Home / Who We Are / Press / Miami Herald, October 2005


THE BUSINESS OF AMERICA Get involved – you’ll be happy that you did
By Rosabeth Moss Kanter

The world is a mess, and many Americans feel that they can’t count on leaders to fix it. Indeed, in some cases flawed leaders are part of the problem.

Certain failed corporate executives are exchanging pinstripes for prison stripes. A key congressional leader is in trouble, and not just because he has been indicted for campaign-finance violations. The latest Supreme Court nominee is an unknown best known for being loyal to her boss. Partying has returned to a few places in New Orleans’ French Quarter, but post-Katrina blaming and finger-pointing continue, as it appears that everyone – federal, state or local – let everyone else down.

At the moment, there is enough anger, complaint and criticism to cover states beyond Louisiana with raw sewage. But acrimony produces nothing except a collective bad mood.

Before America slides into depression of the mental kind, which could eventually provoke depression of the economic kind, we ordinary citizens should get moving. It’s up to us to improve the national mood.

A New York Times summary of U.S. happiness scores could itself make us unhappy. University of Chicago surveys show that the percentage of Americans reporting that they are ”very happy” peaked in 1974, with ”pretty happy” peaking in the late 1980s. University of Michigan Prof. Ronald Inglehart’s world survey puts U.S. happiness below that of Mexico, Puerto Rico and Ireland.

Among the happiest people around, or at least the most cheerfully optimistic, are social entrepreneurs who spring into action when they see problems that need solutions.

Post-Katrina floods had barely struck when AmeriCorps programs began strategizing about what and how to assist with relief and recovery. City Year, which mobilizes 17- to 24-year-olds for a year of community service, quickly secured a commitment from former President Clinton for support from the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund to open a Louisiana program by November to assist families and lead service projects for volunteers from other places. (Note: I serve on City Year’s board.)

These social entrepreneurs delight in this classic children’s story: Hundreds of starfish have washed up on a beach. A young girl is carefully putting one starfish and then another back in the water. Observing this with amusement, a man comments that her effort is futile, because she can’t possibly save all of them. She replies, holding up a starfish, “But I can make a difference to this one.”

Making a difference, step by small step, separates long-term winners who have the confidence to achieve their goals from those who always seem to fall short. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, social entrepreneurs identify achievable actions and get started.

Small wins aren’t as dramatic as big bold strokes, but they can be more effective and more fulfilling, because each success increases confidence.

America has an abundance of potential social entrepreneurs. For example, Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a pediatrician-minister, and Kenneth Sweder, a Boston lawyer, want to take a step toward ending genocide in Darfur through an awareness and letter-writing campaign. Lisa Foster, a Los Angeles English teacher, wants to reduce dependence on foreign oil by starting One Bag at a Time, a venture to import reusable shopping bags she discovered in Australia. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Joanne Ashe created Journeys in Film to increase international understanding in middle schools, to help heal a conflict-ridden world. These are just three of thousands.

Losing streaks begin, and systems spiral downward, when leaders feel threatened. Fumbling a crisis makes them look bad, and they don’t like feeling exposed. They hide behind closed doors with only a small inner circle discussing decisions.

Turnarounds that convert losing streaks to winning streaks start with the opposite premise: opening dialogue to more voices and more ideas, with facts on the table for everyone to see. Great leaders know that they don’t always have the answers themselves. They believe that everyone can make a difference, however small.

Maybe that’s what we need from leaders in a messy world – to encourage and support the rest of us to get involved. The exhilaration from accomplishing something valuable to the nation could potentially make Americans happier, too.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a Harvard Business School professor and author of Confidence. Her column appears biweekly.

© Copyright Miami Herald and Rosabeth Moss Kanter