The Huge But Avoidable Mistake


The Great Depression struck Americans in the 1930s. It had two parts, from roughly 1930 to 1935, and from 1937 through the end of the decade and into the early 1940s. And during this period—along with all the personal and individual sufferings of joblessness, homelessness, and hopelessness—there was one particular cost of the struggle that weighed more and loomed higher than any other.

It was the cost of focusing inwardly on strictly domestic, internal American affairs. Understandable as it was, this inner focus cost Americans greatly. It allowed for the rise of Hitler and European fascism as well as Tojo and Asian militarism. Whatever “isms” you attach to them, these movements swept much of the globe and enveloped the earth in the most horrific war in human history. World War II bathed the world in blood.

I won’t pull you into the various historical details of this awful mistake. They are, though, the stuff of a dramatic and compelling story. Read more about them when you have the opportunity. In the meantime, let me suggest to you something you should tuck into your mind for immediate and future use—right now, in 2011, as the crickets and locusts and soft late evening shadows speak of late summer and whisper of the fall beyond—so that you can be prepared as both citizen and leader, as private person at home and public figure at work and community.

During the 1930s, American leaders and American citizens alike concentrated on how to restore the American economy, or at least, their little corner of it. Anything that appeared to distract from economic issues and economic solutions was deemed frivolous. Foreign affairs were secondary, put off to another day, or simply explained away as unlikely to worsen, deteriorate, or decline. The prospect of a better day was cast as the potential for a better dollar. We’ve got to put food on the table, clothes on our back, and nothing holds value if it fails to do either one.

And then, when it was too late, the fuse lit in armed conflict in Manchuria during 1931, burned into invasions of Poland in 1939 and exploded in oily black smoke at Pearl Harbor in 1941. All the while, people whose cries went unheard were hauled into camps or cut down throughout both European and Asian continents.

Now, shift forward to 2011. We’re mired in an economic pit that’s lasted for many of us since late 2008, longer for others. Our focus is on debt, deficits, defaults, and staving off a full-fledged depression. Sound familiar?

And yet, troublingly, the outline of a costlier mistake has emerged.

The “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011 was a time when the people of several Arab nations took to the streets to protest their national regimes. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Algeria, Oman, Lebanon, Morocco, Bahrain, Iran, and now Syria thousands and then tens of thousands of Arab and Persian men, women, and children conducted protests against ruling families and power-holding tribes. Captured on television and the internet, sped by social media, these protestors had and still have a variety of motives and causes. They had and still have a range of options and possibilities, some good, some bad, some both, and some in-between. They had and still have uncertain futures. Most importantly, they were and remain on the knife’s edge, the pivot, of one of history’s most crucial movements: the potential shift in life in the Middle East and the reverberations it will unleash throughout the world.

These protests have subsided, entered a period of eerie calm, or have been increasingly controlled by elements hostile to or discomfited by modern life. Nevertheless, the outcome is not determined. The implications are enormous.

Don’t misunderstand. We, the United States, can’t direct or police everything. We can’t and shouldn’t intervene everywhere. But that’s not the point. The crux of the point is this—a complete withdrawal of attention, energy, effort, and vision from the ebbs and flows of the Arab Spring could turn out to be our replay of the costliest mistake of the Great Depression. We could reap in five, ten, or fifteen years the harvest of what we’ve sowed through our indifference, distractedness, and inwardly drawn single-mindedness. Our leaders have an obligation not to repeat the horrible miscue of the Great Depression. For every week, month, and quarter that we fail to act as leaders in this fundamentally urgent moment of Arab Spring/Summer/Fall and beyond, we heighten the risk of repeating the costliest mistake of the Great Depression. And who will pay this cost? The same people who paid it in the 1940s–the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, families, and friends who served, sacrificed, and in woefully too many cases lost their lives. They will pay. We will pay. You and I will pay.

In a sense, we’ve been here before. The good news is that in at least one recent example the United States acted correctly. We led. I’m referring to the early 1980s. It was a time of economic decline, severely so. Regardless, the United States played a leading role–perhaps THE leading role–in confronting the Soviet Union and its global aspirations for communism. And both economically and in foreign relations the U.S. enjoyed victory as well as the return of prosperity. Yes, victory and prosperity. For a generation of Americans significantly closer to the 1930s and 1940s than we are now, the right course was taken and the costliest mistake avoided.

You, as both leader and follower, have an obligation to ensure the avoidance of the Great Depression’s costliest mistake. As follower–as citizen–you need to remain aware of happenings in the next stages of the Arab Spring. You also need to urge your political leaders to do the same and to hold them accountable. As leader–whether in the workplace or community–you need to talk at appropriate times with your own followers about the Arab Spring and its latest iterations, encouraging them to keep eyes up, eyes open, and eyes ahead. In addition, you need to take a lesson here organizationally and seek to understand the full field of key issues, dynamics, and forces that affect you and your followers. Your budget, revenue, and profit-and-losses are more than collections of dollars. They reflect situations and circumstances that may seem distant and disconnected. Your vision must, absolutely must, span past the horizon and find the threads that tie them together.

You as the leader can help establish the connection and shorten the distance by ensuring the Great Recession of 2008-? avoids the costliest mistake from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Before I leave you, permit me a shameless promotion: I plan to delve more deeply into the 1930s example of excessive inwardness during my workshop on Being a Leader in Economic Stagnation: 3 Jewels of Leadership from the Late 1930s.” 1 of the 3 “jewels” will be Winston Churchill. He was the exact opposite of excessive inwardness in the 1930s. His is a powerful example of the value of leadership that looks outward, sees past the horizon, and thinks creatively about the link between vast threats and real problems. The workshop will be 3 hours in length, August 29th, 10am to 1p, at the Fort Harrison Conference Center in Indianapolis. Cost is $250 per person and includes the session, lunch, and one month of free, private follow-up with me. Only 3 seats remain open. Call or text me immediately to register–317-407-3687.