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Leadership for Democracy and Capitalism

By Dr. John R. Grinnell

View a complete list of John's archived articles.

Our elegant system of governing human behavior was put in place 234 years ago. It no longer serves the complexities and consequences of the crowded, modern, globally interconnected life of the 21st century. The answer is not in changing the constitution but rather political and business leaders stepping up with awareness to see and deliver their social and economic responsibility. We need to understand what real leadership looks like, and refuse to promote or elect leaders that have not demonstrated an understanding of both democracy and capitalism. One-sided arguments, as well as power plays, both political and personal, may enliven the news, but eventually harm those that follow. The constitution is not a panacea.  It is merely a vehicle through which the clarity of the consciousness and knowledge of those we follow flows toward the inevitable outcomes of theirs and our leadership.

You may know it too--the hustle and bustle of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport about 5:00 p.m. with the cabstand supervisor barking orders to the throng of passersby.  I quickly jumped into my cab and, as I have done of late, looked to see what nationality my driver might be.  On this trip I guessed northern African, perhaps Egyptian or Ethiopian.  I ride in cabs frequently and for the past year I have been listening and asking questions to see how these dutiful men and women view the United States and world politics.  I also like learning about their cultures and why they came to the U.S.

Similar to most I have interviewed, my driver had come to America primarily to escape from an oppressive government.  I have found that most people who have come to this country were not primarily fortune seekers, but rather common people with an uncommon drive for personal freedom and responsibility.  To come here they had to amass what was to them a great deal of money and leave their old identities, cultural familiarity, and, in many cases, their families behind—a big step.  They came because they want to be treated with equality and have a chance to succeed.

On this particular hot summer evening, after a few pleasantries, I asked my usual question, “Why did you come to America?”  (Now I know the proper thing to ask is “why did you come to the USA,” but most people from second- and third-world countries think of the US when they say “America.”)  When he gave me his reason, to my surprise it awakened my consciousness!  Why this evening I have no idea, but as I listened I understood in a way I hadn’t before the profound nature of our society.  Like a “fish in water,” I had come to expect certain aspects of our lifestyle here in the US and had become numb to its blessings.  I had become so insulated from the truth of our society that I no longer saw or could appreciate it until he woke me up with a simple story.  

He had called 911 for his wife and the ambulance was sent directly to his home within 10 minutes.  This is something we, as Americans, expect.  Yet he told me that in his country of origin if they hadn’t been from the right family, had the right amount of money, lived in the right neighborhood, or had the proper political affiliation the ambulance would have come late or may never have come at all.  In the US he and his wife had a fair chance for life.  He then went on to tell me how wonderful it is that he can practice Christianity here without fear and that others can practice Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam.  It meant everything to him.

I am all for critical thought and improvement and the realization of the potential our Constitution holds, but how many things do we take for granted as we force our personal agendas, and criticize our nation and other law-abiding citizens who think differently than we do?  Free responsible speech is wonderful, but not when we lose sight of our deeper shared agenda and the purpose of the debate. We run the risk of deciding wrongly if we don’t remember why we are living here together and what the goal is for us all.  How can we allow people to lead us both in government and business who don’t really understand the underpinnings and interdependence of a democracy and capitalism and their responsibility to both.

Two hundred thirty-four years ago our Democracy and Capitalism was founded.  Its principles were set out clearly, but few have lived up to the requirements of leadership to support it.  It was established by the courageous, thoughtful, and often tragic and bloody actions of men and women who have come before us.  Some of them were our genetic ancestors and some of them were our ancestors not by birth, but by ideology.  My family has been in this country so long that, until the cabby reminded me, I had forgotten how special living in the US really is.  That special miracle is what our societal ancestors fought for in the Revolutionary War.  It is no worse a human history than that of most other countries, but better than that of many today.  It was the opportunity of hope for some that the Native Americans suffered terribly for.  It is the dream forced upon many whose ancestors were enslaved to eventually live free. It is the courageous entrepreneur and business people who risked personal wealth, sacrificed family, friends and sometimes personal health, who started or grew a business that created real value and responsibly met payroll-- the basis of taxation that pays our government’s expenses. It is the competent men and women of our various state and federal agencies who have oftentimes put their careers at risk to say and do what is right within overly political environments run by small people with big positions.  And the greatest price was paid by the mostly unsung heroes on our battlefields, in burning buildings or on the street where they gave their lives so we can have the opportunity to continue to live responsibly and free.  This cabby with a young family understood the importance when I had forgotten it.

When I got up off my mental “lazy ass” I remembered.  It was worth fighting for then and it is worth fighting for again, but the fight is different now.  It is a larger and more significant challenge for leadership now than the habitual human solution of power, be it political power plays, character assassination, “spinning” information or war to get one’s way.

Our fight today is not with guns, but within ourselves to claim the ability to see clearly beyond the fog of self-service and ego to make right decisions to talk responsibly and take right actions.  It is a battle within each leader’s soul; the kind of battle most humans want to avoid for the short-term comfort and peace of blind denial and habitual action. The challenge requires a journey of self awareness*, as well as ethnic, cultural, and human-understanding so that we can go beyond our current habitual ways of thinking and reacting. Without this we will continue to stumble around making the same all-too-human errors, repeating history at every turn. This revolution of consciousness and, thereby, education must serve the  purpose of aligning two key elements of our society--democracy and capitalism--so that our people can experience life, have liberty, and can pursue happiness.  There must be a deep understanding of the purpose and function of these two elements.  My concern is that we have had engrained in us for too long a default to the mostly barbaric and predatory mindset of “win-lose” based in a lack of real understanding of these two essential elements before argument and eventual decision and leadership action.  In other words; most of our leaders are innocently unaware operating on automatic,  or understand but are afraid of retribution and the subsequent loss of position or power if they step up to the challenges of real leadership today.  Thank God the founding fathers found the strength.  

We have not done a very good job of cultivating in either private or public sectors leaders that understand and can take right action with the two primary elements of democracy and capitalism in mind.  It seems very few can manage their self-serving nature in order to find creative solutions to the current problems that challenge our country.  Our political leaders consider it an accomplishment to be good at the “art of the compromise,” which is often akin to a failure to find the right solution.  In many cases it’s more about getting oneself or one’s party re-elected, pleasing special interests, making money, or returning favors than realizing the great responsibility of real leadership.  

Some business leaders create profit at all cost and at every turn, often driven by a demanding and relentless morally relativistic Wall Street or an overly aggressive or passive board of directors with little awareness of their social responsibilities and without questioning whether or not what they are doing is right.  In their view (and those of their attorneys and CPAs) if it isn’t illegal, it’s OK.  These leaders almost always operate blindly and amass great wealth until the occurrence of a catastrophic event that we all pay dearly for.  We then create a law with perfect 20-20 hindsight.   I’m not impressed.  Some of our leaders, both in government and in business, have by and large subverted the vision of our founders; they are lost in their own agendas, understand the purpose of government or business (but not both), and are thus blind to the social and economic responsibilities of their leadership.

“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them.”  - Benjamin Franklin

Over the past ten years or so, I have asked thousands of good people if they have ever lied, cheated, or stolen.  No one has raised their hand saying they have not.  I don’t stand alone and I also point the finger at myself with this question too.  Human nature is as wonderful as it is corrupt.  However, a human being who is self-aware and has cultivated “free consciousness” has a chance to take a position in life against those forces within him that will harm others and our nation. They can look objectively at the interplay of democracy and capitalism and find a path that leads to a better outcome. As my colleague Charles McCarthy pointed out “We can build supercomputers the size of a pencil eraser…why hasn’t human consciousness kept up?” There is no other place on earth better to take this next step in human evolution and leadership than in our good old USA.  I believe this was the vision of the founders.  

A revolution without bloodshed every four years is a great concept and a necessary way to manage human behavior on a large scale. So is the practice of balancing power, legislation and justice.  However, now the issues are more global, interconnected, and potentially catastrophic to solve with only these elegant, necessary, and simple (but not simplistic) concepts.  Perhaps the two-party system and business leaders, as well as the general population need to be infused with a notion of what real leadership looks like so that meaningful and enlightened discussion and action can take place—always in alignment with the larger shared vision, goal and the promise our society holds. This is critically important as we continually change leaders every four years, which makes it too easy to point fingers at the past and avoid responsibility and not learn from the outcomes created.  Are there any leaders in our elected government and business capable of doing this?  Can they hold Democracy and Capitalism as sacred at the same time and make right decisions without resorting to power plays or finding loop holes? The Founding Fathers and mothers (societal ancestors) knew that only a few had the self awareness and moral strength to stay the course when “push comes to shove.”  Can we find and develop leaders who can do so today?  I think this should be a major emphasis of all preferred Universities.  Thomas Jefferson thought so too.

"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves;  and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by  education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820  (from Eyler Coates research)

*Self-awareness:  Many people think that they are “self-aware” when in fact they are not.  Many people are “personality-aware” and not “self-aware.”  Self-awareness has to do with the cultivation of “free consciousness” that can observe, see, and think above and beyond the confines of habitual human emotion, judgment, and thinking.  It can sit quietly and speak directly and honestly in the fire of debate or crisis, see clearly, and then decide and take action based on right purpose, not personal agenda. Many will disagree with me, but I have for many years believed it is the eye above the pyramid on the dollar bill that is a key to actualizing our Constitution.  Self-awareness is essential if we are to break free from the status quo and realize the dream of our country’s founders and that of the cab driver.

Copyright © 2010 John R. Grinnell Jr.  All rights reserved.