This is not a Thanksgiving downer, but a hope-filled call to action.
A former colleague, boss, mentor, and friend taught me this sentence many years ago and at my invitation has repeated it since in sessions of the leadership development program I lead at the McCain Institute for International Affairs here in Washington, D.C.
These eight simple words form the basis for a new agenda of our country and that of our many like-minded friends and partners around the world. It is the beginning, but not the end of a leadership action plan for escaping the painful and retrograde public policy mess we find ourselves in from Washington to Berlin, from Caracas to Manila, and in many places in between. A vocal, but defensive and powerless majority of the people in countries around the world have decried the current state of affairs: a world filled with alternate facts, self-serving dismissal or even hatred of those who disagree with those currently in political power, and a defiant refusal to shape a better global future by insisting on a return to a past reminiscent of the Dark Ages. To no avail.
In the United States, the 2016 Presidential election opened a Pandora’s Box. The legitimate fears of many good people – our neighbors, friends, and family members — of being left behind in a new America they saw bringing benefits to a political, economic, and cultural elite they felt excluded from. And to add insult to injury, these good Americans who had in successive generations helped build this country, saw their pleas for inclusion in this future world ignored. Similar sentiments were reflected among equally well-meaning people in many other countries.
So along came the successors to the many charlatans who throughout history have seen opportunity in the misfortune and fears of others. They released and paraded the worst vices out of Pandora’s infamous box as the solutions to the challenges of a changing world. They turned the hearts of good people to stone and lifted the rocks that many not-so-good people emerged from. And ever since then the vocal and powerless majority has blustered about how horrible charlatans and their acolytes are. Well, duh! Tell us something we don’t know.
The answer to the challenges of our age lies not in the complaints against the actions of the charlatans, but in the articulation and more importantly, the decisive actions of character-driven leadership. Few people will readily identify what character-driven leadership means. Amazing, since parents, teachers and spiritual leaders have defined it for ages: truth, honor, decency, respect, humility, charity, and compassion, to name just a few. In short, you know character when you see it. Our public policy and political and civic discourse must be subordinated to these values.
In 1783, at a time when the future of our new nation was anything but secure, our most respected fellow citizen who would become our first President, said it in a message to the governors of the 13 American colonies at the end of the Revolutionary War:
“I now make it my earnest prayer that God… would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large; … and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, … without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.” — General George Washington
Abraham Lincoln believed so strongly in the importance of preserving what this “happy nation” stands for that he was willing to shed blood among brothers and sisters in its defense. Today’s charlatans also believe –in themselves — not the American people or our happy nation. So let’s stop being defensive about our values in the face of this narcissism. Fulfilling Washington’s prayer and Lincoln’s belief requires a character-driven agenda for America and for what Senator John McCain has recently called “the West” – a community of values, not of geography or political affiliation.
IT CAN BE THIS WAY!