Bring Your Best or Forfeit Your Country

In the January/February 1996 Harvard Business Review, 21 years ago, economist Paul Krugman ran out the ways countries are not businesses. The ways successful business people cannot automatically apply their skill sets to steering a nation and its economy. At the same time, he admitted that economists could not, without considerable extra expertise, run successful businesses.

Krugman writes, “Let me begin with two examples of economic issues that I have found business executives generally do not understand: first, the relationship between exports and job creation, and, second, the relationship between foreign investment and trade balances.”

The content of this statement is not something I can elaborate. And that is due to the limitations of my own expertise. But what I can highlight is Krugman’s nearly calling for what I think of as the collective intelligence that emerges from real humility (i.e. “maybe alone I really don’t know everything”).

Better said: Krugman implies that the answer lies in drawing on the best skills of each of us. EACH OF US!

In June of this year, my husband and I found ourselves in the position of having to take over the ownership of a diner. The professor and the author suddenly faced the unfathomable spectrum of damands for established skill. It stretched roughly from Quickbooks and workers compensation insurance, through discerning the best place to buy avocados and on to the nonstop interpersonal demands of management. Forget theory. This was real in every way.

In our first meeting with the staff, we recognized out loud the expertise of every person in the room. We pointed out the impossibility of the cafe functioning without the role and function of every single one of the dozen employees. We said it seemed to us that the best outcomes for everyone there would follow from each of us doing our best every day.

What followed was the most powerful on-the-job, or as we like to call it in my discipline, in vivo experience ever. The gritty and sometimes indescribably graceful everyday of human interaction around work and community.

I’d gotten a bit of a preview in late January 2009, and on through the first 100 days of the first Obama Administration. On a 10,000 mile drive around the country, I learned by listening to Americans that everyday people live this way because it works. Because they know from experience that little can happen without the skills of more than one person. They don’t often stop to say that’s what they’re doing – cooperating. They don’t even care what it’s called. They know there’s a task, and, for the most part, they want to get it done well.

This reality is bedrock. Economists and business people will do the most good when, on tasks that call for both kinds of expertise, they get over the need to be the smartest all-knowing person in the room and get to work. Even to the point on drawing out, of encouraging, the best in that other person who knows things I don’t.

And it is with the best of each citizen, that a country will be most likely to thrive.

So, here we are. Closing up January 2017. Right now, more than ever in my lifetime, we need to get over ourselves and to pull together. There is nothing hypothetical about it.

The best call for practical unity that I’ve seen in recent days came from Reverand William J. Barber, II.  Here’s the text from a December sermon. SO worth the read!

This leader gives clear instructions for getting our best together. Listening – learning how to listen better – is essential. But first, watch to see for yourself how little good gets done without the skills of many coming together. No matter their appearance or the sound of their voice – no matter how they vote or how/whether they worship or who they love.

Check for yourself.

And while you’re at it, check to see if you think we have time to waste in superficial competition. See if it works for anyone – a leader or a follower, a business person, an economist, a cook or a busser – to refuse collaboration in favor of needing to be the smartest person in the room.


And then you are free to choose. Do nothing or bring your best.


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