06/11/2012 10:43 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

Needed: A Better Story for America

A key task of leadership is to make meaning of disparate, confusing, and troubling facts and events. This can be effectively done through a story. The Civil War gave this nation its greatest test, and Abraham Lincoln reminded us at Gettysburg that our founding story -- that "all men are created equal" -- was worth the carnage, and that we had "unfinished work" to do to achieve the story's promise. In his second inaugural address he even argued that the war was God's punishment for "American" (not Southern) slavery. Since we were all complicit, reconciliation would require the victorious North and the defeated South to pledge "malice toward none, with charity for all." Lincoln fashioned this story to help the nation see where it had been and where it needed to go. Though many hated him for it, his foresight gave us the "United States" that in the Declaration of Independence had been only the "united States."

We need such leadership today. Many of us seem lost. We are searching for the story that tells us who we are and where we need to go. The America many thought they knew seems gone to them. The American Dream -- the story and the promise that each generation will be better-off than their parents -- seems threatened. That sense of loss is at the heart of much of our current foul mood. The belief that an education guarantees a good job confronts student debt and a troubled economy. The national debt and deficit seem to constrain our opportunities and our spirit. The face of America is changing and, unfortunately, this troubles many. In 1940 the population was overwhelmingly white (90 percent). Today, "minorities" make up over a third (35 percent) of us, with Hispanics the fastest-growing segment. Gay marriage, opposed by 62 percent of Americans as recently as 1999, is now favored by 53 percent. Indeed, marriage itself has changed from an expectation to a lifestyle choice. In 1960, 72 percent of all adults ages 18 and older were married. Today, that figure is 51 percent. The institutions we have historically depended on to anchor us seem adrift. From the period 1972-1982 to 2004, confidence plummeted in banks and financial institutions (35 percent to 28 percent), major companies (26 percent to 17 percent), the press (24 percent to 9 percent), organized religion (35 percent to 24 percent), and education (36 percent to 27 percent) -- and that was before the meltdown of 2008.

The extremes in politics reflect the frustrated and sometimes frightening search for a return to a story we believe in. Our anger at our leaders and sometimes at those who are different or think differently demonstrates our need for something to hold our lives together.

Individualism and community -- the need to blend freedom with caring -- have been the contrasting American values that previous generations have reconciled into the story of the American Dream. Government as a way to level the playing field and protect us against the worst of natural (and man-made) calamities has been a complement woven carefully into that story with a vibrant private sector, as well. Until recently, the story was told -- certainly somewhat differently -- by politicians of both parties. We might prefer one candidate over another, but the underlying narrative was the same.

Today, however, the values, the characters, and the plot seem more confused than clear. The old story is suspect to many. There is no compelling narrative to update it or take its place. None of the candidates for high public office have woven the confusing facts and events of our lives into a story we believe. How do we succeed, find comfort, and pursue happiness as individuals and as a nation in a global, instantly linked, highly diverse, extremely competitive world where the old institutions and their leaders are no longer trusted? What does the American Dream look like in the 21st century, and what do we need to do to achieve it? This is the task of leadership that is not being met.

The political left offers a save-social-programs, pro-diversity, pro-environment, anti-big-business set of story elements. But this is a story that relies more on hope than clear action, and it fails to convince half the electorate. The political right seems intent on telling us that "free markets" will return us to the American Dream, even though it is overly free markets that created much of the current trouble for that American Dream. Its anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-reproductive-rights, anti-government, anti-regulation, and pro-free-market set of elements also fails to enlist half the electorate in its story.

In the absence of a compelling narrative for our collective future, the predominant work of most who want our votes seems to be to heap scorn on opponents. And so we hear attack ads, negative stories with the power more to anger than elevate. Seeking to help a candidate emerge as better than "none of the above" is not a narrative that answers the need for meaning.

If leading is meaning-making, those who aspire to leadership have work to do. We need a story that helps us make sense of the realities we face, calls upon core values that bind us together, engages our best efforts and our collective sacrifice. Individual policies and programs will emerge from such a story but should not be confused with the story itself. Tax hikes or tax cuts, more or less regulation, energy conservation or drilling, for example, are positions, not a story. We need a narrative that paints a picture of a future we can believe in and aspire to achieve. That story, when told with truth by leaders of character, will find listeners across the political spectrum. Like all the best stories of our history, it will be one we seek to live out in our lives.