who look at the experience of race relations in this country and are bitter about that. You seem to have looked at that set of experiences, which are deeply personal to you, and you see possibilities for things to get better. I don't sense an ounce of bitterness in you. I sense purpose in you. Talk about that difference.

Kay Coles James: There's a chapter in one of my books called, The Same Sun That Hardens Clay Softens Butter. And I think we can be intentional about the things that come into our lives. Are we going to let those things make us hard and bitter and resentful? Or are we going to allow those experiences to soften us and give us, you know, warm hearts for people who are suffering and have been through the same things that we have?

Carly Fiorina: Humility and empathy.

Kay Coles James: Humility and empathy. Absolutely. And so, I think it's a choice. It is absolutely a choice. And I think the other thing that has helped me along the way, particularly with race relations is, I have had some of the deepest, closest friendships across racial lines from a very early age. Yes, it was difficult walking past the barking dogs and the name calling as I tried to go in for a seventh grade education, the snide remarks from racist teachers. But I also remember the young white girl who, when I was kicked down the steps, bent over to help me pick up my books, while the crowd turned on her for helping me. But she had courage and she helped me anyway. I think that helped me to understand not to see people as large categories, as races, but as individuals. Some of my dearest and closest friendships over the years have been across racial lines. So, I wouldn't want anyone to make large sweeping conclusions about who I am because I'm black. And I certainly won't do that across racial lines going the other way. There's something to be said for looking past a person's skin color and looking at who they are. And I have been blessed throughout my life to have some of the most warm, loving, close relationships. The two women who influenced me most in life as I was developing, are two women out of Richmond, Virginia, Joyce Ranson, and Beth York. They had such a profound influence on me, two white women, that I named my daughter after them. Her name is Elizabeth Joyce. They showed me love, they showed me kindness, in the middle of the civil rights movement, in the middle of the Black Power struggle on our college campuses. And they did it with humility, they did it with kindness. They put up and tolerated my black rage, and they listened to me. And they absorbed a lot from that angry black college student. Over the years, the relationships that developed and the friendships are so deep that I think I had to soften. I don't know how you could be hardened when shown that kind of love and show those kinds of relationships.

Carly Fiorina: Well, I think you put it very well when you said it's a choice. I think it is a choice. I also think you said something really important. We have to see someone as an individual. I think of course it's important not to judge people by what they look like or what the letter is next to their name for their political affiliation-

Kay Coles James: Right.

Carly Fiorina: ... or where they come from, or what their faith is, but to experience them as an individual. I worry that our young people, accelerated by social media, honestly, sort of gather up into their tribes. We tend to be sort of tribal by nature anyway. It's a choice to see someone for who they are, to take the time to understand and get to know someone for who they are. Clearly the women in your life did that. They took at the time.

Kay Coles James: Oh, yeah. They did. Even beyond that, I have lots of relationships. I have a gay son, you may or may not know that. His community of friends have taught me so much. I am just richer and better for welcoming them into my life, and for them welcoming me into theirs. So, I have intergenerational friends. I love hanging out with college students and millennials. So, I have old friends, young friends, rich friends, poor friends, black friends, white friends, Asian friends. I mean gay, lesbian, straight, my life is richer because of the people that I invite in, and they challenge me, they grow me, they make me a better person. So, I am not the same person today that I was 15, 20 years ago because of the life experiences that I've had. And I'm grateful for every one of those. I actually, you know, I covet those relationships, and for anyone who gets into their tribe and stays there, they are missing out on so much of what this world has to offer.

Carly Fiorina: It's so true. You know, Kay, we've talked about courage and how important it is to leadership. We've talked about character and its essential foundation. We've talked about collaboration, the ability in particular to collaborate with people that are different than you are, because we're better when we collaborate and learn from people who are different than we are. And all of those are essential qualities of leadership. The other one that I think is also important is the ability, the choice, to use your term, to see possibilities everywhere. In circumstances and especially in people. I think that's what you're talking about. That's what you do every single day. You just see possibilities everywhere you look.

Kay Coles James: I do, and I'll tell you, when I hear people talk about our country, and they talk about our past and they talk about the scars on our nation, I know all of that history. I see it- Carly Fiorina: Of course, you've lived it.

Kay Coles James: I've lived it. But what I see are the possibilities. I see what the founders saw when they established this great nation, and I know of all of what America can be. And so, rather than focusing on the things that we may have gotten wrong in the past, but corrected, and I remind people of that all the time. All the scars that you see, my word, you cannot overlook the fact that we as a nation addressed those problems, because they gave us a framework in which to do that. There's no country on the earth that has the possibility to be as great as this one, just based on who we are as a people, and based on what our founders gave us with our founding documents and with the order that they set in place with our country.

Carly Fiorina: It's so true. It's such an important reminder. People closest to the problems know best how to solve them. That was one of the principles upon which this nation was founded. You know, that problems need to get solved close to where they are, not far away in some big bureaucracy somewhere as in Washington, D.C. But I think there are always problems. One of the things that I think you're reminding us of, and it's true, there's always problems. It's part of life. There's always problems. Things can always get better. The question is, are problems addressed as they come up? A lot of problems have been addressed in this nation over the years-

Kay Coles James: That's exactly right.

Carly Fiorina: ... and we still have many problems left to go.

Kay Coles James: Well, I liken it unto my family and my marriage. I said, "We are one of the most dysfunctional families in some of the most functional ways." What I mean by that is, almost any issue that you can think of that could come into a family has come into ours. But I think we have the processes in place, the love in place, the commitment in place-

Carly Fiorina: The leadership in place.

Kay Coles James: And as a result of that, everything that has been thrown at our marriage or at our family, we have been able to work through. So, it's again seeing the possibilities of what our lives could be like together. My husband and I are getting ready to celebrate in a few years, our 50th anniversary and-

Carly Fiorina: Congratulations.

Kay Coles James: ... people find that remarkable, but I don't find it all that remarkable because one, we gave our commitment, we said we were going to do it, but two, when you take divorce off the table and it's not an option, boy, it's amazing how you work through problems. I see that in our country. Our country has had everything thrown at it that it possibly could, but we are committed to this nation and we're committed to staying together as a nation and growing it. I believe that America is, in fact, exceptional.

Carly Fiorina: The podcast is called By Example. The essential qualities of leadership are courage, character, collaboration, and seeing possibilities. Everyone listening today knows exactly why Kay Coles James is on this podcast, because she is an extraordinary leader who has done extraordinary things, and who will continue to change the order of things for the better. Thank you so much, Kay, for being with us.

Kay Coles James: Thank you, dear friend.

Carly Fiorina: That's all for now. If you enjoyed this podcast you can visit or iTunes for more episodes. And make sure you subscribe to By Example so you never miss an episode. To receive updates and exclusive offers, text By Example to 345345. And while you're at it you can send us feedback on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at @carlyfiorina or email at As always thanks so much for tuning in. I'm Carly Fiorina and this is By Example.