The Clarion Call for Character

This piece was originally written for the April 27 edition of Event 360’s Event Fundraising Blog. Like many things I write, the essay is overly long and possibly too pedantic. And yet I consider it a deeply personal and important attempt to articulate what this entire site is about: That one person can, and should, make a difference.

One of my core beliefs about effective strategy is that it is designed to support a shared aspirational vision. In other words, the best strategies support the achievement of a big goal, or dream, or vision. If you don’t know where you are going, how can you effectively get there? We all want to be called to something bigger than ourselves. For some, that “something bigger” is simply personal prosperity. Most of us, though – particularly those of us in the social impact space – yearn to be part of something more noble than self-interest. We long for the opportunity to move the needle on the human condition.

The best visions, in turn, are rooted in a set of shared values. Every organization values something; those values define how we pursue the vision our strategy is meant to help us achieve. I’m not talking about the list of five or six attributes that are written somewhere in your organization’s annual report. I’m talking about the ways we actually behave; the things we show our constituents that we find important through our actions. In this way, strategy and leadership are intertwined.

I spend a lot of time worrying about this issue, actually. As leaders and strategists, one of our core responsibilities is to try to keep the gap between what we say is important and what we show is important as small as possible. None of us is perfect, and so neither are our organizations perfect. There’s always a difference between what we do and say. And yet sometimes the gaps are glaring. I’ve worked with groups that say “open communication” is a core value – only to find that they were unwilling to tolerate any dissent. The stated value is open communication, but the actual value is “parrot the party line.” And I’ve had times where my own team says to me, for example, “We say that we value meaningful relationships, but we slighted this person in such-and-such a way.” And yet when I get that feedback, as difficult as it sometimes is to receive, I know we’re getting somewhere. I know we’re working together to close the gap.

And so it was with a great amount of interest and empathy that I read Peggy Noonan’s April 21 Wall Street Journal editorial, “America’s Crisis of Character.” I should openly admit that I’m not a regular reader of the Journal, or any paper for that matter – Google Reader has radically changed my reading habits. I read voraciously but I’m just as likely to be reading one of the hundreds and hundreds of great blogs as I am any “traditional” news outlet. And it should also be said that like all of us, Noonan has a political slant; she was an assistant to Ronald Reagan back in the day, and tends to be identified as a conservative, although I’ve never found her to be overwhelmingly so.

What she definitely is, without question, is a great writer. In this piece she starts with the recent report by Gallup that fewer Americans than ever – 24% – believe “we’re on the right track as a nation.” She then recaps a week of bad news – from the Secret Service scandal to the GSA scandal to the latest reports of mistreatment of travelers at the hands of the TSA – and provides some commentary on, as she calls it, “the flat, brute, highly sexualized thing we call our culture.” The crux of her editorial is a compelling and disturbing point: “I think more and more people are worried about the American character—who we are and what kind of adults we are raising.” In her mind, we’re witnessing “a leveling or deterioration of public behavior” borne of lowering expectations so much that “people don’t decide to give you more, they give you less.”

It’s a quite powerful, and honestly, quite depressing piece of writing. Noonan doesn’t offer any help, hope, or solutions. She doesn’t offer us a way out. She simply concludes: “Something seems to be going terribly wrong. Maybe we have to stop and think about this.”

I will say I think there’s a bit of nostalgic superiority to the article, a sense of “things used to be better when I was young” to the piece. And yet, that wouldn’t stop me from recommending it to you, and it didn’t stop me from feeling quite an impact from it.

I read the article over the weekend, and thought about it, and then re-read it. Then I did what many of us do, which is frenetically look around for someone to talk to about it. Our social media revolution has made that process incredibly efficient: I posted the article on Facebook, and Twitter, and I think on Google+, and waited for interaction to come to me. (A sort-of passive, vaguely interactive process that has become second-nature to me, and that, ironically, could be one of the causes of the problems Noonan has described.)

In any case, I didn’t have to wait long. A number of friends and colleagues commented on the article. What was fascinating to me was that they seemed to be broken into two camps – those who said, “Yes, this is disturbing, and what on earth can we do about it” and those who said, “Yes, this is disturbing but it’s nothing new, and as usual no solutions were offered.” In other words, resigned acceptance on one hand and annoyed acceptance on the other.

One of my colleagues and friends at Event 360, Slade Thompson, wrote a very thoughtful comment back to me: 

All I read [in her article] was a synopsis of another week’s bad news … I had hoped for a little more examination of the root cause or a proposed solution. “Maybe we have to stop and think” doesn’t seem particularly insightful or constructive, and I’m afraid it will only get a few seconds consideration from most readers before the concern changes to “What’s for dinner?” or “What’s next on the calendar?” Or is this just another indication of our deteriorating character, that facts alone aren’t enough to inspire action?

I think Slade has articulated for me what I found most troubling about the article. It’s true that Noonan doesn’t get to solutions – although there’s only so much one can do a few paragraphs, and the solutions require volumes. At the same time, I believe one of Noonan’s points is that in a time when all of these terrible things happen and no one seems to notice, “stop and think” is at least a place to start. 

But at a more fundamental level, I think her point is not that we don’t seem to notice – it is that we don’t seem to feel like there’s anything we can do about it. To heal pain, one must feel it in the first place, and what I read from Noonan was a lament that we’ve become increasingly anesthetized to our own discomfort and dissatisfaction.

Are there solutions? Of course there are. To what Noonan describes, treating everyone equally regardless of background or appearance; ensuring equal access to opportunity for all; increasing our intolerance of hate and discrimination; and then enforcing all of the previous might be the right start towards creating a culture where people aren’t victimized, preyed upon, gawked at, and objectified.

At a deeper level, though, there’s a point I feel compelled to make for all of us who aspire to be leaders and strategists. The solution starts with the faith that there is one, and with the willingness to believe that we might be able to achieve it.

To go back to my opening thoughts: Those of us with even the smallest sense of awareness and humility will find throughout life constant reminders of our own inadequacy. And yet we will also find constant reminders of the world’s imperfection. It strikes me that the secret to both improving ourselves and changing the world is to let our own imperfections inspire us to a better way of living, and so remind us that the better world we seek is not so far from our grasp after all.

The real honest truth is that we are not, unfortunately, the perfect people we want to be. And yet isn’t that the good news, too? That in spite of our flaws and egos and idiosyncrasies we each still manage to have a few friends who care, families who love us, and work that requires our attention? And if that is possible at the personal level, isn’t it possible at the organizational level too? And at the community level? And at the societal level?

I agree with Noonan that the world condition requires reflection. And at the same time, the only pretension we can longer tolerate in ourselves is the attitude that we are powerless to change what we see around us. I don’t believe it, and neither should you, because it just isn’t true.  

Jeff Shuck