The idea of American exceptionalism is generally credited to Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian who observed in 1835—after a nearly two-year tour of our still-young country—that the U.S. is "exceptional," qualitatively better in important ways than other countries. Austin Powers, the fictional British super spy, might call this America's "mojo." I call it "will to win."
Today many question whether or not the passion is still there. Some go so far as to wonder if attaining an edge is even good. Shouldn't the U.S. qualify as no more or less than one nation among many?
That isn't the attitude that built the U.S. Nor is it the kind of attitude that will rekindle America's belief that it should occupy a special place among the pantheon of nations.
Since this is a business publication, let's agree that residing at the top—provided you get there via your own initiative—is a desirable thing. Even in this era of globality, with companies from everywhere competing for everything, there's a No. 1 spot. Why can't the U.S. occupy it? There's no shame in being the best. There is no shame in being special.
If America has lost its will to win, we need to learn how to get it back. For the answer, we can look to business. I grew up in a family that owned a business. As a consultant, I've had the opportunity to work with many such companies over the past 30 years. I've collaborated with several generations of owners: founders, their children, and their children's sons, daughters, and grandchildren. In many cases, by the time you get to the third and fourth generations, interest in the business has waned. The fire has gone out. It's become all about the money, not the brand.
Fire-Breathing, Pioneering Founders
The founders—the first generation—feel passionate about the business. It's their baby. They make personal sacrifices and take chances to see that the business survives and reaches the critical mass needed for long-term success. They build the company's brands. They create competitive advantage. They work 24 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary, to ensure that their baby survives and thrives to grow into a mature, successful company. Most such owners want their children to succeed them and drive the company forward.
I've also worked with many second-generation owners, the founders' children. These owners, many of whom have college degrees, typically focus on expanding the business. After watching their parents struggle, the children concentrate on strategy and managing, capitalizing on what their mother and father did to build the business and make it a leader in their community or industry. Second-generation owners usually have a lot more resources available to them and choose to "professionalize" management, bringing in outsiders for the first time to help them. They take the business they inherited and improve it. Often they want their children to follow in their footsteps.
I've also worked with third-generation owners, the founders' grandchildren. Some passionately push the company to new heights. But many are part-time, even absentee owners. They leave the hard work to the hired guns, focusing instead on cash flow and how much they can take out of the business. They view profits as their birthright. They often leave less for the fourth generation. As Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock puts it, they are "more focused on snowboarding and art classes" than on the business. Some even sell their companies because they just don't care.
This makes a business such as Hallmark, the 100-year-old greeting card company, something of a rarity: a successful and growing company that is well into its third generation of family leadership and still going strong. This doesn't happen often.
Is Exceptionalism Assured?
Last fall, I attended a debate between the candidates seeking to represent my Illinois congressional district. The debate was well-attended because a Democrat was threatening to take over a long-held Republican seat, contrary to what was taking place elsewhere across the country. The Republican, a very successful local businessman, mentioned that he believed the U.S. would do well in the future because of American exceptionalism. He took it as a birthright: We are exceptional because we are Americans.
I believe Americans have the capability to be exceptional because our country, unlike many others, has a structure that allows anyone to succeed. I don't think the very fact that we were born here makes us exceptional. We have to make things happen through exceptional efforts.
Looking at the U.S. through a business prism, we effectively constitute the third generation. We can rest on our laurels and start milking what others gave us or we can rededicate ourselves to greatness, relight the fire in our bellies, and move forward with confidence and excitement.
Using my analogy, the first generation includes the founders of the great corporations created in the late 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. In those days, the U.S. was building itself into an economic powerhouse that would emerge—after two world wars and a Great Depression had ravaged industrial Europe—dominant in virtually every category.
The second generation, in charge from the 1950s to the late 20th century, pushed hard, producing new forms of music and art, extraordinary auto designs and muscle cars, and home conveniences envied by the rest of the world. This period also saw the building of the approximately 47,000-mile Dwight D. Eisenhower interstate highway system. The U.S. put astronauts on the moon and won the Cold War without firing a shot. Members of this generation used the assets bequeathed to them by the first generation and continued to achieve, bringing America to new heights.
The third generation is our generation. Many of us today take things for granted. We live beyond our means. We whine. We expect the government and our employers to take responsibility for our comfort, security, and well-being. We yawn at, or even thumb our noses at, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, and the entrepreneurs and risk takers who created the American legacy. We resort to legalities to avoid doing the hard work and making the tough choices needed to propel us. Simply put: We don't have fire in our guts.
Asia's First-Generation Drive, Vision
The human will to win hasn't disappeared. I see it every time I travel to Asia: the drive, the work ethic, the energy. I see in China and India a new first generation that's building, creating, and giving, rather than asking and taking.
World history is the continuing story of great societies that are eventually sapped of energy and enthusiasm, from the Holy Roman Empire to Great Britain.
The U.S., fortunately, hasn't yet reached the tipping point. We have the power and potential to rekindle America's exceptionalism. I question if we have the will.
So how do we get the mojo back?
First, we have to want it. If the American public and its political and business leaders feel comfortable residing somewhere in the pack rather than out front—an ordinary country among 170 or so—hungrier economies will overtake us. We'll still do O.K.; don't get me wrong. But being No. 1 will take effort. The first step in getting there is wanting to get there.
Second, we need to realize that in many ways, each generation has to start anew. We are not born exceptional; we must be exceptional. The U.S. has the assets necessary to make every third generation a new first generation. We should celebrate the accomplishments and legacy of those who came before us so every generation understands that success requires inventiveness, sacrifice, courage, hard work, and a burning desire to get there first and get it right.
Finally, we need to invest in the future, rather than consume what others have bequeathed to us. As a country, this means education, infrastructure, energy, and basic research. Companies need to invest in excellence, leadership, talent, and teamwork.
Think of American exceptionalism not as a birthright, but rather as a platform for hard work and smart thinking. We need to use that platform so every third generation can be the first generation again.