Kay Coles James, the former Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia, spoke on Faith in Leadership on January 28 at the School of Public Policy’s Augustus and Patricia Tagliaferri Dean’s Distinguished Lecture. Throughout her life, James held a diverse range of jobs in the federal government including the director of the Office of Personnel Management from 2001 to 2005 and the president of the Heritage Foundation. Before the event, James spoke privately with the Beacon.
Growing up during the Civil Rights Movement
While discussing her background, she explained her family’s triumph over the difficulties of being African Americans during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in a household that struggled financially.
“Given the time that I was a child, there were lots of challenges built into just being an African American child and, if you want to layer on, I had a poor mom who was on welfare,” James said. “Looking at the differences in the educational systems for African American students and white students at the time, we had to overcome that.”
Through her family’s adherence to their faith, James survived childhood and thrived as an adult.
Faith was an integral part of her household. When asked about a quote from her mother in James’ autobiography “Never Forget,” her face lit up: “Boy, I will starve before I let one of my children bring stolen food into this house.” James described how her mother, despite struggling financially, valued honor, integrity, and faith. She would not allow her five sons and James to become thieves.
“I believe it was our values, principles, and culture that kept us alive and thriving,” James said. “Faith was a living hedge of protection around our family.”
Despite James’s family being surrounded by poverty and inequity, all five sons and Secretary James succeeded. “Every one of them married, had families, raised kids, and ended up doing quite well. And I think that speaks volumes for the kinds of things that my mother inculcated in those young men,” James said.
Entrance into the World of Politics
After entering the workforce James’ family continued to be heavily involved in her decision making. The encouragement of her children led James to take up a job as the President of the Black Americans for Life Committee.
“My kids were the ones who said ‘But Mom, you said if God ever allowed you to stand up for the greatest civil rights issue of our time, you would do it.’ And so they shamed me into taking the job. I quit my corporate job, took a huge wage cut, and went to work in the pro-life movement,” James said.
Through her diligent work, James found herself to be a natural leader, one who was consistently sought after to fill prominent leadership positions. “I would be a horrible person to have come to a career fair to answer, ‘How did you position your life to get the different various positions that I had?’ Because I never did,” James said. Despite never pursuing leadership roles actively, she was recommended for them as she built a reputation of competence in the workplace.
This was exemplified when she led the search committee to find a new president for the Heritage Foundation in 2017.
“When I led the search committee at the Heritage Foundation for a new president, I wasn’t auditioning for it and we’ve been through multiple candidates. And finally, somebody looked down at the table and said, ‘We have not interviewed one person that’s better than our own Kay James,’” James said.
Advice for the Future Leaders of America
James also commented on what she focused on as a leader: “My superpower is recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of the various individuals who are on my team… I typically look for people who love to solve problems,” James said. “If you don’t enjoy eating problems for breakfast, you probably don’t want to work for me because we embrace problems.”
James also added that effective leaders delegate the skills that they are less proficient in to others.
“Know what your weaknesses are and hire to those weaknesses. But you have to understand and accept your weaknesses to overcome them,” James said.
While there are practical means of improving leadership, James argued the most important prerequisite for a good leader to have is love for their work.
“True leadership I think comes out of a spirit of love. You do it because of the love that you have for your fellow humans, and for wanting to create a better world. Leadership for the sake of being a leader is empty and meaningless; leadership to improve the quality of life of those who you love is worth it,” James said.
Pivoting to her leadership during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, James was put to the test. At the time, she was working as the director of the Office of Personnel Management in which she was in charge of managing the entire federal workforce.
“President [Bush] was looking for guidance on how to protect the workforce in Washington, D.C. We had over 350,000 employees in the D.C. area and it was my job to make sure that they were able to be safe in their work environments,” James said. “He turned to me and Tom Ridge and said ‘Your job is gonna be to [start] up the Department of Homeland Security.’ So that was huge. I had to get all those people hired and on the job quickly.”
Educational and Political Discourse Initiatives
Most recently, James served on Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s Cabinet and is very passionate about the Gloucester Institute, an education institution based in a historic conference center for intellectual African Americans in Gloucester, Virginia. James is the founder and president of the institute aiming to educate ambitious undergraduates on critical thinking.
“I want to teach critical thinking,” James said. I don’t need to teach conservative ideas and ideals because if I can teach you to think critically, I have enough confidence in the beliefs that I have, that you’re going to come to those conclusions on your own.”
James also underscored that politics is the art of persuasion. “I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to model God’s love in a hurting and dying crazy world and so I make it a point to reach out to people on the other side of the aisle and remind them [people with differing viewpoints] that I am trying to build bridges, I’m trying to win them over, not blow up bridges.”
At the end of the conversation with Dean Peterson, James returned to the topic of faith; she recalled the vineyard parable. “I think God calls us to be salt and light… God gives us a calling to be available to him to continue work in the vineyard every single day.”