Every once in a while, you read a book review that you sense is better than the book(s) it is reviewing. Such is the case with an article, The victor’s curse: America won the cold war. What went wrong?, that appeared in the 4 April Edition of The Economist. This piece is a review of three books that talk about leadership and the principles that we would like to think guide us (and by us I mean the United States) as we make policy both domestic and international. What is remarkable about this review is that the author (who sadly was not identified) lays out a world view which suggests that “the West (as until recently led by the United States) is not a place, so much as a set of ideas.” And that “at its best, the West has stood for”:
- Capitalism— an economic and political system under which the means of production are controlled by private owners.
- Science—the accumulated knowledge about the natural world that is driven by the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical world through observation and experiment.
- Enlightenment— a philosophical movement, characterized by belief in the power of reason rather than tradition.
- Rule of Law— the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced.
- Human Rights— Human rights are moral principles that describe standards of treatment and of human behavior and are protected as natural and legal rights.
- it is not clear that these ideas are the book review’s author’s or were distilled from reading the three books or were those of one of the authors; and
- the definitions of the five principles outlined above are mine, not the book review author’s.
It doesn’t really matter, but being obsessively compulsive about these things, I had to note them. The point is that the book review has articulated a set of principles that make sense in a clear, concise way and, notably in a manner that can be acted upon. Even more importantly, they are well chosen, they are the ideas that make the United States great, i.e. they are a fundamental set of principles that have, to one degree or another driven our democracy and how we conduct ourselves as a part of the community of nations.
The author points out that (as is made clear in various ways by the authors he is reviewing) Presidents (and the rest of the political leadership) have never been able to fully embrace or live by the principles outlined above. And, 1) they are aspirational nature, and 2) our failure to fulfill their promise (by being more faithful to their intention) has led to significant mistrust, antipathy and acrimony not just by our citizens, but by the rest of the world as it relates to and interacts with the United States. We have become jaded by our leadership’s willingness to talk the talk without walking the walk!
The simplicity and strength of what seems to me to be both a well-formed statement of the problem and a complete and well-defined description of a framework for addressing it. The principles articulate (at the highest level) a world view that is true to our vision of our best selves and can broadly and consistently drive decisions across time. This combination is both refreshing and energizing. The ideas outlined in those five bullet points can provide the foundation for a directed graph (in this case an inverted tree) that would provide the opportunity to: 1) organize a well-defined world view at increasing levels of detail until, at the leaf level, they would define initiatives; and at the same time 2) allow for people with differing world views to (within the constraints of the foundation) propose variations to the themes that are consistent with the fundamental principles that define us.
I find that all to often we all get bogged down in the details (today’s battles) and forget what is truly important. This is especially true in politics today, but also in business. I have always found that businesses that have simple straight forward world views are the most successful. I still remember (and carry a laminated card in my wallet, should I forget it) Price Waterhouse’s:
- Obsession with Client Service—make sure you do what is right for the client;
- Best and Brightest—hire, develop and retain the best talent; and
- Selectivity—pick your clients carefully and do only the work you have the capability to do well.
I always did well when I made decisions based on those fundamental principles. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty of “guidance” that was provided to our practitioners, but as a business (durable institution) we were able to serve our clients well, achieve our goals, and do so with integrity by sticking to these principles.
Similarly, the principles outlined in the book review provide a framework for addressing all of the issues that need our attention and they are concise and easily understood—they provide more substance than the traditional “motherhood and apple pie” aphorism that is generally offered to describe what we in the United States believe. Not only that, they suggest a process (one that is well understood by people who define corporate strategies) for the definition of the details necessary to implement the framework.
I think it is about time we as a nation find some principles that we can all agree on (the ones outlined above seem like a good starting point) and begin to act in a way that is consistent with what we all want to be. I say this because when we act together, we can achieve just about anything and when we don’t, we spoil everything from our environment to our people.
If you think that this post deviates from my usual business focus, you would be wrong. I believe that a healthy economic system can only thrive in a healthy political environment that both promotes business and ensures that all the people have the opportunity to be successful and share in the wealth of our nation. I don’t think we are there now. I believe that the model outlined herein provides the best chance I have seen to get us on the right track to a sustainable political and economic environment and that is why I wrote this post.
— you can find this (days earlier) and other posts at www.niden.com.
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