What You Can Do for Your Country
by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.”—President Barack Obama, January 22, 2009
I am wary of sounding a partisan note, given how strongly I feel about the need for us all to put country ahead of any party. But I must acknowledge that I was far more moved by President Obama’s Inaugural Address than by any other political speech I’ve heard in decades. I was especially moved by the leadership qualities I saw on display—and by my sense of what’s at stake.
I believe the President did the right thing to opt against oratory eloquence in favor of a stark, spare message. His words illustrated that he grasped the enormity of the challenges facing America and the world. He proved wise beyond his years when he spoke not in terms of “I,” as a would-be savior or conquering leader might, but rather in terms of “you and we.” As he spoke of our great history and the promise of what could be, he was clear that with this promise comes a price. That price means embracing a new ethos of responsibility. He put every one of us on notice that we are going to have to share the burden of getting out of this mess we created.
It’s clear that many Americans are ready to respond to President Obama’s call for individual and collective responsibility, but let’s not kid ourselves. Of course, we are going to have early, eager, idealistic adopters—like the hundreds of thousands of citizens who turned out this past MLK Day to volunteer in their communities. However, we are also going to have many people who are in no mood to add responsibilities on top of what is already on their backs. In the words of University of Chicago Professor Marvin Zonis, “It will be impossible to understand the world in 2009 without understanding three fundamental psychological processes now at work: Humiliation, Anxiety, and Mistrust.
I have seen all three powerful emotions up close. An executive recently told me he feels shame and deep regret because the bank at which he worked has failed and hurt many families. Members of my extended family in Northeast Ohio find it hard to reach out and help someone else when the uncertainty and injustice of this economic crisis limits and threatens their own future. One family member is scared to death he will be out of work when the next round of cuts is announced at his company. Another relative, whose family has lived by the rules and within their means, is absolutely livid about all the bailouts for those who made bad decisions—bailouts for people who bought a home they couldn’t afford and bailouts for big banks that made terrible investments.
I’m no shrink, but it’s clear, even to me, that one of the best medicines for these feelings is not to turn inward—but rather the opposite. At a time when so many things are beyond our control, we can take actions that remind us that we have the ability to make a difference in our own lives and those of others.
Every day, each of us makes hundreds of decisions. President Obama offered a few good examples of how some citizens have chosen to use these daily decisions in a way that will have a positive impact on others, such as the decision to take in a stranger when the levees break or cut one’s hours to save a friend’s job. Let me offer just a few other quiet decisions we can make that can add up to significant change when multiplied by 300 million citizens.
Be more productive in your job, whether your organization asks you to or not. Don’t let your job description or union rules restrict you from lending an extra hand. Forget the words “It’s not my job!” Literally go beyond the call of duty. Make suggestions. Do more to help your co-workers. The Associated Press recently ran a wonderful story that illustrates one aspect of what I’m talking about. In Muskegon, MI, the lead server at a family-owned pancake restaurant asked her colleagues if they would be willing to work a shift for no salary (tips only) to help out the owner, who was struggling and had more than once dipped into his own pockets to meet payroll. Every one of the 31 servers, busboys, dishwashers, cashiers, and hostesses said yes. “This is a wonderful business,” the lead server said. “We want to see it succeed.”
If you’re a CEO, especially one who is handsomely compensated when your business is struggling, lead by example and share the pain. Take a salary cut or forego a bonus—and don’t buffer your action with behind-the-scenes perks. I certainly never achieved the levels of success of many of our nation’s business leaders, but in my own way I tried to set an example when I was running the high-tech firm I co-founded. My business partner and I held our salaries down, and we purposely avoided “executive perks.” We didn’t do this to be altruistic. We did it because we felt it set the right tone and conveyed the values we wanted for the business.
Let me offer an even more radical idea. If you are CEO of a small or mid-size business, consider putting a small portion of your compensation or your bonus into a pool that could fund services to help those families who lost their jobs. I did this in the mid-1990s, and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
Give something—no matter how small—to help others; the needs in our communities are growing. If you have been giving a lot as a major donor, try to hold firm to your commitments as best you can. If it doesn’t hurt to give a little more now, do it. The same is true if you have little to give. I recently heard a story about a woman in Seattle who uses her passion for coupon collecting to get great deals on personal-care items like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and razors and then brings these items every week to a homeless shelter in her community.
If you can’t give money, give something of yourself. Everyone has something of value to share with others. If it is something you love doing, your enthusiasm will be contagious. A good friend of ours has been a long-time advocate for using chess to help children learn. Recently, on top of his day job as a teacher, he began offering a chess program at libraries in the evenings and on the weekends. He targets young people of low-income families, in circumstances similar to the ones he lived as a child.
Write your own journal about the ways your actions have an impact on others. Doing so will help make you accountable to yourself. I call my journal, which I recently started, my “GB Log,”—G for “good” and B for “bad.” Every day, I note what “good” things I did for my family and others, even small actions such as returning a call from someone looking for advice, a connection, or sounding board. And then I note the opportunities I missed—that is, the gestures or actions I could have taken to help someone or, more bluntly, where I failed as a dad, husband, family member, friend, or professional.
Help rekindle the concept of “barn raising” as a means to help everything from schools to early childhood development centers. Let’s put the b.s. of bureaucracy, union turf, and formality behind us. Organize people to take on small and big projects, or just go do something on your own. I vividly remember a situation in the early 1970s when a large government agency was installing a new computer system. It was late in the day, and installation came to a halt because the guys working to install the water-cooling systems didn’t have a t-joint for the plumbing. So here was this multi-million dollar project hanging on a $1.50 pipe joint! Instead of falling back to “protocol” and “procedure,” one of the guys said, “Screw this!” and walked to the nearest hardware store, bought the fitting, and came back to finish the job.
Share your voice more. In a world with blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, social networking services, and other new and more traditional communications tools, we citizens have power to make our voices heard like never before. So don’t stand pat when you know something is wrong. And don’t express your anger only to yourself and then go silent with those who need to hear it. Look at what is going on around you and speak out more, challenge more, demand what is right, what is just.
When mayors, congressmen, or aldermen blow something, get others who share your beliefs and show up at their offices to let them know—and, just as demonstrably, let them know when they did something you think is right. When your local paper or broadcast station is too sensational or has overlooked the facts, write a letter to the editor or station head and post it to blogs and on social networks—and when their coverage improves, praise them for it. Let’s start holding everyone—including ourselves—accountable, doing so constructively, fairly, and without recrimination.
Do what you can to respect, honor, and support the men and women of the Armed Forces. Here’s a creative example: In 2005, two young sisters, Rachel (10) and Kelsi (8), came up with the idea of creating a national treasure hunt to raise money to help the families of service members. With their parents, they launched ThanksUSA, which has now awarded 1,750 scholarships to spouses and children of active-duty U.S. military service personnel. But you don’t have to start a new organization in order to make a difference. Just saying thanks when you see a service member at the grocery store or at a ballgame means a great deal.
The list above barely scratches the surface. What quiet decisions have you made or witnessed that affect others in a positive way? How have you or others dug a little deeper or gone beyond the call of duty? How have you or others “shared your strength,” to borrow my friend Billy Shore’s famous construction? How have you or others countered self-indulgence with sacrifice?
Yes, we’re in for a mess over the coming months and years. And things are going to get worse before they get better. But we’re in this together. Or we should be. Because together—whether at the national level with Democrats and Republicans putting aside petty differences or at the neighborhood level with parents working well with the teachers at a school—we can build a much stronger spirit of shared responsibility. Despite the enormous challenges before us, if we can find our collective purpose and band together, we will find that our best days are still ahead.