In a recent column, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, “I’ll say this about Senator Obama. He sure raises people’s hackles.” Leaders who represent change tend to do that.
Herbert continued, “I’ve never seen anyone so roundly criticized for such grievous offenses as giving excellent speeches and urging people of different backgrounds to take a chance on working together. How dare he? And 200,000 people turned out to hear him in Berlin. Unforgivable.”
We’ve watched the Clintons and John McCain—politicians not without their good points–sputter in outrage at Obama because he exposed their pandering, inauthenticity, and tired political games. Critics call Obama unpatriotic because he wants to conclude a war most of us would love to be rid of. McCain even blamed Obama for high gas prices–a dull-witted and clownish assertion.
Those invested in the old order that no longer solves problems—Democrats and Republicans alike–suffer hubris, entitlement, and a lack of intellectual curiosity. They do not offer new solutions to problems. Instead they attack bold and imaginative leaders who offer new approaches to serious issues—a dynamic true at every level of our society.
Those who attack are not really angry at Obama. Often they feel scared of the change he symbolizes. Obama calls for the renewal of America. This revitalization threatens greedy politicians and special interests that benefit from the status quo–regardless of the harm of the old ways to the America of today. Others feel envious of the attention the political rock star receives. Many feel hurt when the future transcends the past.
University of Oklahoma president David Boren wrote in A Letter to America: “The country we love is in trouble. In truth we are in grave danger of declining as a nation. If we do not act quickly, that decline will become dramatic.” Most Americans say they are unhappy with the direction of the country. They say they want change. Do we really want something new?
My experience as a change consultant tells me that most people don’t want change; they want to feel differently without doing the hard work necessary to improve the health and success of their organizations. They want a painless and easy quick-fix.
A rule of thumb: 10% of people want real change. Another 10% will resist to the death (or until they get fired), and the remaining 80%, docile and passive, stand around to see which way the wind will blow.
Pundits say this election will be a referendum on Obama. They are wrong–it’s a referendum on change. Obama represents transformative change. He has to overcome his race, newness on the scene, and politicians who have left us cynical and disillusioned—no small task.
Most of all he has to confront Americans with the truth and seriousness of our problems and reassure the 80% that they are up to the challenges as Americans throughout history have demonstrated. He can do his part by offering a vision that represents our values and aspirations and arouses our courage.
Arctic explorer Will Steger said he likes “do or die” situations and that we are in that situation now. And he was talking only about global warming. We also have two wars, a recession, a shrinking middle class, a health care crisis, and an educational system that does not prepare our students for a competitive and global economy.
Change has risk. It is riskier to not change. We need to channel our fear and pain away from attacks on those who can lead and into good works that renew the American spirit. The alternative for America is continued national decline that will grow increasingly frightening and painful.
(Heuerman, Ph.D. is an organizational consultant, former Secret Service agent, and Star Tribune executive. He lives in Moorhead, MN)