Goosebump Leadership and the Death of the Big Idea
"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard…” - John F. Kennedy
If you put me behind a telescope I would be hard pressed to find the night sky, let alone Venus. But notwithstanding an astronomical education largely limited to cable TV, when I fantasize about what I would do with Bill Gate’s or Warren Buffet’s money, I often think I would fund space exploration.
People are often surprised by this admission. First they ask what space exploration has to do with my philosophy of service and selflessness or my interest in mystical spirituality. Then they flourish their trump card: “Don’t you think we should fix our problems here on earth before we set out for Mars?”
“By that line of reasoning,” I reply, “The Pilgrims would’ve stayed in England, and we wouldn’t start any new families until we fix the ones we have.”
The most important task of leadership is to articulate a vision: to harness the collective power of people in service of something that transcends their immediate selfish desires. A vision must capture the imagination and this produces the willing sacrifices that Kennedy asked for—and got.
My interest in space exploration is neither scientific nor humanitarian. It’s just that the universe gives me goosebumps, and I can’t live in a world without goosebumps. As Kennedy said to his own critics, “But why, some say, the moon? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” As Ben Franklin watched the first hot air balloon take flight a man asked of what use was a hot air balloon and Franklin retorted, “Of what use is a new born child?”
Jesus said that man does not live by bread alone, and whether you are religious or not, this is a profound insight into human psychology. If Western Civilization is in decline, it is not because of economic up-and-comers like China and India. The real problem is that the war, tyranny, and disastrous social experiments of the 20th century destroyed our faith in Big Ideas. When Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic flight he captured the imagination of billions, and four million people lined 5th Avenue for his ticker tape parade. Can we imagine anything today that would resonate so deeply with so many? Every vigorous civilization must have an animating spirit, collectively shared, that transcends the personal while reaching into the future for something universal.
Since the 1960s, two generations of leaders have been unable to capture our imagination with anything like the Declaration of Independence, Manifest Destiny, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream,” or even Woodstock. Horace Greely’s stirring “Go west young man and grow up with the country” has been replaced by the insipid “I don’t care what you do as long as you’re happy.”
Justified or not, the cynicism that marked the death of the Big Idea has crippled organized religion as well. Religion in the West no longer provides the kind of collective consciousness or glue that attenuates our isolation while contributing to the animating spirit that every healthy civilization must have. Instead we have all become “spiritual,” turning what was once an issue of collective cosmic significance into a strictly private, one-off affair. A recent poll in France produced the shocking data that a majority of French citizens hope their children will grow up to be civil servants for the steady income and pension benefits. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anybody Home?, points out that Germany’s shrinking population “poses a huge economic threat” with forecasts suggesting a population decline of 20% by 2060. People may cite myriad reasons for not having children, but at heart it symbolizes a crisis of faith in the future.
When I look at Western Europe I don’t see the “progressive” society that so many Americans want to emulate. I see a tired, aging, sclerotic, and fundamentally conservative culture running a prevent defense as it runs out its cultural clock. Western Europe reminds me of my father as incipient mortality transformed him from a progressive, risk loving, forward looking stock market investor into a conservative bond holder living off his seed corn while reminding his eight children, occasionally at the top of his lungs, that all he wanted from life was “P-E-A-C-E!”
It is a laudable achievement, as the Journal article points out, that war is no longer “thinkable” in Western Europe. But peace is not a mission. Peace, like environmentalism, is a means, a set of conditions that should provide a jumping-off point for some new and wonderful mission for mankind. Instead Western Europe seems too aged and infirm to even reproduce, and its loftiest aspiration is using its hard won peace dividend to work shorter hours and take longer vacations. Western Europe has turned Abraham Maslow on his head: rather than leading us up his Hierarchy of Human Needs, they seem to value little more than the animal security of the bottom rung.
As a lifelong admirer of European culture who has garnered many a goosebump from reading about great European explorers, I take no pleasure in this harsh indictment. And indeed, while the symptoms are not yet so severe, America is moving in the same direction. President Obama, for example, was elected on a platform of change, but granting for argument’s sake the relative merit of health care reform, income redistribution, and a more humble international posture, I’ve heard nothing that even vaguely resembles the Big Ideas I see in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Kennedy’s speech. It is a sign of the times that the only quotes from Bill Clinton anyone seems to remember are “I didn’t inhale” and “It all depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.”
I spend a lot of time working with college students. As difficult as it is to communicate a time when everyone smoked, there was no security at airports, and a divorce doomed Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential aspirations, what I find most difficult to convey is the hope, anticipation, and aspiration that swept over America in the 1960s and early 70s. While I no longer eagerly scan Beatles lyrics for the secrets to life, I admit that I am nostalgic for the nonstop goosebumps of that magical time. Something wonderful was just over the horizon and every card-carrying human being had to have an informed opinion on all those things that distinguish human beings from animals. A few hand scrawled posters could pack an auditorium with people hungry for Big Ideas; no one wanted to grow up to be a bureaucrat; and young people didn’t know what a pension was.
The philosopher Nietzsche once said, “These socialist dolts and flat heads won’t be satisfied until they have reduced mankind to a herd of cattle peacefully grazing on the side of a hill.” We must never discount the compelling need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and cure the sick, but man does not live on bread alone. We need Big Ideas worth sacrificing for and the goosebumps they engender.