The America in our heads: A suggestion for leaders wondering what’s left to say

Written a couple of weeks ago and published on my personal blog Writing Boots, with instructions for people charged with writing something meaningful for CEOs and other institutional leaders: “Break in case things go pear-shaped on Election Day. Edit at will, no need to attribute, and consider linking to The Dialogue Project, a global study of how business can improve civil discourse and reduce polarization in our society.” —DM

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To Our American Employees—

I guess we’ve all been dreading this possibility for a few months now, maybe longer. As a leader of this company I’ve tried to prepare for it, but I have not known quite how. And I haven’t known exactly what to say.

Here’s what I hear myself telling my kids. Here’s what I hear myself telling my spouse. Here’s what I hear myself telling myself. And I guess it’s the only thing I can say to you:

At a moment when it feels like there is no America any longer—or no one America, anyway—we can each still believe in the America that still lives in our heads, that we still feel in our hearts no matter how much we feel America has let us down: the America that still makes us happy to hear that word, “America.” That still makes this flag pleasing to even the most jaundiced American eye.

How can we demonstrate this belief? We can each live our lives in the spirit of the America we still, deep down, believe in. Each individual can be America. Each family can beAmerica. And each American institution can be America—the best America we still think we know, still think we remember, how to be.

I realize that being America means being different things to different Americans, especially right now.

To some of us that means being kind, gentle and understanding. To others of us that means being disciplined, tough-minded and loyal. To still others of us that means being irreverent, vigilant, critical. 

That’s okay. Those are all good and sustainable values if applied at the right moments and in the right measure by responsible people. Any institution, any family, any individual can embody all of those values and demonstrate them by turns, and contribute to a great nation.

On the other hand, enviousness, meanness, vindictiveness—or arrogance, callousness, recklessness: These are not values at all, but rather vices and weaknesses and cowardly defenses that many Americans and American institutions have exhibited over the years. And that many of us have surely fallen prey to in our own imperfect human lives. I know I have.

Whatever our sincerely held political opinions, none of us can afford to be so careless and selfish now. We all sense that the American national fabric that used to absorb our excesses and cover over our stinginess is frayed. We must be better Americans, each of us—every single day, in every last thing we do.

It’s not an easy task, nor is it a simple one, either. Rather, it’s a solemn effort for serious people who feel individual responsibility for saving a nation of almost 330 million people, from itself. That must be harder than it was in 1776, when the nation held only 2.5 million people—or 1860, when the nation was 31 million people.

But I am still able to feel this responsibility as a citizen. Aren’t you?

I hope we are able to feel it, collectively, as an organization. In fact, I hope we have been feeling for some time a disorienting disconnection between how it feels to work here together—with our political differences and also our inevitable disagreements about how this place ought to run—and the seeming dissolution of the society around us.

Every day here—in conference rooms and break rooms, over board tables and drafting tables—we come to compromises, find solutions and reach understandings even without perfect agreement, even while sensing our company isn’t not perfect or even close to it. But trying, together, to get better every day—and at the very least, doing what we tell each other we are going to do. And even though we do not agree with or even like every colleague, we get along the very best we can for the enterprise to succeed so that everyone can survive, and have the chance we all deserve, to thrive.

Whatever your vision of America—doesn’t that paragraph above describe it pretty well? I believe we already have that here. Let us seek comfort in that. Let us seek guidance from that. Let us work to make that more perfect. And let us use it to inspire our fellow Americans who may have a less concrete and immediate example of what this country can be than we.

In this terrible and unsettled time in America, we increasingly hear two phrases that are anathema to the American spirit: “It is what it is,” and “You can only do what you can do.” Well, it doesn’t always have to be what it is today. And I think we can do a lot as individuals—and I think we can work miracles when we work together.

So let’s work together—for ourselves, for each other, for our country—as a company.

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Note that the above wasn’t universally appreciated when originally published. A Black communicator whose views are part of my own conscience wrote in part: “You say we all/each ‘can be America.’ But what about those of us who have been disenfranchised, disrespected, dispossessed, dismembered and despised every time we tried to be America? Those of us looking at this election not as four more years but as four hundred years and counting? … I can’t hear your inspiring words right now. When you talk about taking individual responsibility to save the nations of 1776 or 1860, remember that the nations they were fighting to ‘save’ believed in white supremacy. And understand that it’s the same damn fight today.” So what should a (usually white) CEO say to employees? “I’m talking to white folks here. To those of us who believe—rightfully or not—that this country belongs to us,” the Black Communicator suggested. “I don’t have the right words for those who don’t. I wish I did. I’m willing to listen.”DM

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