Our political system is in tough shape. At a moment when we face urgent public problems that we can only effectively address with collaboration, compromise, and ingenuity, we are polarized and seemingly incapable of working together.
There is no shortage of theories about what’s wrong and how we got to this unfortunate place: money in politics, gerrymandering, corruption and self-interest, a zero-sum attitude toward political negotiation.
There’s surely merit to each of these perspectives, and many others as well. The question, of course, is what to do about it? Much of the debate about solutions can be summed up concisely as “Systems vs People.” Those on the systems side rightly lament the flood of money in politics, the ubiquity of lobbyists and special interests, the many structural forces that so effectively warp and twist the best intentions of elected officials. Things will never change, some say, until we succeed at changing these systems.
Those on the people side note that the systems we have today represent an accumulation of the previous choices made by elected officials. Those systems will not magically transform themselves; they must be transformed – decision by decision – by people who attain positions of power within those systems. To make those changes, elected officials must be fiercely committed to acting with the courage, integrity, and commitment required to confront and fix a broken status quo.
At the New Politics Leadership Academy, we believe in people. Our work is grounded in a simple yet profound belief about how change can and will happen:
It’s about leadership.
It’s about recruiting the most proven, tested, committed servant leaders in our nation, and then supporting them in their aspirations to seek elected office. Our nation is full of them: Women and men who have made the still-countercultural choice to serve their country in the military, or through civilian service experiences like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps. Their life choices are a testament to their fierce commitment to serve a cause larger than themselves. These are individuals who know first-hand the implications of American use of force abroad, or how national educational policy plays out in the classroom in American cities and towns, or how our efforts to support values like democracy or public health abroad influence lives in the villages of Ghana or Honduras. They know what it means to serve country over self, and they’re willing to challenge – not just conform to – the status quo.
Now, those who highlight the power of systems make an important point: Anyone who enters politics inevitably confronts a myriad of forces and pressures seeking to influence elected officials, and there are plenty of great people who get into politics for the right reasons who end up being changed by the system. So we need to do more than merely hope that talented, tested servant leaders don’t lose themselves amidst the gale-force pressures on those who step up to campaign and govern. Rather, we need to make a focus on integrity and courage central to our approach to developing candidates, and we need to build systems of support to help them stay grounded while in the center of the storm.
That’s why we use an approach that recognizes leadership is at all times a dual journey involving both outer AND inner work. We support candidates on the typical tactics like crafting a powerful message, fundraising, hiring staff, and managing volunteers – but we also work hard on outer work that’s often neglected: helping leaders develop structures of support and accountability that keep them grounded and centered throughout their time in public life. Doing so then reinforces the inner work – the practice of staying present to one’s deepest sources of purpose and mission. By focusing on both outer and inner work, we support servant leaders to succeed politically while prioritizing the work of sustaining integrity, empathy, and courage along their path to public service. In other words, it’s about helping great leaders stay great.
There’s surely a tipping point out there where a critical mass of proven, principled, and reflective servant leaders will dramatically shift our dysfunctional political norm toward something far more principled, courageous, and effective. And we aim to find that tipping point, and find it fast.