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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Reflections on July 4: America’s Most Patriotic Holiday

In the midst of the largest COVID-19 spread yet, my family and I are spending a quiet 4th of July holiday in Colorado. Instead of taking our four grandkids along with their parents to the July 3rd cookout and dinner, followed by the 4th of July parade where we wave the American flag and my favorite concert where we listen to and sing patriotic songs, we are having a more reflective holiday – thinking about what it means to be an American.

On Friday night we watched the television version of “Hamilton,” an amazing history lesson seen through the life of Alexander Hamilton – a history not often taught in our schools. Like all of our founders, Hamilton was an imperfect person who nevertheless worked tirelessly for his vision of the new country. As the musical makes clear, there were deep divisions among our founders about how that new vision should become reality, but our founders were fully united behind Jefferson’s principle of equality.

The racial-blind casting brought home the meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That led to family discussions are how far we are from that ideal today, and just how many people are not being treated equally and not given equal opportunities.

Today the divisions about the American vision are wider than at any time since the Civil War when millions died to keep the nation united rather than divided in two to preserve slavery of African Americans. As President Abraham Lincoln said then, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” As the war was ending, it was Lincoln again who said in his second inaugural address, “With malice toward none, with charity for all . . . let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Yet Lincoln’s tragic assassination left those wounds exposed, even 155 years later.

Now America is in the midst of a great reawakening, triggered by the ravages of a rapidly spreading virus, brutal murders of African-Americans by the police charged with protecting them, a fractured economy which has exposed the depths of income inequality in our nation, and a presidential campaign that is forcing us to decide what America truly stands for.

As we contemplate both our nation’s leaders and our own leadership in this challenging yet decisive time, it is essential that we reexamine the essential role of leaders:

  1. To align people around our common purpose and unite us as “We the people.”
  2. To reiterate and practice our shared values of providing all Americans with their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
  3. To inspire and empower people to strive for a more just nation that provides abundant opportunities for all Americans.
  4. To collaborate as neighbors, communities, states and our nation to restore the American dream through creativity and hard work by addressing the challenging problems we face in 2020.
  5. To measure ourselves not by our net worth or the nation’s GDP, but rather by the extent we meet the American ideals established by our founders.

Now ask yourself, as I am asking myself, how well am I practicing these roles in my leadership? Am I true to choosing leaders that are most capable of leading in these ways, while avoiding my partisan preferences?

There could be no more important time for us to step up to our role as leaders and bring people together around these truly American principles.

Our nation’s future depends on us.