Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, has been tackling this question for over twenty years. IFYC is one of the classic greatness-started-in-the-garage stories most commonly seen out of Silicon Valley – although in this case, it’s less “building microchips next to my lawnmower” and more “building global unity from the trunk of my car.” A big ambition with modest beginnings – namely, using interfaith cooperation to make the world a better place – has grown into a prolific organization that has partnered with the Clinton Global Initiative and Queen Rania of Jordan. Patel himself was invited to speak at the 16th Nobel Prize Peace Forum, was named one of “America’s Best Leaders of 2009” by U.S. News and World Report, served on President Obama’s Inaugural Faith Council, and has authored multiple books. Recently, he was kind enough to (virtually) sit down with Vantage Partner Carl Robinson to discuss mixing politics and religion, building teams of “virtuosos,” remaining an active learner in trying times, and why the future can be found on college campuses.
Eboo, what was the original inspiration for IFYC?
“I got very involved in diversity work in college, and a couple of years into doing that realized that nobody ever talked about religious diversity, even though it was all over the front pages of The New York Times and was clearly a force in American politics. And so many of my heroes, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Mahatma Ghandi, were religious, but they were from different religions. It shocked me: how is it that diversity is always at the center of the conversation, and religious diversity is nowhere to be seen? That [was] the origin. I’m a starter of things. I started clubs in high school and college, and I was off to grad school [at the inception of IFYC]. I got the idea of, “We should have projects where we bring young people from different religions together to do constructive things.” In the late 1990’s, there were a number of larger international, interfaith organizations…and I ran the youth programs for them. From there, the organization has grown – there’s still a significant component of 18-24-year-olds, but we do most of our work now with college administrators and faculty.”
What has been attractive about zeroing in on the administrators of those colleges?
“One is that campuses are where future leaders and new ideas are formed, and campuses are leaning into that; they have a whole infrastructure for that. The second thing is, the world of higher education is aware it doesn’t pay very much attention to religious diversity, so it has welcomed an organization that combines consulting, training, speaking, and a program model to work with it. A lot of what we do is get hired by campuses to help them develop interfaith strategic plans, to develop interfaith course sequences. I personally speak at about 25 campuses a year. The way we talk about this in strategic terms is higher education is a laboratory and launching pad for interfaith cooperation.”
The bleeding in of religion to politics and politics to religion has always gone on…but in this specific political climate, how has it affected your work?
“There’s an entire field that’s emerging that you can think of as bridge-building. There are a number of nonprofit organizations – Braver Angels and Essential Partners…David Brooks just started an organization called Weave. IFYC is a part of that field, and the reason these organizations have emerged is because a diverse democracy can only function if people are willing to bracket certain differences and do other things together. I mean, imagine if Trump and Biden voters refused to do heart surgery together. I’m serious. We think the ways in which people from different religions work together is a model for how people from different political ideologies can work together. Because religions have fundamental differences, not just doctrinal and theological, but behavioral. Yet the United States is a relatively successful diverse religious democracy. And we think there is a lot woven into the DNA of religious traditions, like the idea that everybody is created in the image of God, right? That is core to many [religions]; that facilitates people working across doctrinal lines, for example.”
You lead an organization that has a very diverse cast of characters, and you know a lot about what it takes to marshal talent. You’ve worked directly with two past presidents of the United States. What have you learned about leadership that you wish you knew when you started?
“I learned about this from you, Carl – leaders cast long shadows. The other is that, all other things being equal, an aligned leadership team has a much better chance than a misaligned one. And as a writer, I spend a lot of time typing seven words, and then erasing them. I do that with my thoughts, [but] I can’t do that with my whole staff. So it is really important to me to have a leadership team in which I can frequently share what I call ‘half-formed thoughts.’ That’s where, in my [forthcoming] book, the whole Grateful Dead metaphor comes in. What a good band does is, they fool around musically with each other…you’re constantly workshopping ideas. You can’t do that with 35 people. And another thing I learned from you is, there are a bunch of people at an organization – no matter how good the organization is – who are constantly looking to catch the leadership in contradiction. Human beings, we’ve learned from Malcolm Gladwell, are constantly thin-slicing, and leaders are especially thin-slicing. You’re sizing people up and getting a sense of, ‘Can I work with you? How can I work with you?’ Part of what I’m looking for is, ‘Can we play music together?’”
That means you inevitably sometimes find people who don’t harmonize with you. Have you learned any lessons about differentiating talent?
“So, drawing on the Grateful Dead as a metaphor for a leadership team – what makes them special is, there is a leader of that band. Jerry Garcia was the leader…but he didn’t do things as a solo act. He created a framework for a song, and then other people figured out their role within that song. I create the general vision of IFYC, its feel, its direction, and then I invite other people to contribute their instrument. So that’s part one of what makes the Dead and a leadership team special. There’s a general vision, oftentimes put out by a leader, and other people are invited to contribute their excellence. The second thing is people around the table have to be virtuosos, but not a solo act. Most virtuosos are solo acts, because they only want their vision. It’s rare that you get a virtuoso who wants to play with other virtuosos. And [everyone in that band] knows in their bones what a Grateful Dead song is. You have to have a bone-deep sense of what music you’re trying to play. I think the challenge at many non-profits is…people want to play a different song. They want to do diversity work in a different way, whatever it might be. When a band breaks up, it’s artistic differences, right? That is an issue. People want to play different music.”
When you use the word ‘virtuoso,’ you’re expecting people to bring a lot of talent to what they’re doing. It does mean from time to time, someone is miscast for the band, and you have to make a tough call. Do you have any wisdom on for managing people out?
“There are times that happens missionally, meaning they want to play a different kind of music. The hope is that the person realizes it and moves on. I very rarely make that decision [personally]. Part of this is, the leadership team at IFYC is of international quality, and they hire the people who work for them.”
So they carry a high standard in, and it perpetuates itself.
“Yes. This doesn’t always work, [but yes].”
You’ve been remarkably successful at an early age. How do you keep yourself learning, especially during the tough days?
“I am not a normal human being…my wife is not crazed like I am. Don’t get me wrong; she has argued fourteen cases in federal court; she’s an a**-kicking attorney…but she’s a super-balanced person. I’ve become a little more normal being around her. I used to do State Department trips, three or four a year. [Eventually] my wife was like, ‘Do you want to be a husband and a dad? Or do you want to pad your resume? You have to make choices…that is what it means to have a family.’ I keep balance because my wife forced it thirteen years ago, and now it feels natural to me. I also take time off. It took me a while, but I’ve realized that mental work is work. I take half the summer off…and I do half my meetings on my bike during the summer. There’s a great line by James Baldwin that I think he gets through Hemingway, where he says, ‘My job is to get my work done, and to last.’ I’ve been at IFYC for 20 years, and I intend for that work to last.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To find out more about IFYC and get involved or support their work, click here.