"The Big Short" Falls Short... as an Analogy for Wichita

by Thomas Stanley

Our most recent blog post, written by our founder, generated conversation in Wichita and among our own ranks. Over the following weeks, we'll provide a range of reactions and insight into Focus Forward, Wichita's future, and the role we each play.

In this piece, Thomas Stanley, Director of Business Initiatives at Kansas Leadership Center, provides thoughts on how adopting a lens of leadership can help us solve Wichita's challenges together.

The provocative yet highly eye-catching headline from Alex Pemberton’s column this week was a thoughtful and well-articulated analysis comparing Wichita’s culture to that of The Big Short. I loved reading it about as much as I enjoyed the excellent movie; however, I have a few differing interpretations that will hopefully lend to further discussion.

Thomas Stanley, Kansas Leadership Center
Thomas Stanley, Kansas Leadership Center

I’ve seen James Chung speak a total of four or five times in the last several years -- both as a part of the work with the Wichita Community Foundation (WCF) and a couple times before that for various conferences, like the Kansas 150 Symposium. This message is usually very similar. Though the statistics may change and he focuses on different measures over time, I’ve noticed in myself and others the same feeling: both excitement and frustration. I’m excited to hear specific measures and areas where we need to get better and frustrated at the lack of progress we are making. It’s the same every time.

Though Chung is from Wichita, he comes in every year or so to provoke us and then he leaves. Like a '90s tent revival, the emotions are high for a week and then everything returns to normal until he returns again.

In most cases, everything returns to normal; with a few notable exceptions.

We can point to some signs of movement after each change. It took at least two times for Chung to arrive before someone local (WCF) chose to create an ongoing partnership with his firm (FocusForwardICT). It took developing a partnership with his firm by WCF before someone stepped up and created a content publishing campaign around it (The Chung Report).

And here we are, a few years in and in the last week, and I’ve heard much more community-wide conversation around this visit than any of the past visits combined.

What is this telling us?

Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

I can’t help but view this situation through a lens of leadership. One leadership concept taught at the Kansas Leadership Center is focused on the idea of heat or disequilibrium. The theory is: unless there are enough people, uncomfortable enough, for long enough, there will never be change.

Change doesn’t happen when everyone is happy and comfortable. In fact, most people do things to avoid the heat without even recognizing it.

Some of our elected leadership and friends of mine were quick to dismiss the data and some of the tough ideas presented. They were quick to point to the many successes we’ve had and the progress we’ve made so far. It’s not wrong; we have made a lot of progress and positive changes in our culture and downtown environment, especially in the last few years.

My critique to the skeptical would simply be to let us all sit in the discomfort for a while. Even if some parts of the presentation seemed lacking or incomplete, let’s keep the heat high on our elected officials, fellow Wichitans and ourselves. Hold the frustration just for a while longer without dismissing it.  

I think we have a great opportunity right now where the heat his high. I believe people like Alex, the Wichita Community Foundation and The Chung Report are playing the role of putting their hand on the thermostat to ensure we don’t lower it so quickly. We need more people and organizations doing this.  

When you can get enough people to stay uncomfortable long enough, you can see a few things emerge:

  1. People involved get a clearer vision of a collective purpose on where you need to go. (e.g. https://thechungreport.com/the-report/)
  2. More people engage in the process who weren’t beforehand. (e.g. 500+ people at the latest Chung presentation)
  3. As a result, more people make attempts at addressing the problems, which lead to more progress.

On point number three, we have some attempts but I’m curious why we don’t have many more. Chung does an excellent job of telling us the data about our shortcomings, but one thing he can’t tell us, and the question I see missing from most conversations, is: what are the existing barriers to culture change?  

If we truly have a culture of no, then starting new initiatives would be met by just as much resistance. Wichita has both a foot on the gas and a foot on the brake. We may have ideas on where to go and a lot of energy to get there, but we won’t get anywhere without addressing the barriers to progress first.

One last thing... although the movie was great, the analogy falls apart fast.

The Big Short is the Wrong Analogy for Two Major Reasons

Despite the desire to believe our problems are catastrophic and are leading to impending doom, we are not so lucky. If we don’t change immediately, we won't notice much. Wichita will eventually shrink and fizzle for decades to come. Our situation is not like an looming tornado headed in our direction, it’s more like a slow leak. It’s easy to ignore and we won’t see the results from the problem for a long time. If it were, progress and change would be much easier to mobilize others around. Instead, we have to take the long view. We have to realize that change ultimately does take a while.

Changing culture takes decades. It’s frustrating when progress doesn’t happen fast enough but instead of moving or disengaging, change your definition of progress and your expected timeline.

Further, one way to view failures in The Big Short is by blaming the establishment for ignoring all of the data. Another way to view it is to blame the people who knew about the problem and were incapable of changing the establishment. It was their inability to engage other factions in ways that worked that ultimately caused the crash. It was bad leadership.

If you have some passion and some clarity around the problems that exist in our community, you have a responsibility to exercise leadership in ways that actually bring people together to solve the problems together.

If you hold to a strategy for pointing out problems that is divisive and uninviting, try something else... because it isn’t working.

I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing in the community and hope we can keep the frustration high enough, long enough for some bigger changes to take place. 

I encourage you to join me, beer in hand, and push for more discomfort in our city.