“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Walt Kelly
A quick review of the news makes it evident that America is currently facing both internal and external challenges that are unprecedented in the lifetimes of most of us, and innumerable polls indicate that Americans feel that we’re lacking the kind of leadership required to meet those challenges effectively. But by facing certain realities squarely, “we the people” can be the key to our own better future.
I recently saw a TV commercial that I found deeply disturbing. It was for an automobile, and it named four things that the car was to arouse in viewers — those four things were “lust, pride, envy, and wrath.” These four things were anything but virtues to be cultivated.
They were presented as though all four of those things are desirable. If that’s any reflection on where our popular culture is going, I’d say that we’re in a heap of trouble. The last time I was aware, all four of those things were associated with some of the most destructive behaviors known to mankind.
Every major civilization that suffered a cataclysmic decline was characterized by such things, all of which were causal factors in their deterioration. I’m hoping that this particular commercial has a short run and drops off the map quickly. I certainly hope it doesn’t reflect where we’re headed as a nation. What made America (or any nation) great in the past was the ability to delay gratification, not self indulgence.
If America is to thrive economically in the future, we’re going to need the kind of spirit that defined its origins— the way our economy is going, we’re unlikely to be able to count on big businesses to employ the bulk of our citizenry. This means that we’ll need more successful entrepreneurs than many of us have seen in our lifetimes. And a preoccupation with immediate gratification is not a formula for success.
I spent a certain number of years as a college professor of organizational behavior, and it was noticeable that the students were becoming increasingly consumed by their immediate impulses as time went on. If our best and brightest young folks are going to be people who can't regulate themselves in responsible ways, we are headed for real trouble.
Roots of the problem
Long-term expert on leadership Warren Bennis once remarked that it seemed that America as a nation had simply “stopped facing facts.” To the extent that his observation is accurate, our current economic problems are likely to continue for quite some time. Given the challenges we face, this is no time for large numbers of Americans to be out of touch with reality.
But if you take a look, there seems to be something to Dr. Bennis’ comment. TV, video games, and pornography seem to be claiming abnormal amounts of people’s time and attention. And all of these have a tendency to focus people on their immediate experience as opposed to long term goals and undermine the sense of responsibility.
Some disturbing trends
As much as digital technology has done for us in terms of saving lives and conveying options, it’s unclear the extent to which its benefits are outweighing its costs. Cognitive science is revealing fundamental changes in how people function and process information, and many of the effects are not good.
We’re seeing shortened attention spans and increases in impulsive behavior in children. The numbers of school shootings alone is deeply troubling, as many young people seem to have lost the ability to connect actions and their consequences.
Experts on human growth and development are telling us that there are changes afoot in childhood itself, as texting and other media supplant face to face interaction. Depression is now common, and we don’t have any way of knowing what the long-term effects of digital technology actually are. It’s evident that we’re on completely uncharted turf.
People who study leadership per se are defining the situation as a crisis, and the country is clearly suffering as a result. Judging by the approval ratings of our elected officials, I’d say that they are right. Sound leadership makes all the difference in the world, and in trying times, it’s what we most need in business and government.
I was recently reading the writings of the founding fathers of our country, and one thing that they all agreed upon was that its leadership was a direct reflection of the integrity of its people. James Madison was particularly adamant regarding this issue, warning that a decline in the integrity of the populace would have dire consequences for the country. One consequence of having a lot of choices is that you can make more bad ones. We need to keep that in mind.
Freedom requires responsibility to maintain, and we’ve created a situation in which people can choose to be irresponsible and get away with it— at least in the short run. The late Steve Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People always stressed that the “Law of the Harvest” (you reap what you sow) is an inescapable fact of life. You can choose how to behave, but you will face the consequences your actions.
In a complex, competitive, and interrelated world, there is little room for irresponsibility, which is one of the reasons that we’re in difficulty. This is no time for large numbers of Americans to be out of touch with reality.
Now for the good news
America has faced tough times before, and one good thing that has always resulted from problems is that they do wonders for your reality contact. As awful as the Great Depression and World Wars I & II was that they served as serious wake up calls— in that sense, they actually did the country some good. Americans are at their best when they’re forced to rise to the occasion and face reality head on.
For that reason, I think that if we respond intelligently to the current troubles, there are real opportunities for growth. But we have to make a conscious effort to put our current difficulties to some good use. And that may require many of us to put aside some of the more frivolous pursuits that we’ve grown accustomed to.
What happened to common sense?
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that “lust, pride, envy, and wrath” are not things to be cultivated. Such things have are the antithesis of what we need to be indulging ourselves in, and it saddens me to see such irresponsible approaches to advertising.
Having spent some time in market research studying consumer responses to TV commercials, I’m keenly aware of two indicators of the condition of the American populace. One is the type of advertising used to appeal to people. The other is the quality of government, as reflected in the integrity of our elected officials.
Both fronts have taken some very disturbing turns in recent history. I hope that this particular ad campaign is a complete flop and that people reject the ideals reflected in it. If it’s truly indicative of where we are as a country, we’d better hope that we’re hitting bottom and are ready for a national revival.
America has survived innumerable troubles in the past, and here’s hoping that the current economic trials spark a growth in our entrepreneurial spirit. As the leader of the free world, we can ill afford to allow ourselves to be the victims of our own desires for immediate gratification.
Our future depends in part upon our ability and willingness to face facts and get serious about rebuilding our troubled economy. And we cannot base our future on indulging ourselves in “lust, pride, envy, and wrath” as core values.
Dr. Richardson is the founder of Redwood Enterprises, a business consulting, training, and executive coaching firm that specializes in helping business owners make sure that what they do every day reflects sound strategic planning. He is available for speaking engagements on business related topics. Visit his company’s website at www.redwood-enterprises.com, or contact Redwood Enterprises by phone at 610.326.3670.