Have you found yourself feeling powerless lately? If so, you are in good company. The pandemic, violence in our streets, racial tension, and natural disasters have combined to discourage even the most ardent optimist. One of the casualties of the current turmoil today is our confidence that we can solve the problems we face.
The decline of confidence has become a pandemic in and of itself, perhaps with more long-term and insidious effects than the coronavirus. Three concerns emerge for me:
- A strong and growing undercurrent of victimization; that is, that virtually all of us begin to see ourselves as victims. While it is clear that many have been victims of COVID-19, crime, racism, or natural disasters, the danger here is that we begin to define ourselves primarily as victims instead of confident human beings who are capable of solving problems.
- Our victimhood then leads to a sense of entitlement; that we are entitled to having someone solve the problem that has victimized us. In terms of the old maxim, we want to be fed a fish, not learn how to catch the fish for ourselves. Entitlement robs us of our adulthood, returning us to being dependent on others who metaphorically stand in as our parents.
During the pandemic, governmental entitlement has grown to its highest level in history. As Americans, we have come to expect that the government will keep us alive. While we have reason to be grateful for governmental intervention in our economy, we should recognize that we cannot look to them to always bail us out. Entitlement is a counterfeit insurance policy, one that should never replace self-reliance and hard work.
- By handing off our problems to others, we surrender our right, responsibility, and accountability for solving them. This may sound somewhat attractive, but in the end, it is a “worst case scenario.” By our lack of participation in defining and solving our problems, our buy-in and support for solutions is inevitably quite shallow. We feel little responsibility for helping make things work, and when they don’t (as often is the case), we revert back to being a victim. We castigate those who offered the flawed solution—and cry out for the better solutions to which we feel entitled.
Victimhood and entitlement, then, are ultimately the sources of not only feeling powerless, but actually being powerless!
So, what can we as leaders in our homes, businesses, communities, and nation do to stem the tide of victimization and entitlement? Perhaps the words of President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address will help guide us, and our constituencies, to a more powerful mindset. He concluded his speech with these words:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
President Kennedy’s words dispelled the notion of victimhood or entitlement. They suggest that there were problems to be solved and work to be done, and that that work was not the province of government alone, but was the responsibility of every woman and man.
So, the question before us today should not be “Who is to blame for our problems?” Blaming only contributes to our sense of being victimized. Nor should it be “Who will bail me out?” This question empowers others, but leaves us impotent to solve our own problems.
The question should be “Who is responsible for solving the problem?” And, although it is wise to engage others in problem-solving, the answer to this question includes YOU. As my business partner says, “Put on your big-boy pants and go to work!”
There have been many casualties in the turmoil that we currently face. We must take care not to allow our personal sense of industry, self-reliance, self-restraint, and respect for one another to be among those casualties.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.