As one who studies US foreign policy, I am not a fan of presidential doctrines that are generally crafted by the press out of a line or two of a president’s speech. The Monroe Doctrine may have actually been the only true doctrine, defined by its namesake, and even it proved susceptible to gross misinterpretation and expansive misapplication. Moreover, in an age of complexity, doctrines, or grand strategies, seem less appealing or relevant than the flexibility ambiguity allows, which is clearly why President Obama favored ambiguity in his recent address on Libya. We live in an age of supervention, where seemingly disconnected and anachronistic events have effects, which is an inexorable reality of complexity. The larger problem however, is not about US foreign policy and its strategic design in a complex world; it is about American identity; it is about how we Americans view our role at home and in the world.
Part IV: Moral Purpose
The final element of leading from the soul is moral purpose. There is a terrific book on this issue by consultant Simon Sinek, titled, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Sinek argues that while most of us and the organizations we work for can readily articulate what we do and how we do it, all too often there is confusion or even no understanding of why. Why provides the beliefs and convictions that direct the what and how. If the why is missing, everything else is the product of randomness and, even more troubling, its absence provides a vacuum that will be filled by divergent interests and nefarious actors. (more…)
Part III: Transcendent Courage
The next element of leading from the soul is transcendent courage. Courage is the spine of character; it is the synaptic command and control system for all other virtues. We are all familiar with courageous acts; the firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building, the soldier who throws himself in the path of danger to save his comrades, or the passengers who uttered “Let’s roll” and gave their own lives to protect other innocent Americans the terrorists intended to kill at their target in Washington DC on 9/11. There is no question these acts are heroic and worthy of significant praise, even reverence. Are they born from courage? Panic? Desperation? Are they reflexive or triggered from a deeply-wired sense of personal responsibility? Is courage inherited or learned? Are courageous people attractive, intelligent, wealthy, or prophetic? Do they attend church every Sunday? Do courageous people necessarily perform heroic acts or is courage a state of being that may never be overtly expressed?
Part II: The Power of Solitude
Leading from the soul can only occur if we practice solitude. As former Yale professor of literature, William Deresiewicz warned us, today we seem to be intoxicated by “celebrity and connectivity,” where the “great contemporary terror is anonymity.” However, we know that the act of being alone — of practicing solitude — has produced great work. In literature solitude gave us Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Austen; and more contemporary talents like Maya Angelou and David Foster Wallace. In music it gave us a range of brilliance from Mozart, to Coltrane, to Hendrix. In science solitude found in laboratories and garages gave us street lights, vaccines, and microprocessors. Some of the greatest thinkers of all time, like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Freidrich Nitzsche never married and lived alone most of their lives. In leadership, solitude gave us the aforementioned Lincoln, Gandhi, and King.
When I think of great leaders I think of people like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. They were people whom against all odds and, moreover, against popular opinion, led society to places it would have never gone without them – to places that established new norms and higher expectations. Their ideas and convictions were asserted thoughtfully and courageously and they never wavered from their purpose: to improve the lot of humanity. These leaders spent a great deal of their time alone, reading and deliberating. These leaders took risks that elevated everyone. These leaders had a humble sense of self and a clear sense of mission. When the history books are written about the early 21st century, I believe it will be claimed that while we suffered from economic malaise, global warming, terrorist acts, etc., the cause was not a housing or capital markets crisis, or an addiction to fossil fuels, or declining test scores, rising federal deficits, or even a broken healthcare system, it was rather a debilitating scarcity of leadership. Leaders today show little, if any, of the characteristics of Lincoln, Gandhi, and King. (more…)
The events in Tucson this weekend illustrate all too painfully what has become of leadership in America. The events themselves raise many questions that can and are being debated with (mostly) appropriate vigor. But what led to the murderous act of Jared Lee Loughner, concerning as it is, is unlikely to produce a clear evaluation of the state of leadership in America. What will, however, is the careful observation of what comes now: the response of our elected officials. The early results are not promising. (more…)
With just a couple of days remaining before the midterm elections many people, including me, are bemoaning what appears to be a new low in political discourse that suggests a complete abandonment of America’s position as the standard-bearer of liberal democracy. If the evidence of yelling, screaming, head stomping, and complete disregard for the truth is any indication, on Wednesday, November 3, we could be facing a new Congress that is likely to turn the rotunda of the Capitol into a cage-fighting ring to settle petty political scores. And to be fair, neither party is innocent here. There are nasty people on all sides. It bears remembering, however, that American democracy has always been a messy and chaotic business and extremism is nothing new. Furthermore, extremism, like that which marks much of today’s Tea Party rhetoric, has a way of becoming diluted over time while offering new leaders a springboard to interpret underlying principles in more attractive ways.
In the last fifty years, the American experience has hurtled forward from Kennedy’s Age of Camelot, to the Age of Aquarius, and now the Age of Apaté (a-pat’-ay), named for the Greek goddess of deceit whose evil spirit was released once Pandora opened her box. The lid on Pandora’s mythical box (actually a jar) was loosened by the alchemy of Ronald Reagan and the ambition of Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. When Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika-styled reforms slipped perilously toward revolution the Soviet model imploded. However, what was once widely considered a great victory over godless communism – the collapse of the Soviet Union – quickly became affected, or perhaps more accurately infected, by the spirit of Apaté. Hubris and deceit were easier and, let’s face it, more fun than humility and honesty. With the Soviets out of the way, we Americans were free to assume a wide berth of exceptionalism to expand our reach and reign. And, we did it on the wings of Apaté.
Every seventy-five years or so America endures a period of crisis that lasts from twelve to seventeen years. They include both profound economic and security effects that put the country at leviathan levels of risk. The founding of our country was itself a period of crisis; later was the Civil War and Reconstruction, and in the twentieth century the Great Depression and World War II. The current period of crisis in now three years old – marked by the date our capital markets began to realize they were standing in the quicksand of credit default swaps secured by vapor and hubris. I would argue we are far from seeing the depth of the current crisis, nor are we even near a midpoint. It would be ahistorical to predict otherwise. We have yet to even see the axe of conflict fall. No, 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan don’t count – at least not yet, although they probably provide the framework for much wider conflict with many more actors involved. I remain convinced that our capacity to start and perpetuate war far exceeds our ability to end it. The preposterous realization that we are unable to even define what a ‘win’ is, is all the evidence anyone needs to defend that claim. Be that as it may, my intent here is not to debate the dilemmas that face policymakers and provide fuel for Gadarene punditry today; rather to explore what historians will later observe with the crisis behind them, as they write the inevitable story of how American identity was changed forever (or at least until the next crisis in around 2095). If we are smart, we will write a different future than historians might expect. But we better wise-up soon.