Masters of Leadership: Kay Coles James

Heritage Foundation CEO stresses the importance of consensus and collaboration around shared challenges.

By Mark Toner

Calling the COVID-19 pandemic and racial tensions “a stress test for American values,” Heritage Foundation CEO Kay Coles James emphasized the importance of “solutionists” committed to addressing shared challenges during the Masters in Leadership series, sponsored by NVTC and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

“I don’t think any of us could have predicted the seismic changes that have occurred in our culture and in our workplaces,” she said. “One of the reasons the technology community is so important right now is that you are innovators, you know how to be flexible and nimble, you know how to adapt quickly to a changing environment, and the rest of us are learning how to do that and catching up.” 

James decried “increasing hostility from both the left and the right” during the July 7 event, which was moderated by CTA president and CEO, bestselling author and NVTC board member Gary Shapiro. She urged business leaders to “thread the needle” and stay “true to mission” while seeking consensus during divisive times.

“Those of us who genuinely love this country, who respect and admire people who have opposing points of view, who really want to understand, and move towards consensus must lean into this moment,” she said. “And, sometimes it's a great personal sacrifice to do that. But we must.”


Formerly the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the first African American and first woman to lead the Heritage Foundation, James spoke of her efforts as the conservative think tank’s leader to reaffirm its guiding principles and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Foundation convened a wide-ranging commission and generated more than 275 recommendations for all levels of government, nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations. (See for more.)

“I’m hoping this document will be a guide not only for this pandemic, but for future pandemics as well,” said James. “As leaders, we have to be able to look down the road and around the corner, and when the rest of the team catches up to us, we should have already been there and gone.”

To that end, James stressed the importance of rethinking how organizations will do business as the pandemic subsides.  “We’re not going to come out of this as the same America,” James added. “There’s no such thing as ‘when we get back to normal,’ instead it’ll be the new normal.”

The Heritage Foundation, for example, is well known for having “some of the best meeting spaces in D.C.,” she said, but like many other organizations will likely reassess its importance going forward.

“Just as we were known for having the best bricks and mortar, I want us to be known for having the best technology to bring people together,” she said. 

James also emphasized areas of consensus between the Heritage Foundation and the technology community, including deregulation and protecting intellectual property. “There are many issues we agree on and we should work together,” she said. “And when we disagree, we disagree agreeably.”


James emphasized the “incredible gift” of the Constitution and the nation’s founding values as strengths that will help the nation address its current challenges.

“We will see our values and our system of government provide the absolute best opportunity for us to survive and actually grow and flourish,” James said. “I think we’re going to come out of this even stronger.”

Even so, James addressed the importance of the racial unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.  While stressing she doesn’t believe that racial issues are “systemic” to America, James acknowledged that “there are some people in this country who still have a problem about race.” 

“I’m grateful for many of the conversations that are happening now,” she said. “I’ve been trying to encourage these conversations…. across cultural lines, across racial lines.”

James spoke frankly about racial abuse suffered by family members and the Republican party’s repudiation of the “mantle of Lincoln” in the early 20th century. She shared a story about a relative who was barred from attending a Virginia Republican convention—a wrong she felt the significance of when she was asked to chair the same convention decades later. 

“All of us who are good people who love this country want to get it right,” she said. “We want to lean into this moment, and that doesn’t mean we hate our country…. But I will not deny my truth.”

James also pointed to her longstanding friendship with Bobbie Kilberg, NVTC CEO emeritus and strategic advisor, as an example of how to move forward. “With all that’s going on in this country today, all of these friendships matter,” she said. “We learned how to work together across ideological lines, racial lines, and everything else. As those kinds of relationships develop and flourish in our country, we’re going to see a lot of the problems we’re facing today solved.”

The Masters of Leadership series continues on July 29 with Best Buy CEO Corie Barry and WW (Weight Watchers) President & CEO Mindy Grossman. For more information, click here.  A recording of this interview and previous ones can be found here


Mark Toner is a Reston-based technology writer.