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Stuart Muszynski Headshot

Which Team Are You On: Your Own or America's?

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Last week's heated exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum raised a fundamental question about America, our culture and working for the greater good. When Santorum was questioned about why he voted for "No Child Left Behind," he acknowledged that he voted "against the principles I believed in" and that he had to "take one for the team." The next morning, Romney said, "I wonder which team he was taking it for. My team is the American people, not the insiders in Washington."

I believe this interchange defines one of the most pressing issues facing America today: Whose team are we on and how does America win? This was the foundational challenge to my generation, the Baby Boomers, back in 1961, when John F. Kennedy implored us: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." What JFK presented was a challenge not just to settle into self-focused lives, industries or ideologues, but also to do something for the greater good of America.

By and large, my generation has failed to deliver on JFK's missive. Although we started out with the idealism of "Hair," "Woodstock," and Joan Baez -- visions of great altruism -- as we near retirement I must wonder how we have drifted so far afield from those ideals. My generation has benefited from the greatest transfer of wealth in our history. But along the way, as we embraced the American values of Success and The Good Life, maybe we stepped too far afield from America's other important values: Community, Giving Back, Equality and Doing the Right Thing?

Have we violated our principles in the interest of "taking one" for our individual teams? My generation has been in the forefront of outsourcing American jobs, building Enron, cashing in on Wall Street, sparking the foreclosure crisis, and lobbying for the "Bridge to Nowhere." Somewhere we seem to have confused "America's team" with our own personal self-interest. Given our record, I think it's fair to pose the question, is it truly the win-win we are seeking in our lives and through the election process? Or is it a thinly-disguised win-lose -- kind of like the old patronizing motto, "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States."

And how did this happen?

Maybe the ordinary American can shed some light. In 2008, my family and I traveled to eight communities to learn about America's values, we asked almost 1000 Americans if America was living its values. People of all walks of life resoundingly said "no." One man at a Fourth of July parade said that he thought people violated our shared principles because of one word: "Prosperity." He noticed that prosperity fostered an expedient, "go along to get along" pragmatism that interfered with goodness and altruism. You just get too comfortable to care.

There's another explanation. One business leader whom I respect and who grew up on a farm explained it to me this way. He said that the more upscale Americans distance themselves from their roots -- whether farm or factory -- the more challenged they are to help one another and to work for the greater good, unless their peer culture strongly reinforces these values. Unlike their lives on the farm or in the factory, new lives of prosperity can foster segmentation, aristocracy, entitlement and a self-focused outlook.

On the farm, life involved investing in relationships every day. Farm families understood that to take from the land, they first had to give to the land. To take from a neighbor they had to also give to a neighbor. Workers on the factory line had strong understanding of this mutuality, as well. But in my generation, as factory and farm workers' children became the first to go to college, start their own businesses or become corporate executives, they became separated from these values.

Fast forward to today, when many feel that America is not acting like America and when scholars have posited that the financial elite is out of touch. Somehow, we need to reassess our priorities, connect with each other and re-boot.

Some of this is already happening. Research on the Millennial Generation shows that young people today are more inclined to volunteerism, social responsibility and goodness than were their predecessors. To them, "Pay it forward," isn't just an expression, it's an integral core value.

I have hopes for the rest of us with the trending of sustainability and business social responsibility in American business today. More and more business executive teams are as concerned with community as they are with profitability. I predict that this movement will influence the entire business world, enabling Americans to better live our values.

The poster child for this movement is Malden Mills, the Massachusetts textile company (now called Polartec) that burned to the ground in 1995 yet paid all its employees full wages and benefits for a year while it rebuilt. To Malden Mills' CEO Aaron Feuerstein, his team and America's team were one and the same. He felt an overwhelming responsibility to his 1500 workers, many of whose parents and grandparents had also worked for the mill. And, when other mills were outsourcing jobs overseas, he felt a responsibility both to American jobs and his core values. His union workers then figured out a way to triple production. They paid it forward.

There are certain fundamentals of life -- we're good at telling them to our kids. Kindness works. Relationships matter. What goes around, comes around. And, like the laws of physics demonstrate, low points of disorder often create turning points for re-ordering and improving. Although unprecedented nastiness and a win-at-all costs attitude are du jour in the current Presidential campaign, maybe we can use this moral low point as a tipping point to ask ourselves, "Whose team are we on?" If we're not on America's team, investing in a relationship with our country and our neighbors, can we truly call ourselves successful? Can we truly have a successful business, party, family, community? Does America have to be a zero-sum game, some winning and others losing?

One working class American summed this up profoundly: "When the Titanic went down, it didn't matter whether you were on the upper deck or the lower one. They all went down together."

It's time to re-imagine an America where we're all on the same team. Think about it. How do we create a win-win country? I'm not talking about hand-outs. I'm talking about oneness, investing in and caring about each another. How can we make this happen? Please send me your ideas at www.Facebook.com/purpleamericaus or stuartm@Purpleamerica.us.

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