E Pluribus Unum

For almost two decades, I was on the faculty of an Executive Education program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I got to teach with two of the founders of the Adaptive Leadership model, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Working with these two phenomenal people raised my awareness of why we are always struggling to move forward.

One of the main tenets of Heifetz and Linsky’s work is the idea that there are two kinds of challenges that we face when change is imminent. One kind is technical, the other adaptive. I’ll give you an example: when a patient faces heart surgery, the surgeon uses her expertise to perform a complex procedure. This may include cracking open the breastbone, removing veins from the leg, replacing the damaged arteries of the heart with those veins, and then closing everything back up. This takes training, expense, and expertise, and the patient’s problem will be technically solved.

The adaptive challenge begins when the patient now must change his lifestyle in order to maintain the health of his heart. What if the patient loves his wife’s cooking? He can’t wait to eat butter and salt because that’s how he knows she loves him. What if the patient has never exercised and takes pride in that fact? What if his beloved son gives him a bottle of whisky and a box of cigars to celebrate his return from the hospital? The adaptive challenge lives in the arena of values and emotions.

What happens, typically, is that we use technical solutions when a crisis occurs, but we don’t face the adaptive challenges. Our country is very good at this. After 9/11, we had an incredible opportunity to change. The crisis was so enormous that that if President Bush had asked us to change our values, investigate our dependence on oil and examine how we as a country contribute to the chaos of the Middle East, we might have. Instead, he opted for the technical solution and chose to invade. Money and military know-how didn’t solve the real problem, but only created a whole new set of crises in world politics.

We saw this again when Dylan Roof executed nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Almost immediately, this crisis provoked a political discussion about changing the laws having to do with displaying the Confederate flag. Yes, this flag is a shameful symbol of a despicable time of our national history, but new regulations are only one part of the answer. They are a technical solution. The adaptive challenge is a bigger, messier one for our country to face. Who could lead us to confront and change the value system that led this boy to commit such a horrible act?

And now, we see this happening again. Omar Mateen murdered forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three more in his rampage at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The outrage is huge at the lax gun laws that allowed an FBI investigated security guard, who had been arrested as a teenager for battery, dismissed from his Florida Department of Corrections training, and is now known to have physically abused his wife, to purchase an assault rifle. Changing the laws is a necessary technical solution which has its own set of adaptive challenges.

But new guns laws aren’t going to address the change in values that our country needs to face. The real adaptive challenge has to do with the gap between who we say we are as a nation and what we actually do. The Declaration of Independence, that we celebrate today, says, as we know, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Our history differs from these words. The genocide of the Indian Wars, the perpetration of slavery, the criminalization of homosexuality, the refusal to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the current demonization of Muslims, the all-too-frequent denigrating epithets, these are what we do, despite who we think we are.

The greatest opportunities for change happen when the heat gets high enough for everyone to take notice. Our patient hadn’t been able to breathe, his heart was fluttering, he felt like he had constant indigestion and his skin was gray. He knew something had to be done. The heat is really high right now for a massive change in national values. The laws to prohibit a flag or keep an assault rifle out of reach are necessary technical steps, just like coronary bypass surgery. But we cannot let ourselves be distracted by thinking that the technical is the only thing we need to do.

Somehow, we have to face the historical hypocrisy of our country. We have to work beyond hatred and mistrust of the other, toward tolerance of the other, to acceptance and love of the other. Then, we have to let the very idea of “other” wither away as an old-fashioned notion that no longer works.

How do we do this? Call out intolerance when you see it. Vote for candidates who stand for inclusion. Seek out and befriend the “other.” Make art that celebrates our common humanness. Write, act, speak on behalf of our need to move to the next level. As Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda so profoundly and publicly said, “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.” I hold out hope that our country can and will fulfill the promise it made two hundred and forty years ago today.