George Washington was known primarily for being fearless. When his men had circled around and were accidentally firing on each other, he drew his sabre and rode between the line of rifles, fiercely cutting them down. When he needed a win badly, he risked freezing to death by crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians camped in New Jersey.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of a few carefully chosen words. When his opponent Stephen Douglas went on for hours speaking against the evils of slavery, Lincoln would respond with little more than “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. It was that simple. We were a family, but we would not be if we continued this way. Lincoln made the stakes clear to everyone.
Susan B. Anthony was, as a woman, not allowed to vote. In 1872, she voted anyway, declaring that it was her right to do so. At her trial, she spoke clearly to this point, and got off with only a small fine and a boost to the growing women’s rights campaign. It was not the last time she got in the way of the authorities, either.
George Washington Carver may be known as a scientist, but he proudly introduced himself as a farmer. He routinely went out into the country to talk with other farmers and help them to implement the plans in his brochures. Carver took their concerns back to his lab so that he could work on things that mattered most to the other “people of the soil”.
What do all of these people have in common? They are all Americans, and they have all been made into icons that are larger than life. Each, as a marbleized statue, illuminates the American concept of leadership, which includes courage, clarity, determination, dedication.
Look around today and ask yourself where you see these qualities of leadership in the people who have made it to the highest levels of power today. In government and business, the story is the same – our leadership has remarkably little of the qualities that made the American Empire in the first place. Certainly, there are millions of people who are courageous and clear in purpose, who are determined and dedicated, working away to make things happen everywhere. But very few achieve real power.
I’ve blogged before about the state of leadership in this country. I chalked it up to a particular kind of stupidity that comes from arrogance. With more consideration, I think the problem is much deeper. How did we get where we are today?
There is little doubt that the American Empire, built by the qualities of leadership I’ve listed, is at the height of its power. What can possibly challenge us? There is only one thing that brings down Empires, and it is their own inability to remain true to what made them in the first place.
People who achieved positions of power used to understand the need to collaborate and work together, gathering the best and brightest around them; our system forced consensus and compromise at nearly all levels. Not so today. The power that is up for grabs in every election and every corporate management became much greater and more concentrated once we achieved the status of a planet-ruling Empire. Leaders gradually became distrustful and self-centered. Their courage melted and their clarity faded as they came to believe their own bullshit. Determination became arrogance and dedication collapsed into selfishness.
The people that created the American Empire never intended for it to be this way. The system that they crafted was based on a real and genuine leadership to serve the people. It became wildly successful because they were right. But they also knew enough to fear concentration of power even as they accidentally created a power that went outside of their system to run the lives of people all around the globe, people who have no say in how the power is used at all.
Is this how the American Empire ends? If it’s the end of the Empire part, I’m all for it. America by Americans for Americans can be a good thing once again, but only if we start to insist on the qualities of leadership that made everything around us possible. Our power is something that we often equate with a good life made up of cheap imported oil and consumer goods. As that comes to an end, we need to re-evaluate what the good life is made of and what America has contributed to the world. It’s not plastic crap. It’s a vision of leadership that boldly serves. We must insist on that far, far more than we insist on cheap gasoline.
In a democracy, we get the leadership we deserve. We once deserved a lot better than we do right now.