Beyond Disengagement and Anger

Each day in this (still young) summer, it grows harder for many of us to read the front page of the newspaper, listen to the top stories on television or scroll through the links on an Internet news site.

The prospect of almost 1000 barrels of oil seeping into the Gulf of Mexico every second of every day -- for some 63 days now -- has become a kind of "shock and awe" from which we instinctively turn away. So, too, has the buying and selling of Congress on the Wall Street reform bill. If this was not bad enough in this season of our discontent, this week brought news that June 2010 is now the deadliest month in the nine years of the Afghanistan war with over 100 NATO troops killed. This statistic comes hard on the heels of General Stanley McChrystal being relieved of his command after he and his aides made unflattering remarks about the current administration.

Although the world around us seems to be spiraling out of control, there is great assurance in knowing that we've been here before and can learn from the experiences and great leaders of the past.

Seen from a historical perspective, this is a very turbulent moment rife with looming, high-stakes issues that have large-scale consequences for the future. In this sense, it is comparable to the years immediately following World War II or, if we look farther back, to the last eighteen months of the Civil War.

What sets our moment apart from the postwar period is the widespread doubt -- if not, at times, despair and frustration -- about the ability of established institutions and existing systems to deal with the pressing issues before us. Americans have lost confidence in many of the most important potential roadways up and out of the canyon we now find ourselves in.

The most recent data on public trust underscore such diffidence. According to a Pew Research Center survey from April, only 22% of Americans say they can trust government in Washington almost always or most of the time, one of the lowest marks in 50 years.

As trust has fallen, rancor has risen. Three out of every four people surveyed by the Pew Research Center earlier this year said they were frustrated or angry with the federal government. A range of ambitious actors, including Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and Mark Williams, chairman of the Tea Party, have ridden this anger to new heights along their own respective political paths.

If history is any guide, almost none of the collective anger and the responses it has engendered on the part of many public leaders will serve the long-run interests of American society and our polity. It was certainly not frustration or a retreat from civic engagement that powered America's recovery at the end of World War II. Rather, it was a sustained confidence married to sense of shared purpose that proved critical to rebuilding (and helping the world rebuild) after the conflict.

Now, more than six decades hence, it is much more likely that the current diverseness and disengagement are compounding our problems and circumscribing our possibilities -- possibilities for rebuilding our economy, resetting our relationship with the world's environment, and rebooting ourselves for a brand new moment, in which entrepreneurial innovation, effective leadership at every level of our society, and vigilant attention to the interdependence we all share in this global village will determine our prospects for survival.

What this moment demands -- and what we are all seeking so ardently now on the larger public stage -- is leaders who help each of us unleash what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." Men and women who by virtue of what they do, as well as what they say, point (or prod) us along the higher road of human enterprise. What all these people have in common is a palpable sense of a worthy end or purpose to the journey they are on and hope to take others on -- a purpose that is broader and more compelling than their own immediate interest in power and plenty.

"A real leader," the American novelist David Foster Wallace wrote, "is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own." Lincoln grew into this kind of leader as president, helping Americans see the purpose and gravity of mind-boggling bloodshed as he called on their perseverance, sense of service, and ultimately, forgiveness in order to win the Civil War and then to begin to rebuild the country.

So here we are, scanning the horizon of public power for credible inspiration, guidance and a call to good action. We do not find it in the comportment of BP CEO Tony Hayward or the words of banking executives testifying before Congress or in the loose-lipped observations of a dedicated soldier such as General Stanley McChrystal.

But just because we do not see scores of real leaders in the headlines does not mean they are not there. Leaders of the kind Wallace describes come in many shapes and sizes -- from dedicated school principals, to empathic nurses, to thoughtful CEOs, tireless relief workers, and conscientious government officials. These individuals are all round. Because they are who we all have the capacity to be. When we move beyond our first instincts of withdrawal and anger.

Nancy Koehn is a historian at Harvard Business School and noted authority for providing analysis on the social and economic impact of entrepreneurship and on leadership in turbulent times.