Last month, Roy Spence set out to walk from northern New Hampshire, through Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York to Pennsylvania. He threw away his Blackberry and took his first break he'd had since founding GSD&M Idea City, a pioneer in purpose-based branding. Spence enjoys a dazzling reputation as one of the smartest, most innovative marketing men in America, but he turned his back on executive perks, he said, because he needed this walk as fundamentally as a body needs salt. It became, for him, a matter of survival.
"I was in New York about six months ago, doing business, going back to the hotel, flipping through the news. And everything I saw on TV was bad. Every priest, athlete, entrepreneur, kid, parent. I realized we had a culture of celebrating badness. And I kept thinking: Everyone I know is pretty good. They try to do the right thing. I'm not buying this idea that everyone is bad."
"Then my daughter Courtney told me about an 87-year-old woman who had walked across America. And I thought: if she can do it, I can do it. And I felt I was missing the connective tissue -- of being connected to people and places instead of more and more technology. I wanted to get reconnected again."
Every mile or so, he promised himself he'd take a picture of something good. He would talk to people. And he'd pay attention.
"I started looking for good things. I forgot all the bad things and found the raindrop on the leaf. I looked at a house with a wooden bench where a grandparent sat with a grandchild. I started seeing what was good here."
By the middle of his journey, he got tired of carrying so much and started throwing things away. He reckoned he could do without everything -- except his camera. "Everything else was disposable. I'd even dump my phone but not my camera. Because capturing the moment so that others could share -- that was much more important than talking about it."
What Spence saw was a different face of America to the one he'd seen on TV. "The people I met -- and I met a lot -- believe deeply in the founding principles of our nation, in government of the people, by the people and for the people. I don't know if they were Republicans, Democrats or libertarians. But very few of them believed that we were living up to our purpose. They were disappointed that our nation has fallen into an artificial civil war that the people aren't in! The politicians and the leaders are -- but the people don't want to be in it. They still believe in the ideas that got us started."
While the news media considered New Hampshire only in the context of the primaries, what Spence saw was quite different. "I was surprised with the belief that our country is just stalled. Not going anywhere. Not solving problems but making them. But what I also saw is that the state of America is better than the state of our government. Our people are more competent than our leaders. People are solving problems on their own -- building their own companies and their own schools. They aren't waiting any more, they're just going out and doing it."
Everywhere he went, Spence met entrepreneurs who'd sunk their life savings, into new businesses that they'd always dreamed of. "I cannot tell you how many people I met who'd become entrepreneurs. One was a teacher who had reached the age of 65 and had always wanted to open a tea shop. And there it was: Tea and Tarts. And it was symbolic of this renaissance of entrepreneurship. And these people weren't building it for an empire, but for a life. And you could feel that."
America was built by entrepreneurs, by individuals who insisted that there had to be a better way, a better place, a better world. It's one reason it's so incredibly easy to do business in America and feels so much harder anywhere else. As we sit, mired in gloom and frustration because the market's lousy and the government's obtuse, it's easy to forget these things -- or to dismiss anyone who rejects them as out of touch. But Spence would argue that it is the cynics who are out of touch.
"I'm not a Pollyanna," he insists. "I walked into trailer homes and big homes and I've met these people. And sure, they've all got problems. But they all find some goodness that they can rally behind. If they have a terrible home, they concentrate on the view. They look for solutions, not complaints. I've seen the heart of America. And it is good."
Roy Spence, driven by instinct, discovered through walking a fundamental truth about leadership: there is more knowledge on the periphery than at the center. This can feel very counter-intuitive. It's very easy, sitting at the center of a large, successful organization, to feel supremely knowledgeable. But it's only when you have the courage - or the need - to leave that fortress that you find out what's really going on.