“Exceptionalism” is a Powerful Tool for Good or Evil in Government and Business

But Finding the Line Between is a Delicate Balance and We Don’t Always Get it Right

President Obama concluded his dramatic, televised announcement of the discovery and killing of Osama Bin Laden with the words, “Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to do. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place. Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are . . .”

By using these words to justify the violation of Pakistani sovereignty and the killing of an enemy of America, President Obama relied upon and extended the belief in what has been called “American Exceptionalism” that has prevailed in this country since its founding. Exceptionalism is a fundamental belief that one is qualitatively different – superior – to others. When leaders, indeed entire societies, adhere to the belief of their own exceptionalism there is a clear focus on purpose and destiny, but along with this philosophy comes a temptation to rationalize that the rules that apply to others do not apply to them.

In making the case for the American Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense that America was not just a suburb of Europe, but truly a new country with unlimited potential and opportunity that had obsoleted the concept of European colonialism. From this sprouted the idea of American exceptionalism as “the first truly new nation and government,” based on the revolutionary ideals of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire commerce.

From the start, the Founding Fathers believed and acted as though the revolutionary exceptionalism of this new American nation not only entitled the colonies to separate themselves from the monarchal governments of Europe, but that the size, resources and people — when combined with the superior precepts of the American philosophy of government — destined the country to lead (dominate) the world.

This was a good thing. The concept of American exceptionalism held by our Founding Fathers is the ultimate example of visionary leadership. Without this perception of America as it was destined to be, there was no way that this newly formed, weak, mostly agrarian, disparate group of 13 colonies could have survived as a nation. There were heated debates among Republicans and Federalists as to the best path to American greatness, but there was no disagreement as to the exceptionalism of the American system; especially when contrasted to those of the existing world and the destiny of America to lead the world.

This belief in American exceptionalism has been the GPS for the development of this country since the revolution and continues today. It is what led to the expression of “manifest destiny,” the somewhat dubious belief that the U.S. was legitimately destined by God to spread its influence around the world including territorial expansion. (First applied in 1845 to justify the annexation of Mexican territory acquired in the War with Mexico.) But even more than that, the belief that led to the philosophy of manifest destiny was based on the notion that America was destined to expand the exceptionalism of its democratic ideals and institutions. This, it was argued, gave the nation a superior moral right (excuse) to expand and govern areas where other interests would not respect this goal. Along with this belief in a “moral right and obligation” to expand American institutions and ideals came the confidence (some say arrogance) that others would happily embrace what America had to offer.

Justifying Expansionism

History is replete with examples of how the concept of American exceptionalism has been used to justify American expansion and domination in the world. And, it is not just history – it is present. Remember, President Bush’s strategy for invading Iraq was based on the assumption that once Saddam Hussein was disposed of, the people would rush into the streets to welcome Americans and embrace their ideals of democracy and government. Likewise, one of the main justifications for remaining in Afghanistan is to allow the people time to learn and implement American concepts of democracy and government institutions.

The theory of American exceptionalism has been a powerful – even necessary – tool in the development of the United States as a great country, but it has not come without a price. The moralized belief in American exceptionalism led to the rationalization for the “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans, scores of wars, “police actions,” invasions of other sovereign countries and the interference with and overthrow of countless governments; all because they didn’t agree, understand or accept the might of moral right in the American system. One has to wonder if we have not become what we revolted against.

There is another area where exceptionalism plays a powerful role – for good and evil – and that is in business.

A key element to the development, growth, success and survival of a business enterprise in a highly competitive world is a belief in the exceptionalism of the organization. Those involved in the organization must understand and have confidence that the people, products and services of the company offer a distinct and qualitative difference when compared to the competition. It is this commercial exceptionalism that destines a company to become dominant in the market. In simple terms: If you do not believe you are the best, you never will be the best.

It is the responsibility of the leader to envision, delineate and communicate the “manifest destiny” of the enterprise and to create a cultural environment that encourages, motivates and rewards members of the organization to find the path to that destiny.

Belief in the exceptionalism of the organization (and for that matter the leader’s belief in their own exceptionalism) is critical to success, but for true, lasting success to be achieved, one must always guard against the tempted excesses of exceptionalism.

A leader must be confident in their leadership ability but not fall prey to a “my way or the highway” mentality, as so many seem to do. The leader must allow the concept of exceptionalism to blossom within the organization by being open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Members of an organization will be motivated to accomplish exceptional results only if they are made to feel exceptional. Unfortunately many corporate leaders pine for the exceptionalism of the organization while suppressing the exceptionalism of its people. This is a sure recipe for the ultimate failure of the organization.

Another path to the ultimate failure of a company is to use the “manifest destiny” of a company to be great as a justification for immoral and even illegal actions by the company. The attitude that what we are trying to do is right does not give the leaders or the organization the right to decide what is right.

And the Moral of the Story …

A belief in the concept of “exceptionalism” is a powerful tool. It empowers both countries and companies to understand, reach for and achieve their destinies . Believing one has the exceptional ideas and talents gives focus, direction and purpose to achieving a desired destiny.

However, be it country or company, adopting an attitude of exceptionalism only gives one the right to explain and expose others to the benefits of what their way of doing things offers. It does not give them the right to impose their way of doing things on others. To do so leads to ultimate failure for both country and company.

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