Paul Argenti is a professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
Over the last few weeks, as the United States competed and mostly won in the international sports arena at the 2012 Olympics in London, the country itself seemed to suffer from a reputational setback in headlines from many prominent media outlets including Time magazine ("The History of the American Dream: Is it Still Real?") and the Wall Street Journal ("Why Capitalism Has an Image Problem"). Why is it that while our athletes still seem to be excited about both working hard on representing the United States in the most competitive environment on the planet and embracing America itself as a concept (note the many tears welling up as the flag raises and the national anthem is played), a cloud seems to hang over both our businesses and the people who work in them? And a malaise hovers over the country itself during this long, hot summer as Americans question their country's supremacy and its place in the world outside of the Olympics.
Earlier this year, I gave a presentation in Singapore on country reputations while on sabbatical there. I was shocked to find that the United States ranks 23rd, or three places behind Singapore, and far behind the number one country in the world in terms of reputation, our neighbor to the north, Canada, according to research from the Reputation Institute. Our educational system is rated slightly better at number 17 in the world. And while our infrastructure was the newest and best when I was growing up in the '50s and '60s, a return from Singapore's Changi airport to the United States through JFK airport in New York quickly reminds us how far our star has fallen. And if you travel anywhere in Europe this summer by rail, you will be appalled that all we have to offer is the Amtrak Acela in the Boston to Washington corridor. As HBO's Newsroom anchor, Will McAvoy, stated in the fictional show's pilot:
There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we're the greatest country in the world. We're seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending (where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined; 25 of whom are allies)…
How did it come to pass that the greatest capitalist nation on earth seems to have lost its mojo? What role can American business play in breaking us out of our torpor? And, what can you do to try to inject some positive energy back into the atmosphere when the heat of summer turns into the crisp, promising chill of early autumn in a few weeks? Warren Buffett took a crack at this a few weeks ago in a CNBC interview:
The U.S. economy is doing better than virtually any big economy around the world. This economy has come back a long way, with the exception of housing, from where it was a few years ago. And you can see it in corporate profits.
That may very well be true, but I don't think this kind of rhetoric is going to get you away from staring at your computer to start thinking about what you can do for your country anytime soon. So, here is my version of an Olympic heptathlon guaranteed to bring gold back to America's reputation:
I end my class each year with a quote from my anthropology instructor at Columbia University, Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Do your part to restore the American dream off the field as well as on by being part of that small group.