Leadership and Learning in a New America

Recently, I found a few copies of Popular Science magazine dated from the 1950’s. What I found remarkable was not the new products created by large companies, but the sheer number of innovations to existing technologies presented. It was not the biggest and newest and most sophisticated, but the little innovations often by ordinary people.

The 1950’s were both a time of prosperity and a time of scarcity, at least by today’s standards. Admittedly, I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard a considerable amount of nostalgia from those that were. It was time of scientific and innovative equality. This equality was demonstrated by a respect for common individual’s participation in discovery, and even greater respect for those that had made discovery their lifelong pursuit. And from these ideals came a time of economic growth unprecedented in history. The US set an example that the world would struggle to match. And match they did.

The generation that followed grew up comfortable and secure, while the rest of the world looked on with envy and enthusiasm. In the time it took the new generation to mature, economic superpowers have emerged and today have begun taking their share of the global resource pie. Our complacency has come back to bite us.

What do we do when something breaks or we need a solution? A look at our nation today would show we head to Walmart. As a nation of consumers, we can expect that someone, somewhere would have created a solution and we surely can find it on the local supermarket shelf or at the very least, on Amazon. And in the very unlikely event that we cannot find the solution, most would find satisfaction in the next best thing. This is the hallmark of a nation of consumerism and complacency. And this has been exacerbated by not only consumption, but consumption on credit. We cannot continue down this path and expect economic security.

In order to reverse this trend, we need to return to the paradigm of American ingenuity. We need to once again become a nation of innovation. As the renowned economist Peter Drucker points out, innovation is work. As a nation, we must work together. We cannot expect, as we have been taught as faithful consumers, that others will have the expertise to provide solutions for us to purchase. We cannot assume that innovation can only come from factories overseas.

“Sacrifice” has rarely entered the political lexicon in the past three decades. It has become the proverbial “four letter word.” It is un-American. But what do we really have to lose? Our ability to buy anything, anytime with a never ending line of credit? The providence of wastefulness, for both products and energy, since “it can always be replaced”? We must change our habits. And like a large corporation, it starts with leadership and learning.

Yesterday, the nation elected our 44th president, and one of the few that would dare to consider that sacrifice is on the table for Americans. That our problems our in our hands, that the government cannot bail us out just to continue down the same path. That there will be no quick fixes. And that we must work to make change happen. We have the first of many steps towards leadership.

Taking on the role of change requires leadership at every level of society, from the president to the parent. Every citizen must learn what their habits are and what can be done differently to lead this nation towards a path of innovation and independence. We as a nation should no longer expect government bailouts, nor the next best gadget, to fix our problems. Every citizen must be leaders of their own domain, including work, family, and personal, and be ready and willing to be innovative and to take action.

Learning, specifically education, has been a contentious issue in the past few decades, especially as we’ve come to assess the progress of our students. It is clear from business and industry that the caliber of graduates are not up to expectations. And for that reason, those companies that can afford it, will and are taking knowledge centers overseas. While content expertise, especially in math and science, is undoubtably a necessary asset for a technological workforce preparation,  innovative capacity is often overlooked.

Innovation is a complicated topic and only recently researched, but the fundamental concepts are being to emerge. Innovation is not entrepreneurism, nor invention, but is the precursor to both. Importantly, innovation can stand on its own. Innovation can simply be tweaks to processes or new uses for existing technologies. Innovation is also about streamlining and finding ways to conserve resources. Innovation can be accessible by everyone, especially when immersed in an innovative environment with the right leadership and a willingness to explore.

We have all of the right ingredients to create a new innovative workforce. It starts with leadership, education, innovative learning environments, and inquiry based instruction. And it will require the help of every citizen.

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