Celebrating the 'Soft Stuff'

Do we want a country that is based on competence only or one in which we equally value character and quality? We all can use the "soft stuff" to remind us of the vision and values for which our nation stands.
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This week's front cover of Sports Illustrated profiles Coach Frank Hall, Jr., the assistant football coach at Chardon High School, located outside of Cleveland. In February 2012, three students were killed there and one paralyzed in the shooting rampage of a deranged and angry fellow student. Despite the barrage of gunfire, Coach Hall chased the gunman from the building, saving many additional lives.

What is noteworthy is that Frank Hall didn't win a game. He didn't drill down wind sprints and heavy lifts to condition student athletes. He didn't deliver stats that ultimately would separate the champion from the mediocre. He did exhibit character, courage and values -- the "soft stuff." The stuff we don't always see a lot of in our sports heroes today.

I learned about the "soft stuff" several years ago. I was soliciting a prominent business leader for a donation to Purple America, our national initiative with the NEA and Grandparents.com to get Americans, including teachers in public schools as well as business and political leaders, to use America's shared values in decision-making and dialog, as a basis for common ground.

"That's the soft stuff," he replied. "I donate to hard stuff -- hard education, assets, bricks and mortar." But the soft stuff is the foundation for the hard stuff. The hard stuff alone will not prevent a Holocaust, racism, Enron or financial collapse. The soft stuff will.

I had a similar encounter with another business leader who asked me about the desired result of Purple America. "Conversation," I replied. I was referring to dialog, of course, rather than argument. He challenged whether conversation accomplished anything. "Soft stuff," he dismissed.

I believe our focus on the "hard stuff," driven in large part by the business community, has done us a national disservice. We keep on looking to the hard stuff to solve our problems. Our nation's schools -- and the test scores that drive them -- are consumed with metrics that measure competence. State agencies are now issuing report cards for teachers whose test score rankings merit the term "value-added." Business is driven by performance metrics that skew to quarterly reports as opposed to long-term quality and results. We are a nation out-of-balance, with an all-consuming emphasis on visible results above character.

Yet I'm encouraged by recent trends that indicate a movement toward a renewed awareness of the importance of character, values, compassion and civility.

One is the announcement by Arianna Huffington, Sir Richard Branson and others that the Huffington Post is launching a "B Plan," an initiative to "prioritize people and planet alongside profit." Huffington, in her recent commencement address to graduates at Smith College, emphasized that people who have been encouraged by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to "lean in," emphasizing hyper-performance in the workplace, should now start to "lean out," building quality of life for themselves, families and communities.

For everybody, stress has gone up -- in the last 30 years, self-reported stress has gone up 25 percent for men and 18 percent for women. And we're surrounded by stressed-out leaders -- in politics, in business, in media -- making terrible decisions. What they lack is not smarts but wisdom.

Wisdom is not hard, it's soft. It is the compilation of judgment, guided by values, integrity, character and compassion. It, indeed, is what Coach Frank Hall, Jr. had and what our country needs.

It is interesting that, senior human resource executives at major companies are telling community colleges that our workforce is dangerously lacking in judgment and character -- impacting customer service, workplace relationships and even on-the-job performance. One community college president in Ohio said that a CEO recently told him, "We can teach our employees how to operate a machine, but we can't teach them integrity or kindness. We need the soft skills."

As a result of this discussion, Purple America/Values-in-Action Foundation is collaborating with the State of Ohio and education institutions, with buy-in from major employers such as CVS/Caremark, Walmart, Cleveland Clinic and Sherwin-Williams, to develop a character and values certification that will root employees not just in how to dress for success and show up on time but how to have values, vision and wisdom.

Last year, we all suffered through the meanest and most divisive political campaign in history. We have an economy in which the hard numbers -- consumer confidence, housing starts, real estate prices -- indicate recovery, but business leadership is not yet following through with jobs.

An essential question is this: Do we want a country that is based on competence only or one in which we equally value character and quality? We all can use the "soft stuff" to remind us of the vision and values for which our nation stands. Thank you, Sports Illustrated! Thank you, Arianna Huffington! Thank you, Coach Frank Hall, Jr! Thanks, all of you, for inspiring us through your "soft stuff."

Purple America is a national initiative of Values-in-Action® Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and spread the word, go to www.purpleamerica.us.

Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus

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