“It was the best of times and the worst of times” is one of the most remembered opening lines in literature. I have been wondering lately if I have become too pessimistic since I heard at The Aspen Ideas Festival this past summer those dire predictions of the possibility of imminent economic collapse and the venomous rift between the Washington governing majority and business. These are indeed frightening times, but perhaps the dramatic midterm elections signal that we are finally asking some fruitful questions: What is wrong here? What is stuck? What is the fix that can come from sources other than big government. According to exit polls two-thirds of the Americans who cast a vote said that the $800 billion stimulus package was either harmful to the American economy or made no difference at all.
I agree with David Brooks’ conclusion that the midterm election “shellacking” of Barack Obama was more about values than economics (New York Times, October 28, 2010).
“The current sour mood is not just caused by high unemployment. It emerges from the fear that America’s best days are behind it. The public’s real anxiety is about values, not economics: the gnawing sense that Americans have become debt-addicted and self-indulgent; the sense that government undermines individual responsibility; the observation that people who work hard get shafted while people who play influence games get the gravy.”
The first requisite for solving any problem is to identify the problem, what Jim Collins calls “facing the brutal facts.” We have been shocked out of our period of blindness, looking the other way, and denial. Our eyes are open and there are a multitude of people willing to work on our problems outside Washington now that we are beginning to recognize them.
There are alternatives. I want to muse on the ones I am lucky enough to be working with.
Last week was a big travel week: New York City early in the week where, among other things I had dinner with Frances Hesselbein and Bill Drayton. Frances’ work for the past thirty years has been promoting leaders by the thousands in the nonprofit worlds (Leader to Leader Institute). Frances calls me her “partner for life.” Her birthday was Monday. She is indefatigable. Bill Drayton formed Ashoka which serves over 3,000 Social Entrepreneurs working effectively all around the world to support the growth of what he calls “The Citizen Sector.” Their vision is “Everyone a change-maker.”
Midweek in Dallas, we had 29 people from Singapore, Canada, Australia and nine U.S. cities gather for three days to explore ways to catapult Social Entrepreneurs into endeavors that energize their hearts and can make a huge difference in this world. The interesting thing is that these 29 people are not pastors — they are Social Entrepreneurs who believe the Halftime movement is where they want to invest the rest of their lives. So you get the picture — 29 Social Entrepreneurs who want to support thousands of Social Entrepreneurs. This is quite literally a dream come true for me.
This past weekend was the final event of The Drucker Centennial sponsored by The Drucker Institute which I chair at Claremont Graduate University. Over our two-year celebration of Peter’s 100th birthday, I have had the opportunity to visit with virtually all the major management speakers. These are guys who speak to audiences composed of business leaders. This year’s keynote was Tom Peters. I asked him, “How many speeches do you make a year?” He said, “Several.” I said, “How many is several?” He said, “About 52.” That means he gets to circulate among hundreds of the nation’s business and social entrepreneurs. We got to sit together over a long lunch. Peters said:
“I’m worried. We’re like spoiled brats. Anyone under the age of 40 has never experienced a major crisis. India and China are hungrier than we are. But this is America. I talked to my 90-year old mother last week and was amazed by the number of crises she had lived through – World Wars I and II, the Depression, the Cold War, Korea, Viet Nam.”
Then there are the churches that focus outward on their communities. Perhaps the most exciting trend in the megachurches that Leadership Network works with is that so many of them are releasing their members to work on literally hundreds of community projects outside the four walls of the church.
I have been devouring a brand new book by Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, whose research ten years ago traced a pattern of individualism, isolation, and a decline in community. Putnam has completely reversed himself based on a study of 3,000 Americans. The book is titled American Grace, and it is the best work in print on the state of religion in America today. I want to give you a sense of the exciting findings that this dispassionate secular Harvard sociologist has discovered and documented. Some of the findings may surprise you if your only window into church is the local church you attend or perhaps some of you have given up on the church as a social resource.
Putnam begins by saying “any discussion of religion in America must begin with the incontrovertible fact that Americans are a highly religious people. … In general, Americans have high rates of religious belonging, behaving, and believing. Eighty-three percent of Americans report belonging to a religion; 40% report attending religious services nearly every week or more. … The absence of a state-run religious monopoly combined with a wide sphere of religious liberty has produced an ideal environment for a thriving religious ecosystem. Religions compete, adapt and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another.” Putnam discovered that 75% of the people attend a different congregation than they were raised in. There is enormous fluidity and innovation. Religiosity and community connections are closely tied together.
“The typical megachurch is both evangelical and nondenominational. For many people, their small group is their church. Putnam discovered that in any given month, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church will host some 3,000 separate events. In a New Yorker article entitled “The Cellular Church,” writer Malcolm Gladwell discovered the key to Saddleback was its small groups meeting together and working on projects together.
Remarkably Putnam discovered “while Atheism has recently gained prominence, particularly on the best seller lists, self-identified Atheists and Agnostics comprise a vanishingly small proportion of the U.S. population. For instance, in the 2006 Faith Matters Survey, precisely five people out of 3,108 chose either label.”
In another new secular book titled God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World, John Micklethwait and Adrain Wooldridge shine a bright light on a global revival of religion. They say, “Since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have assumed that modernization would kill religion and that religious America is an oddity. The authors, one an Agnostic and the other Jewish, argue that religion and modernity can thrive together and that America’s approach to faith is becoming the norm. They say, “Above all, 21st century faith is being fueled by a very American emphasis on competition and a customer-driven attitude toward salvation. George Will, in The Washington Post, described this as “the best political book in years.”
Wow. What a week! What a world! There is much to be hopeful about. This is the silver lining around the cloud.
So What about You?
- What are the citizen enterprises that give you cause for optimism?
- Is this now our “crisis not to waste?”
- How would you describe the optimistic side of your life?
Bob Buford is chairman of the board of The Buford Foundation/Leadership Network and, until the sale of his company in July 1999, served as chairman of the board and CEO of Buford Television, Inc., a family-owned business that started with a single ABC affiliate in Tyler, Texas, in the early fifties, and grew to a network of cable systems across the country. A classic entrepreneur, Bob has authored four books – HalfTime, Game Plan, Stuck in Halftime (Zondervan), and Finishing Well (Integrity). Bob was the founder and initial chairman of the board of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, now Leader to Leader Institute. He and his wife Linda make their home in Dallas, Texas