Finding Greatness

Richard C. Harwood, President, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation I was moved when reading the comments of my colleagues. And they reminded me of an important theme for our country now: the need to reclaim a sense of greatness. I do not mean, here, a kind of testosterone-driven, myopic, inward-looking agenda. We have enough of that already. Indeed, I intend quite the opposite

One of the biggest challenges facing the nation today is whether we, as a people, can move beyond ourselves, to engage in public work and relationships that ask us to look beyond our close-knit circles of family and friends. For instance, when J.D. Hoye and Pam Loving talk about focusing on children, they are asking, I believe, whether we can give of ourselves to others we do not know. They are wondering whether we will invest in something from which we may not directly benefit. They are seeing whether we, as a society, can muster the wherewithal to care about one another.

Yes, I agree with Bill Bishop that we hear too much of our individual selves in politics and public life; what is missing, for me, is that we do not hear our collective selves. We focus on our individual wants and needs. And yet, all of my work suggests that people hold an innate desire to belong to something larger than themselves; that most of us want to do what is right; that we want to be held in high esteem by others. But so many of our words and deeds in society mitigate these desires; we are told, in essence, not to worry about them or even act on them. Our renewed sense of greatness would tap into these innate desires and call us forward. We would be reminded of what already exists within each of us, and we would activate those sentiments and exercise them.

But let me be clear: any “vision” about the future must be rooted in today’s reality. This is essential. For a vision must grow out of what people are experiencing in their lives and the nation, and then in seeking to move us forward it must respond to those experiences. That was, in part, the beauty of Lincoln and King; they understood the reality in which they lived and the challenges before them. A vision that is detached from reality – one that seeks to remake reality in some other image or to dismiss reality in one way or another – will lack currency and meaning. Then people will remain in their homogenous clans, waiting only for the next idea to make their own lives better, possibly ignoring those ideas in the name of the public good.

My colleagues and others to whom I have been listening are telling us something. It is not first and foremost about policies or politics; it is about ourselves.