How America Can Win an Olympic Gold for Its Economy

The American Dream has become increasingly harder to achieve, but here is what we can do about it.

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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.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

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)…

[What Aaron Sorkin Got Right (And Wrong) in The Newsroom]

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:

  1. Stop whining: The New York Times ran an article this week about whiners who were not winners at the Olympics, but I think it's more prevalent among American businessmen and women who seem to think they are entitled to all kinds of things, from government services without taxes, to happy workers without benefits, to bonuses for mediocre performance. What made America great was that democracy promised and provided the same opportunity for everyone. When we change the rules of the game so that only a handful of people have that opportunity (see the 1 percent), we lose the richness of America.
  2. Be optimistic: When times are tough, leaders need to be the ones who provide energy for everyone else in the room. Too many of today's leaders are energy takers rather than energy givers. Forget about how great it was "back in the good old days" or how amazing it's going to be when everything gets sorted out, and get yourself and your people excited about being part of the solution today, rather than part of the problem tomorrow.
  3. Do something for someone else: The new concept of "shared value" is fascinating because it implies that what's good for others also ends up being best for you. Too many Americans seem to have gotten stuck in their selfish teenage years when it was all about them. Doing what is best for society in general ends up being really good for business, according to great strategy scholars like Harvard's Michael Porter.
  4. Volunteer your time in your community: In addition to thinking about doing something on a more macro level, do something yourself. My daughters and I served food to community members who were less fortunate through our church for many years when they were younger, and it always made me feel good to both let them see how fortunate they are, at the same time giving their time as well as their talent to people who didn't have enough to eat.
  5. Vote: About 40 percent of eligible voters did not vote in either 2004 or 2008. You can't complain about how bad things are for business if you don't participate in the most obvious way to influence what happens in America. If you feel like this won't make a difference, see No. 2 above for help.
  6. Say "thank you" more often: My colleague and friend Marshall Goldsmith taught me that while our instinct is often to get angry with those who are trying to give us feedback about how to be a better person (because our egos get in the way), we should instead learn to say "thank you" more to our colleagues, our family, and our friends.
  7. Instill a sense of hope in your children: I was fortunate to be raised in one of the most optimistic periods in American history by what many consider to be America's greatest generation. My parents, who were only a generation away from the deprivation of the Great Depression, always told me that things would be better for me. One of the things I am trying to do every day is give that same sense of hope to my 19-month-old son. It will not only make your children feel that they can make the world a better place, but it will also make you feel like you are doing something to help that dream become a reality.
  8. [Photo Gallery: Americans Celebrate Independence Day]

    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.

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