We are an impatient society. Perhaps it has always been so, but as I read about our history I continue to be impressed by the foresight and commitment of leaders who assumed they were building for something more than their immediate needs and interests. Our thoughts turn quickly to the industrial leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as examples. They did lay a foundation on which much has been built since. Yet their ideas and actions were inspiration for many entrepreneurs and business leaders at regional and local levels who planned for a horizon that would exceed their own lives.
There are many other sectors of society beyond business, however, through which the social fabric of our nation also was made strong. Thoughtful government leaders worked to form ideas, shape policies and build an infrastructure that would be an enduring benefit to the nation. Civil rights leaders worked for a just society, not just a prosperous one. The endeavors of science, technology and medicine were supported as if they were natural resources to protect, while education was understood to be a public good, not just a private good.
Critics will note these advances also have produced some unintended consequences and collateral effects. Indeed this is true. Environmental impacts have cost us more than we would have anticipated and now require increasing levels of commitment to rebalance. Economic prosperity has been uneven and disproportionate. Government leaders have, in some cases, become unprincipled politicians. We have made amazing gains in medicine, but struggle to manage the economics of health. The pace of technological change has yielded patterns of disruption that spur growth, but come at a cost. Unbridled ambition can result in harsh impacts if not weighed against the broader societal benefits and the full range of consequences.
The reality is that our vision for the future is limited by our capacity to connect the dots both over time and among societal trends and patterns. Accordingly, we do a bit of groping in the dark and we set our course for the next horizon. Yet even with this path of uncertainty before us, how we choose to move forward and the ways in which we prepare coming generations matters a lot.
Our society is trapped in a current pattern in which the sensational is more important than the substantive; the instant more important than the enduring; and consuming is more important than preserving. If I could inject American society with a vaccine to cure what ails us, I would begin with equal portions of the following key ingredients:
Quiet determination. I have great admiration for people who are deeply rooted in their commitments. The focus they bring to deliberations and actions offers a sense of stability even when the circumstances are fluid. So much in society is reaction instead of response. Too often our thinking is about the next quarter or next year, rather than the next generation. The more we can direct energy to our long-term interests, the less we will add complexity and instability to the present.
Consistent discipline. The everyday behaviors of individuals, organizations and societies drive the future for all. I am often reminded “we do big things a little at a time.” Discipline, for me, involves a sense of resolve that I will not do anything halfway. I may only get halfway to my goal over a certain span of time, but that will not be due to a lack of effort. As a society, if we can do the little things well, we have a better shot at tacking the big things.
Purposeful organization. There are times when an organization can become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. It’s easy to lose sight of purpose when the care and feeding of the organization is the primary task, and the sense of mission is lost. We should not be surprised by organizational decay and ineffectiveness when the focus becomes inward, the participants insular and the leadership isolated. Renewing our understanding of organization as the servant of purpose will take us far in restoring a vision that exceeds our narrow and temporal self-interest.
Relentless execution. As plans are set in motion it takes the time and energy of all involved to make an initiative successful. Setbacks are inevitable, but when thoughtful criticism turns into accusations and blame, execution stops and the initiative is imperiled. Effective execution is not about rigidity; it’s about never giving up.
These are the lessons of history, even with all the blemishes spotting our collective record of achievement. If we can restore commitments such as these, they will gradually become the normative expectations we have for each other and for our society. It begins with the smallest things and yet big things can happen over a long period of time.
Ready? OK. Roll up your sleeve. It will hurt a little now, but you will be much healthier in the long run.
About the Author
I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.