The fourth episode of the “When Everyone Leads” podcast explores how political polarization affects leadership and how leadership can lessen polarization.
The guest who brought the topic is Joseph Shepard, chief of staff at Lead for America, a national, nonprofit service-based organization. Shepard works with individuals and communities to tackle adaptive challenges in leadership, diversity and equity, education and professional development.
In its first season as the Kansas Leadership Center’s podcast, “When Everyone Leads” asks guests to bring a challenge to the center, which the hosts and guest then discuss and analyze through a leadership framework.
It is hosted by KLC co-workers Brianna Griffin, the show’s lead producer, and Chris Green, executive editor of The Journal. KLC’s Maren Berblinger, Julian Montes and Neha Batawala also produce the show.
The podcast is inspired by the book “When Everyone Leads” by Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, the Kansas Leadership Center’s main funder, and KLC’s immediate past president and CEO; and Julia Fabris McBride, KLC’s chief leadership development officer.
The following is a transcript of the conversation with Shepard, edited for length and clarity, followed by a discussion among the hosts and Montes.
Shepard: At Lead for America, we’re focused on mobilizing America’s best leaders to return to their hometowns to tackle critical challenges in their communities. The topic I’m discussing today with you all is polarization and/or the political divide we see in our country, particularly because as Lead for America looks at the approach of retaining talent and mobilizing young leaders to tackle the challenges in their communities, we do that through multiple lenses, but one of the lenses we try to deploy is the bridge-building mission, which is working not only with leaders that think differently from them from an ideological standpoint but community leaders that think differently from them as well.
We believe that one of the biggest threats to our democracy and our country is that the polarization continues to grow each and every year with every single election, whether at a local, state or federal level, so we are trying to close that gap in helping our community realize we have more in common than not, which is something I think we hear a lot. But what does that really mean? When we sit down and talk about the issues that truly matter, they’re not Republican or Democrat or Libertarian; they’re issues that impact all of us. When we talk about economic development, the digital divide, our education system, health care—those are all issues that are getting in the way of a healthy, vibrant economy and creating communities across our country that are prosperous. And we should all be able to get behind a lot of those core values and core issues, and so that’s what Lead for America is really focused on.
Griffin: I’m already hearing a lot of people at play. Why is this issue so important to you?
Shepard: At Lead for America, we’re all about building a strong civic bench of leaders. It’s important to us because we know the challenges facing our communities, rural and urban communities. Most people in those communities don’t care if a Republican is getting it done or if a Democrat is getting it done. They care that progress is happening.
So, when we talk about when everyone leads, it doesn’t matter who it is. It’s everyone. Everyone in the room. Everyone in the community. And we know that to build a strong civic bench, it’s going to take everyone, from those who are in preschool all the way up to those who are retiring or leaving their service or career position. To pass on that institutional knowledge to the next generation, it takes all of us to build strong and vibrant communities, and we’ve got to work together and be a unified front if we want to make progress on these issues.
Griffin: That’s such a wide range. I guess it would be like different levels at that point. And based on your background, maybe different levels of what you would care about.
Shepard: Absolutely. One of the unique things about Lead for America is that we have our national fellowship program and the American Connection Corps Program, which is focused on closing the digital divide across the country. But we pride ourselves because there’s a wide range of fellows in our program. We say that we focus on the next generation and building a civic bench of world class leaders. We have fellows who are 18, 45, middle age, older—seasoned is what I like to call them. And ultimately, we pride ourselves on that, because age doesn’t dictate your ability to lead. And that’s something I heard a lot. When I was running for public office, whether it was school board or even the opportunity I had to seek to fill a vacancy on the city council, the feedback I heard a lot was, ‘You will be so great in five to 10 years from now.’ And it’s like, ‘Well thank you. I appreciate that. And I’m also ready to lead, learn and serve now.’
Green: One of the ways it seems like it might be personal for you with Lead for America is you’ve put yourself out there and, in a sense, told no. You’re almost on a roll where now you’re trying to create a system where more people are encouraged to say yes to different kinds of people. So, it feels like this is a way for you to address challenges you’ve personally experienced in your personal life.
Shepard: Yes. When I stumbled across Lead for America, the first thought I had was this is right on time. I was feeling really defeated. I went through my time at Wichita State University, and a lot of people told me, ‘You can get much further if you just leave Kansas. Go back to California. Move to Washington, D.C.’ No. This is home. I want to be here. I’m up for the challenge. Ran for school board, was successful in the primary, then got to the general and, again, was told ‘no.’ And I worked really hard and knocked on more doors than I could’ve possibly imagined and really engaged and put myself in communities that I felt often made me uncomfortable, but I knew it was necessary if I wanted to build that trust. Got told ‘no’ there. Then went to go on and seek a city council vacancy and thought I was prepared and had proven myself and got told ‘no’ there. And all these things happened publicly. I think, naturally, most people would say, ‘I’m gonna take my bat and ball and go home.’ But for me it was, no, I want to ensure that other people don’t experience what I have experienced.
And I want to challenge the community I love to give more young leaders who are passionate and ambitious and love their community the opportunity to serve, learn and lead in their community and make a difference. Because the truth of the matter is at 29 years old, I don’t know everything. And no, I’ve not been a CEO at 29 years old. And no, I don’t have a decorated career with 15 to 20 years of experience. But I do have something to offer—my passion, my innovation, my creativity and my experience, whether that’s growing up in poverty or with all my identities and the layers of who I am and the experiences that really have taught me the importance of resiliency, compassion, empathy and also the beauty I hold of being somebody that is who I am on one side of the political aisle, but I also hold my faith very close to me. The intersectionality of who I am. That is experience that young people can bring to the table that I often believe is missing from government, from nonprofit rooms, from community organizations that is so necessary in order to move the needle forward. So, if we really want to talk about what it means for everyone to lead, we really have to get uncomfortable and provocative and say do we really want everyone to lead?
Because here’s what I think it means: We have a shortage in our workforce. How are we mobilizing our felons to get a second chance to get back into our workforce? We have a childcare crisis. What does it mean to create more opportunity for folks who don’t see themselves going to college and earning a four-year degree but are really great with children? It’s really about innovation, and I think that’s what Lead for America does. We bring people together and say let’s get provocative. Let’s ask some tough questions and make some tough interpretations. But more important, let’s work together to move the needle for all of us, for everyone.
Griffin: Why do you think it’s become more polarized?
Shepard: I think because we make one interpretation about a particular type of person. If you have faith values or if you share that publicly, then this must mean x about you. This level of duality of it has to be black or white—there’s no room for gray—has really put us as a country in a position where we stereotype and put every person in one box. Even when we fundamentally disagree, we can disagree without being disagreeable and be willing to lean in and ask more questions and be curious of what experience happened in your life that led you to believe this way.
Griffin: What concerns you the most about the polarization?
Shepard: When we can’t work together simply because we feel someone is different. When we can’t walk into a room and work with someone who may have opportunity or resources that can move our communities forward, but we refuse to walk into that room, we refuse to utilize those resources that that other person, community or organization has to offer simply because we disagree on a fundamental value, we end up hurting people. We end up hurting community. How do we do what’s right for people? Even if you don’t agree, even if the numbers don’t make sense to you, how do we work together to move the needle?
You look at the news today and you see things happening in Washington—and much respect to the leaders who are serving our country in doing that important work—but sometimes you get discouraged because you say this is becoming less about the people we want to serve and impact and more about us. And we all lose when it becomes about us and not the people. It’s about getting people to see the beauty in their communities through working with people who are different than them, because I think that’s when you see there’s opportunity here. I don’t have to leave my hometown to be successful. In fact, I can make a difference by staying and being a game changer. That’s what we want to do.
Griffin: The issue of abortion—people thought it was going to be a lot more polarized than it was. Were you surprised when the results came out and Kansas is known as this red state and it did not show that whatsoever?
Shepard: Interestingly enough, I was not surprised. This is why I love Kansas; we think for ourselves. We don’t play by the ‘rules.’ And I think that particular result highlighted that there is a gray area for us. This level of duality of it has to be this or this. There’s no in between. I think Kansas said there’s some gray there, and we feel comfortable being in the gray here. I was proud, not necessarily because of the results. People were like, Kansas sent a loud message. We did, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the message you may be thinking. The larger message for me was that we are free thinkers. Most people operate in the gray. There is not a yes or no. It’s a yes and. When we dare to see people not for who we want to see them as but for who they truly are, we dare to open up endless possibilities for our community and for leadership and for so many other things.
I have a good friend who’s seeking city council, and people want to bring up what he did years ago in 2012, and I shared with someone that I have people who bring up things I did when I was 21 and my leadership style, and the way I saw leadership, is vastly different than I do now at 29. So, do we not have room to evolve and grow? Where is that grace? We are complicated people. We grow every single day.
Griffin: We can learn at any age and grow at any age. We can gather information and change our minds at any age.
Shepard: Absolutely. People deserve room to change not only who they are but change their minds.
When we open up ourselves to sit down at the table or engage with folks who we traditionally don’t believe would have our best interest or have anything to offer us, we are expanding our hearts and minds to be able to look at issues holistically instead of from one point of view. I want leaders who can look at issues from multiple different lenses and not just one vantage point, because then I know you’re not only taking my thoughts and experiences into consideration when you go to vote or make a decision, but you’re truly taking everyone’s thoughts and experiences into consideration. We need a strong civic bench of leaders who hold firm to certain values but also can lean in and say let me go and ask this person who I probably wouldn’t traditionally meet or talk with and see what they think, so that way I can make an informed decision not just for the people who are counting on me but for those who probably don’t think they can count on me.
Griffin: Who are the factions of people currently involved?
Shepard: I believe if we’re going to make progress on this issue, it’s going to take everyone. But I also believe millennials and Generation Z have a unique opportunity to rise up and come together and say today is a new day and the time is now. And we see where things are going, but we are saying no more. I think that would send a powerful message to see this upcoming generation say they’re not going to lead that way. I’m going to lead this way. Which is why I’m excited to see people like my good friend Dalton Glasscock running for city council, and I’m behind him. We ran against each other for student government when I was at Wichita State, and I ended up winning. I won the battle, but he’s going to win the war. He’s going to make it to city council before me, and here I am still hoping that one day it will happen for me. But I’m proud to be behind him, not because we’re friends but because I know he will listen and engage with people who are different than him, and he’s proven that.
I think what’s more powerful for me is when we’re talking about issues that are impacting young people, how powerful it is to have that representation at the table. There’s this saying: ‘Nothing about me without me.’ Let’s stop talking about the childcare crisis without having parents at the table working to solve that issue. And let’s stop talking about homelessness or poverty without having the folks who are living it every single day at the table. Let’s stop talking about talent retention without having talent at the table. Because I think the people who are most informed are the people who live it every single day. And we’ve got to do a better job of saying, yeah, I have some expertise and institutional knowledge, and also there’s a gap missing. And how do we fill that gap?
Green: When you think about why things are the way they are with Gen Z and millennials, what makes it difficult for them to authorize themselves to lead? And for Generation X and Baby Boomers, why is it a challenge for them to let these younger generations lead?
Shepard: Where we have failed, I think, as a country is mobilizing our opinions in a productive, healthy way. KLC teaches to raise the heat but raise it to a level in which you can still be productive. And many times when we’re having discussions like this, I see us raising the heat, but rarely do I see the conversation being raised in a way where we’re still able to be productive. And guess what? Ten, 20 years from now, a new generation is going to emerge, and millennials and Gen Z are going to have to have this conversation, too, with ourselves in saying the world has evolved and so have people, issues, time, needs. And while our institutional knowledge will be valuable, we also need to make room at the table for the next generation to be there to offer their input. I think that’s been the issue.
Green: So, the message to our Gen Z listeners is yes, you, too will be old one day. You will not get around it.
Shepard: Yes. And to make room at the table for those coming after you, to say, ‘You don’t have to pay your dues.’ I used to get so hurt when people would say, ‘Pay your dues.’ That’s so subjective and relative for every person. I’m 29, but I’ve experienced poverty. I know what it’s like to sleep in a car and get washed up in a McDonald’s restaurant. I know what it’s like to struggle through college financially as a first-generation college student. I know what it’s like to experience a lot of things. I know what it’s like to have custody of my nephew and to be a parent while my sister was going through some things in her life. So, excuse me that I didn’t pay my dues in the traditional manner, but I’ve also seen things that most people my age have not, which has prepared me to mature in a way that I believe is head and shoulders above most people my age. And there’s some benefit to that. And we have to be careful when we tell people to pay their dues, because you don’t know what someone has been through that has prepared them to be able to lead in a way that’s unconventional and so necessary for where we are right now in our country.
Green: I’m sitting here trying to think what’s a noble interpretation of that behavior. I wonder if so many people of those generations are parents and then were grandparents, and maybe there’s this sense of protection. I know that making these decisions comes with disappointment and pain and conflict and sacrifice. Public service is hard. I wonder if there’s an unacknowledged reflex of protection that makes it hard and that’s the excuse we hear—pay your dues. Like I’m protecting you from having to make these decisions, which isn’t right but maybe I could understand that if I’m looking at it from what do they really want to accomplish.
Shepard: And there is value in experience. It’s not to say experience doesn’t matter; it does matter, and it’s not the only dictator of someone’s ability to be ready to lead in a certain space. And that’s a difficult thing to unlearn. Yes, I can understand why people want to protect, but I’m also grateful for people who’ve allowed me to fall. My grandpa used to say, ‘A hard head makes for a soft behind.’ Sometimes you’ve just got to let people fall and that’s sometimes the best way to let them learn. So, I’m grateful for the elders in our community who have seen me going a wrong direction and sat back and didn’t intervene because they knew it would be more powerful for me to fall than it would be for them to intervene.
Griffin: Where do you see the opportunities for leadership lying?
Shepard: The opportunities are endless. Here locally, we are seeing new and exciting leadership rise up. I am so inspired that there’s a young leader working on affordable housing at Wichita Habitat for Humanity, Daniel Johnson. It’s inspiring to see Arial Rodriguez at Empower being 31 years old working on reigniting the passion and pride of the historic North End. He’s doing that great work that our community talks about. It’s a good reminder that while we’re uplifting that work that’s happening, also be mindful when you say young people are not necessarily ready to be in certain positions of authority or leadership, because from affordable housing in our community to reigniting pride in historic communities that have been overlooked for a very long time to Christina Long, who has opened a facility in the same location that was burned down years ago because of a protest, that is endless possibility of what we’re seeing in our own community of Wichita of what it means to have young, vibrant, exciting leaders doing the work, and we are able to reap the benefits because of their labor. And the thing they all have in common is they believe in community. And for every ‘no’ they have received, they took it as a chance to say thank you and I’m not giving up. And because they didn’t give up, look at what they’re doing for all of us. We’re all benefiting.
Green: We talked about qualifications and what shows someone that you should be given a chance. I think back to your answer about community. Maybe high on the list of questions we should ask if we’re trying to create space for someone to lead is, Do they believe in the community? Are they doing this to serve the community? If the answer is yes, then that is a qualification we should take seriously.
Shepard: Where’s your heart? The mother who is waiting for legislation to be passed so she can have access to healthy and reliable foods for her and her family—she doesn’t care who gets it done. She cares that it gets done. The parents who are basking in the ambiance of being a parent for the first time and bringing their newborn baby home but are also stressed because there are no childcare options and the wait lists are a year out—they don’t care what political party makes something happen so their child can be in a safe and reliable childcare facility. They care that it gets done. And that’s what we need to start doing. Do you care about community? Do you care about the issues, the adaptive challenges that require all of us, everyone, to lead? If the answer is yes, let’s get it done. Less about ‘I’ and more about ‘we.’
Green: What you say makes so much sense. But then I think about the default narrative we tell about how things are and how we should relate is not that. Why do you think that is? Why are we so stuck on this blue versus red, left versus right, conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat? What keeps us there?
Shepard: I think what keeps us there is that it’s a fun narrative for us. And regardless of what party you’re in, I think it creates, ‘They’re the bad people, and we have to fight against them because they’re going to harm us.’ It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak truth to power or make tough interpretations or raise the heat. But let’s do so in a way that’s still productive and that doesn’t divide or cause harm to our communities across the country.
Griffin: And it doesn’t mean a person is fake for doing that. It’s that we’re all people and we have the same goal to have a thriving country.
Green: If we’re going to get this right in our community in Wichita, in Kansas, what would that look like? What might we see happening more often that’s not happening now as much as we’d like?
Shepard: I think it’s a matter of having to become more comfortable with taking that first step of inviting those who think differently than us into spaces where we lead. We need more people to operate in that spirit. And the second thing I would say is, I have a quote as a believer in my faith. I want to live in a way that the values of Jesus Christ, who I serve personally, is evident through my actions not my words. Not my ability to quote scripture. Not how many times I tweet a scripture. I hope when I walk into a room or I’m in a tough situation that I’m always leading with empathy, compassion and grace. Because to me, those are the fundamental values of the higher power I serve, and I want that to be evident in my actions. Do I always get it right? No. I’m human. No one gets it right 100 percent of the time. But we have to lead through our actions and not our words. People can talk a good game. But when you go to cash the check, is it going to bounce or is it going to clear? And your actions, to me, dictate whether the check bounces or clears.
Discussion among the hosts:
Green: One of the things I heard from Joseph that really feels like connects to the book is this idea of putting the challenge in the center. So many times in our politics, we put the other side in the center. We say our role is to defeat the other side, or it’s to keep the other side from getting power or getting what they want. And what Joseph talked about was that we need to put what affects people in the middle and get them to find a way to work on it even if they disagree or have different perspectives on it. The challenges he discussed affect all of us, regardless of what our politics are.
Griffin: I’ve seen a lot more polarization, and it’s been a lot harder for people to agree on things. I have found it difficult to agree with other people. I never knew if it was because I was getting older and I was starting to understand issues a little more and how they relate to me. Or if it was because of the changed climate that’s been happening, and things are more polarized now, and I’ve been forced to choose where I stand on a lot of things. But I have noticed in myself how difficult it is for me to have conversations with people who think differently about certain issues.
Green: Is there an example of that you feel comfortable sharing?
Griffin: When I talk about my adoption and how it’s very different to be raised in a culturally Black family rather than what it would’ve been like for me to be raised in a culturally Latino family, that is very different. And when people try to tell me, who has lived this life, it gets annoying. Because who are you to tell me what’s important? I’ve seen so much racism come out of that. How are you trying to tell me there’s no racism? You don’t know. I’m telling you these experiences I had, but the statistics also back that up. It’s stuff like that. I can’t have conversations with people, because I will call you a bad name.
Green: They haven’t taken the time to see you. So, it’s really hard for you to consider their perspective at all because they haven’t taken the step to try to at least see you and where you’re coming from. And if they had taken that step, it might make it more possible for you to consider a different set of experiences. That’s so fundamental to your identity that it feels like an attack. The surest way to get pushback in this world is to attack people’s identity and these things that are fundamental to people. And it destroys the ability to hold and test multiple interpretations.
Montes: A lot of what I heard felt like young people who are engaging in leadership—young being a relative term depending on who you ask—but even starting with the influence there, that felt like a really cool way to see what happens. He’s making it safe for others to exercise leadership in a variety of different spaces. How does someone in authority make spaces that are a bit more depolarized?
Berblinger: I heard a theme of being OK with being uncomfortable. And that showed up in the risk piece about being told no and being uncomfortable but trying anyway. And then being uncomfortable to work with people that are different than you.