Kindling a light on the true spirit of American leadership.
Can the nation (re)connect with a deeper level of consciousness?
The enigmatic psychiatrist Carl Jung once said, “as far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being”. In these tumultuous times, when culture wars and independence referendums are on the rise, economic inequalities and education gaps are more palpable than ever, and environmental disasters, mass migrations and tensions between superpowers threaten the sustainability of life on earth, Jung’s gentle yet prophetic words seem to have a chilling resonance across the globe.
Right at the center of these struggles is Brand U.S.A., standing at a crossroads between assertiveness and divisiveness, swinging back and forth between clarity and obscurity. The nation’s leadership role in the world is being seriously questioned by allies and shunned (if not mocked) by antagonists. Its internal cacophony of political rhetoric and patriotic righteousness is filling the atmosphere with levels of toxicity akin to Chernobyl’s radioactive dust.
One startling effect from all this seems to be a growing state of collective neurosis and total confusion as to where we should focus our attention and invest our energy. When we are anxious about which side to take on every single news headline or social media post, it’s incredibly easy to lose our sense of grounding, lose historic perspective, and lose sight of the road ahead. Moreover, it’s easy to miss the fact that a leader’s strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin, in a similar way as Jung’s Archetypes have positive instincts and shadow manifestations.
Yes, it is important to recognize that Brand U.S.A. is no longer number one in manufacturing, infrastructure, education, economic welfare and social progress — domains in which it used to set the global standard. On the common international currency (PPP) scale, the U.S. GDP already ranks a distant 2nd after China’s — and the gap is expected to widen by 2020. According to the 2017 Social Progress Index, the U.S. appears in the 18th position worldwide, just behind Spain and Japan. Even in sports there appears to be a crack in the foundation, as the men’s soccer national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Perhaps this is a good moment to take a step back and ask ourselves: Challenged on every front, can America restore its leadership status without succumbing to its shadow? How should we define American leadership in an emerging “post-American world”? What does leadership even mean?
In a recent article, senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Marshall Ganz, defined leadership as a mechanism “by which people transform the individual resources they have into the collective power they need to get what they want”. Ganz likes to say that leadership is not so much about position as it is about a series of practices, such as building relationships, crafting a narrative and creating movements. His definition can be aligned with four key narratives that are embedded in the spirit of American leadership: Impetus, Individualism, Ideas and Integration.
IMPETUS (getting what you want)
Although oftentimes reduced to notions of financial achievement, homeownership or social mobility, there is a more emotional, perhaps more visceral facet to the American Dream, and that is the drive to have a hold of one’s own destiny. Understandably, people all over the world are drawn to such promise, which for better or worse is still very much alive today. This promise has never meant that outcomes are guaranteed, which again, has become a common misconception; rather, it’s an open invitation to set things in motion and define success in new ways.
This can-do attitude, or impetus, is as contagious as it is mysterious. It is a powerful motivation that makes people believe in impossible goals, and exhibit incredible courage and perseverance as they seek to achieve them. This is the underlying energy behind putting a man on the moon (and soon on Mars). It is the magic behind the oratory of Lincoln, Dr. King Jr. and César Chávez, among countless more. It is the magnet that inspires millions to embark on perilous journeys across land and water to get a fresh start. It is the responsibility for establishing order, the capacity to imagine a different future, and the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the greater good.
The American experiment would be impossible if it weren’t for individuals who are willing to transcend boundaries, who harness their inquisitive nature and put their rebellious enthusiasm to good use. Thanks to a culture that welcomes such individualistic and entrepreneurial pursuits, Elon Musk is reinventing our relationship with electricity, solar power, urban transportation and space exploration. Implicit in “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a strong sense of autonomy and independence. In modern times, this “pursuit” seems somewhat misguided by materialism and greed but in its purest form the phrase encapsulates human curiosity to explore hidden paths and discover new horizons. Amelia Earhart’s life, career and disappearance continue to be a subject of fascination today, and the fearless aviator remains one of the most iconic pioneers of all time. The fact that she would spend most of her time above the clouds puts the idea of “breaking the glass ceiling” in perspective, doesn’t it?
Real freedom emerges by embracing the unknown, letting go of convention and on occasions taking a more lighthearted approach to change. Big dreams are usually born after taking small steps and believing in oneself wholeheartedly. As Walt Disney would take pride in reminding us, “everything” started with a mouse and a duck. American resourcefulness — admittedly blurred with fantasy sometimes — is an endless source of power that moves the world.
It would be difficult to fathom a well-established corporate lawyer in any other part of the world quitting his job to become a full-time, self-proclaimed and well-compensated “brick artist”. But that’s exactly what Nathan Sawaya did several years ago. His art creations, made entirely of LEGO bricks, are commissioned by companies, charities, individuals, as well as international museums and galleries. Where else would one expect to see something like this happen, other than America? Michelle Jones served 20 years in prison for the murder of a child she had as a teenager, but subsequently earned a reputation as a historian through a prison education program and has just recently started a Ph.D. at New York University.
Where else would one expect this to be even remotely possible, other than America?
Personal determination and passion are undoubtedly part of the backbone of stories like these, but the starting point is a deeply held conviction in the possibility that something can be created out of (almost) nothing. It is this unshakable creative drive that explains the emergence of the telephone and the microwave, General Electric and Amazon, Coca-Cola and Starbucks, Lady Gaga and Bill Gates, Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the National Parks Service and the Internet.
INTEGRATION (collective power)
Current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was featured in Time Magazine’s recent cover story titled ‘Firsts’, which looked at leading women across a variety of fields. Haley was the first Indian-American woman to be elected state governor (South Carolina). She told Time how the alienation she felt growing up in a small town gave her perspective while in political office, and how that experience continues to inform her outlook on the world stage. “Your job is not to show people how you’re different”, her mother would say to her when she was little, “it’s to show them how you’re similar”. Diversity is not just a matter of physical appearance but also a frame of mind. Arguably no other nation on earth has been so successful in fostering an environment that allows people of all walks of life and all corners of the world to assert and express their individuality while at the same time assimilate a common set of ideals.
Despite many bumps and conflicts along the way, we constantly observe this ideology being nurtured in the academic field, in sport arenas, in the military, in corporations, in show business, and in everyday life. Eric Liu, executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, believes that, despite other advantages that a country like China might have, the U.S. retains a competitive edge because “America can make Chinese Americans but China can’t make Americans Chinese”.
WE THE PEOPLE …
There is so much talk these days about whether to kneel or not to kneel during the American National Anthem. If we’ve gotten to this point, something essential has been forgotten. There used to be a time in which an anthem’s simple purpose was to encourage people to show up for each other, just like Mo Cheeks showed up for Natalie Gilbert in 2003. This iconic moment should remind us to extend a hand when someone else stumbles, sing along when they forget the lines, and generally become more conscious participants in our world.
Even in the most progressive societies, the concept of leadership continues to be mostly associated with a top-down directive; someone above is in charge, so we look upward for guidance and decision-making. The irony is that ‘leaders’ often ‘follow’ pre-established guidelines because they don’t want to alter the status quo. Although perceptions are evolving, few leaders have embraced Stephen Covey’s suggestion to practice leadership as an “enabling art”.
For someone like Professor Ganz, it is obvious that bottom-up initiatives are the best way to produce the necessary changes we need in order to actually move forward. The preamble of the United States Constitution starts with “we the people”, inviting all citizens to participate and lead in one way or another. This phrase is a core and meaningful part of the nation’s purpose, though it sometimes seems dormant in the collective consciousness.
But this goes well beyond protesting on the streets or debating issues in public. Meaningful change begins with dialogue; at home, in the classroom, in the hallways and conference rooms of corporations, and in the garage of a start-up. It begins with ourselves, by setting the tone, and leading by example. It begins with you, the firefighter, nurse, teacher, mechanic, therapist, farmer, janitor, designer, retailer, astronaut, engineer, lawyer, parent or whoever you are. It begins in your immediate environment and with those you interact with every day.
What’s noteworthy about the four narratives outlined above is that they rely on each other to produce great outcomes.
Impetus alone can be reckless if it lacks an idea. Individualism can wreak havoc if it operates in isolation. Ideas go nowhere without direction. Integration can seem lofty and even threatening unless it is properly channeled towards innovation.
Bringing these beautiful energies to work together in unison is not easy. It requires self-awareness, self-discovery, self-care and self-development. It requires conscious attention and practice. More importantly, living up to and applying these principles isn’t just a matter of patriotism or nationalism, but the good of humanity at large.
Christian Filli is a certified integral coach and founder of Scyrocco®, an integral development practice that fosters the creation of value in society by examining the interrelatedness between individuals, organizations, brands and culture. He is based in Austin, Texas.
This article was written in collaboration with Cynthia Forstmann, founding partner at CultureTalk, an Archetypal survey system that provides people and companies with a framework for uncovering and connecting hidden symbols, patterns and passions that give their lives and work meaning. She is based in Denver, Colorado.