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Global Issues

The Clarion Call for Character

As leaders, the only pretension we cannot tolerate is that we are powerless to change what we see around us.

I firmly believe that to be effective, strategy must support a shared, aspirational vision. We all want to be called to something larger than ourselves. For some, that “something larger” is personal prosperity. Most of us, though, yearn to be part of something nobler than self-interest. We long for the opportunity to move the needle on the human condition.

The best visions, in turn, are rooted in a set of shared values. Those values define how we pursue the vision that our strategy is meant to achieve. I don’t mean five or six keywords in the annual report; we define our values through how we behave and by showing our constituents what we find important. In this way, strategy and leadership are intertwined.

I spend a lot of time worrying about this issue. As leaders, one of our core responsibilities is to minimize the gap between what we say is important and what we show is important. None of us is perfect—there is always a difference between what we do and say—and so our organizations aren’t perfect either.

But sometimes the gaps are glaring. I’ve worked with groups that say they value “open communication,” only to find that they won’t tolerate dissent. My own team has said to me, “We say that we value meaningful relationships, but we didn’t act that way yesterday.” As difficult as it is to hear that feedback, I know it means we’re working together to close the gap.

It was with this mindset that I read Peggy Noonan’s article, “America’s Crisis of Character,” in the Wall Street Journal. A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, she is, without question, a great writer.

The article opens with a recent Gallup statistic: Fewer Americans than ever—24 percent—believe “we’re on the right track as a nation.” She then recaps a week of bad news, including the recent Secret Service and GSA scandals, and concludes that our culture has become a “flat, brute, highly sexualized thing.” The crux of her piece is disturbing: “I think more and more people are worried about the American character—who we are and what kind of adults we are raising.” In her mind, we’re witnessing “a leveling or deterioration of public behavior” borne of lowering expectations so much that “people don’t decide to give you more, they give you less.”

It’s a quite powerful, and honestly, quite depressing piece of writing. Noonan doesn’t offer any help, hope, or solutions. She simply concludes: “Something seems to be going terribly wrong. Maybe we have to stop and think about this.”

Her piece had an immense impact on me. I read the article, thought about it, and then re-read it. Then I did what many of us might do, which was frenetically share it. I posted the article several places online—and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. Comments fell into two camps: “Yes, this is disturbing, but there’s nothing we can do,” and “Yes, this is disturbing, but it’s nothing new”—basically, resigned acceptance and annoyed acceptance.

One of my friends wrote a more thoughtful reply: “All I read was a synopsis of another week’s bad news. I had hoped for a proposed solution. ‘Maybe we have to stop and think’ doesn’t seem particularly insightful or constructive.”

While true, I thought, in a time when terrible things happen routinely and no one seems to notice, “stop and think” is at least a place to start.

But I think her point is not that we don’t seem to notice, it is that we don’t seem to feel like there’s anything we can do about it. To heal pain, we must feel it. What I read from Noonan was a lament that we’ve become increasingly anesthetized to our own dissatisfaction.

Are there solutions? Of course. Treating everyone equally, regardless of background or appearance; ensuring equal access to opportunity; increasing our intolerance of hate and discrimination; and enforcing all of the above might be the right start to creating a culture where people aren’t victimized and objectified.

At a deeper level, though, there’s a point I feel compelled to make for all of us who aspire to be leaders. The solution starts with the faith that there is one, and with the willingness to believe that we might be able to achieve it.

To go back to my opening thoughts: Those of us with even limited awareness will find constant reminders of our own inadequacy throughout life. We will also encounter constant reminders of the world’s imperfection. It strikes me that the secret to both improving ourselves and changing the world is to let our own imperfections inspire us to a better way of living, and so remind us that the better world we seek is not so far from our grasp.

The truth is that we are not, unfortunately, the perfect people we want to be. And yet isn’t that the good news too? In spite of our flaws, egos, and idiosyncrasies, we each still manage to have friends who care, families who love us, and work that requires our attention. And if that is possible at the personal level, isn’t it possible at the organizational level too? And at the community level? And at the societal level?

I agree with Noonan that the world condition requires reflection. At the same time, the only pretension we no longer can tolerate is the attitude that we are powerless to change what we see around us. I don’t believe it, and neither should you, because it just isn’t true.

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