The cure for dysfunction and decline is simpler than you think, and it starts with the example you set
An updated edition of my best-selling book Focus of Failure was recently released. The following excerpts are from the first chapter. I hope you find it helpful as you seek to lead others and rekindle the American Dream.
The late W. Edwards Deming, shortly before his death, wrote that “we have reached the limits of the capability of our current philosophy and resulting methods of management. American industry, our services, our government and our education are today in an invisible prison. The walls of this prison are the basic assumptions that are made today about economics and human behavior. They are outmoded in the global economy of this day. We can emerge from this prison only through knowledge that is not a part of the present system.”
I believe the key to restoring the good of the past is to unlock the past, retrieving what worked from those who came before.
William Bennett, in his best seller The Book of Virtues, writes of the time-honored task of morally educating the young: “Moral education – the training of heart and mind toward the goal – involves many things. It involves rules and precepts – the dos and don’ts of life with others – as well as the explicit instruction, exhortation and training. Moral education must provide training in good habits. Aristotle wrote that good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
Our youth are forming bad habits, and our culture, through its music, movies, television and divorced or overworked parents, is infesting them with demons that no speech by a president and no amount of money can exorcise.
A Moral Reawakening
Today, there seems to be awakening in America and the world, an aversion to systems, governments, and patterns of living and lifestyles that have not brought peace of mind, happiness and well-being to life. Everywhere we hear plaintive cries for a return to a simpler time. Basics and fundamentals have become blurred amid the din of competing voices that have obfuscated what it means to live a moral life, particularly, as it pertains to such things as values, love, leadership, relationships, forgiveness and other equally powerful concepts. I am well aware that I may be excoriated by certain deep thinkers and philosophers but I would like you to consider that, at least at some point in life, you and I really do know the difference between right and wrong and good and evil.
C.S. Lewis was right in that without attending complicated courses on ethics, there is something inside each one of us letting us know there are few redeeming qualities associated with rape, murder, theft and other equally reprehensible acts. In a very simple sense, it seems that many people are yearning to return to a time when we knew that we had done wrong because we felt bad. Unfortunately, the triggers that indicated this insight seem to be disappearing.
Alistair Cooke once reflected on his reluctance to write a piece entitled “Whither America?“ Is America in decay? Cooke states the etiology of decadence has remained much the same over the past 2,000 years, and Gibbon’s diagnosis of the symptoms are still the most persuasive: “1. The injuries of time and nature. 2. The hostile attacks on the barbarians and the Christians. 3. The use and abuse of the materials. 4. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.”
Gibbon’s fourth cause, decay from within, is reflected in our own anxieties today. Cooke further writes, “I do not remember a time, not even during the ghastly 60s, when Americans have complained more, in a tone close to despair, about the visible and seemingly unhealable wounds in American society.” He feels this is evidenced across America and cites two cultural symptoms that drive his conviction: 1. The abuse of liberty – through the far-flung and preposterous exploitation of the First Amendment to sanction any form of conduct, 2. The failure of the courts, including the Supreme one, to define and constrain obscenity.
Groping for Truth in the Darkness
Could it be that we have absorbed so much relativistic teaching that there are very few absolutes left? Perhaps, as Gandhi indicated, we should re-examine our values. Is there anything left that we hold absolutely sacred? Harry Emerson Fosdick once mused that everything rests back on integrity, that the driving power in life was personal character. Is it possible that the log wood of our lives is rotten? As we try to carve out our future, should we ask ourselves if it is possible to carve rotten wood?
How can a doctor who misdiagnoses the disease effectively suggest a remedy? We listen to the gurus and thinkers, many of whom are enriching themselves at our expense, by telling us what we want to hear. And, more often than not, this has nothing to do with reality or the fundamental reality that begins and ends with us. We need a renewed sense of social responsibility. Many of our problems are simple, a consequence of unwise choices of behavior and lifestyle: we need a return to old-fashioned virtues and self-discipline, integrity and taking responsibility for one’s actions. What we really need is moral leadership. To examine the result of instruction is to observe the result of application. How can a stream rise higher than its source?
If we are going to really master fundamentals, we must start with us. If we really want to focus on the basics, then we have to go back to the beginning. You and I cannot change results by changing our environment or circumstances any more than the physician can cure the disease by treating the symptoms. We must once again embrace personal responsibility and accountability. This is not a black, white, Hispanic or any kind of racial issue. This is about leadership. We desperately need leaders who are willing to champion and model this teaching. In business, systems, process or management, technique is no surrogate for leadership. The leader imbues the vision and does it with constancy of purpose. Have you asked yourself lately what is the purpose of America? Have you asked yourself what the vision for America is and who is defining it?
Americans who once worshiped in the church of self-reliance have moved to another house of worship whose propagandists insist upon respect without accomplishment.
The Need for Accountability
All of us, including the most damaged, would be helped by a moratorium on self-pity. We need less adolescent posturing and more stoic maturity; less weeping and gnashing of teeth and more bawdy horse-laughing in the face of adversity.
In the cities of America, the young are being introduced to the world through the shaping ideology of victimism — self-esteem, instead of self-discipline. Our children are not materially poor; however, they are spiritually impoverished. They’ve been led to believe that life’s disappointments and challenges are violations of human rights; gratification is never to be postponed; ethics and values depend on the person and the situation; and honesty and morality are only for chumps. Not all youngsters have this vision of the world, but enough have it so that the future stands in jeopardy.
It is difficult to play the game without knowing the rules. If we do, we must recognize that even if we don’t know the rules when we break them there are still consequences. Could it be that this is the reason there is still so much heartbreak and pain after so much instruction? Quick-fix techniques, looking out for number one, power strategies, communication skills, the gospel of positive thinking; all may be essential but they are certainly not primary. If the foundation upon which these and other applications rest is weak, what can the result be but still more heartbreak, disappointment, pain and failure.
A flawed character, duplicity, insincerity, lack of truth all indicate that the starting point, the real essentials are malformed. Only basic goodness gives life to the style and techniques we choose to apply to life. There are no shortcuts. The price must be paid every day. It is the law of the harvest that you and I reap what we sow in our behavior and in all human relationships. The bankrupt morals we reflect in America today are a consequence for our personal failure to focus on what is right. Once again, it becomes a matter of priorities and values. Without deep integrity and character strength, relationships fail. When relationships fail, organizations fail. When relationships fail, systems fail. Organizations do not get better, people do. Countries don’t get better, people do. Systems do not work by themselves, people work systems.
What we need is action anchored in integrity in our leaders. We must become, once again, a people of honor, trust, integrity and commitment. It is hard to live up to an ill-defined standard. We must once again model excellence.
The Centrality of Moral Teaching
Everywhere we turn today, we are bombarded with terms that reference such things as a new world order, new age thinking, and even a new language that is to support this “growth” that exhorts us to keep an open mind and not be judgmental. In the middle of all this muddle is an underlying attitude that prevents any discussion of right and wrong and good and evil. We retreat from making moral distinctions and spend our time discussing nothing. Yet, as Professor Allen Bloom says in his book The Closing of The American Mind, Americans long for something lost – the great moral truths upon which our civilization rests. It is a longing for the kind of substance that gave such breathtaking meaning to the Declaration of Independence in which men pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Education, Bloom asserts, is not merely about facts – it is about truth and “the state of our souls.” The great classics of life were once studied to help find answers to the meaning of life and to illuminate the struggle between right and wrong. In the past, students arrived at universities with an educational heritage rooted in the Bible, the family and an American political tradition centered on the Declaration of Independence. The Bible was a common culture that united the simple and the sophisticated, the rich, the poor and the young and old. And, Bloom notes that the family was the true seat of religious teaching, resulting in a simple faith that had respect for learning. However, the product of recent ambiguous and relativistic teaching are students who are genuinely puzzled by such stories as Romeo and Juliet (why don’t they just go live together?), the jealousy of Othello (he should go get some therapy), or the adultery (what’s that) of Anna Karenina. They unthinkingly embrace a blind tolerance in which they consider it “moral” never to think they are right because that would mean someone else is wrong.
To move, let alone root out the dead weight of all of this relativism, will take an intellectual and spiritual assault of heroic proportions. I believe that America and Americans long and ache for this. A return to a simple and rational way of speaking and thinking that is both easy to articulate, immediately comprehensible and powerfully persuasive. These are the real fundamentals that we must re-learn and re-master. They are waiting to be awakened in all of us. Perhaps beginning to consider these basics once again or provoking ourselves to think about these fundamental issues could be the real new beginning; a national paradigm shift that begets a true new world order that is affected at the source. A new foundation manifesting itself in eternal truths made strong by focusing on doing the right thing.
“Why is it that in the 1770s, with only three million Americans, we produced such leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, James Monroe, James Madison and others, while in 1998, with a population of over 250 million, it appears leaders go wanting?” Marc Bockman and Randy Pennington wrote in their book On My Honor I Will. “Could it be that what these early Americans were taught had a direct bearing on their performance and ultimate accomplishments? Interestingly, in the 1770s over 90 percent of our educational thrust was aimed at teaching moral values. By 1926, moral training was relegated to six percent and by 1990 it is not measurable. Yet, 91 percent of today’s CEOs list integrity as their number one asset and their family as their number one priority. They are also people of faith.”
Most Americans do not need reminding that this civic renovation is largely beyond the ability of government to accomplish. Government, in fact, has often demonstrated a perverse, if unintentional, knack for making things worse. Misguided social policies, a welfare system that bred demoralizing dependence, poor law enforcement, permissive courts and failing schools are ills attributable to government. Obviously, if we (you and I) want to help make America a better place for all its people we had better get busy.
As John Bunyan described the Pilgrims at the gate of the Celestial City, not only were the well-equipped and the naturally strong able to carry through to the end but also along with Great Heart, Valiant for Truth, Honest and Steadfast were Mr. Feeble Minded, Ready to Halt, Mr. Despondency and his daughter, Much Afraid. Mastery is in the journey, not the destination.