Innovation Through Leadership: It’s Time for a Moon Shot!
Updated January 24, 2013
What set America apart from the rest of the world during the 20th Century was its extraordinary capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation. In contrast to Canada, for example, where failure is frowned upon and risk-taking approached with trepidation, Americans are gung-ho. Failure is seen as a learning experience, a trial and error from which one picks himself (or herself) up and moves forward. The U.S.A., engine of new ideas and their practical applications, whether dealing with healthcare, engineering, inner city social programs, software, aeronautics, or (more recently) social media, needs a major tune-up.
Is there hope?
America, once the beacon for people around the world to start anew, to create employment and generate wealth, continues to build a wall of exclusion. Consider a few facts:
• The influx of foreign students to U.S. universities has slowed dramatically. In 2000, 28% of students who studied in other countries did so in America. By 2008, that had plummeted to 21%.
• Historically, just over half of the scientific researchers in the U.S. are foreign students and immigrants.
• Sixty percent of post-doctoral students doing advanced research are foreign-born.
• Immigration reform is proceeding at a snail’s pace.
Raising the topic of immigration during a precarious economic recovery is not something most Americans want to hear, especially when long-term unemployment is the highest in recorded history (since 1948). But supplanting foresight with emotion WILL undermine America’s efforts to reassert itself as the innovation engine of the world.
The Chinese are laughing all the way to the bank as they accelerate their efforts to build their economy using advanced technologies. Urgency is their catalyst. A case in point is the development of high-speed rail, where trains will hurtle along at 240 mph. They have established business relations with such companies as Bombardier, Siemens and Kawasaki. Of particular significance is that for these companies (and others) to be awarded contracts, they must transfer knowledge to the Chinese. The acquisition of know-how and intellectual property is a critical goal for China.
The growth of transnational corporations, and their non-allegiance to nations; outsourcing to foreign countries (offshoring); the accelerating development of emerging economies (e.g., South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, China and India); and mind-numbing technological advancements (mention an I-Phone in 2000 and you would have been accused of smoking pot), have so radically changed our world in such a short time that we have yet to figure out the consequences.
Our world is changing so fast that historians 50 years in the future will marvel at not just how wealth was redistributed globally so extensively in a few short decades, but how America let its guard down momentarily. Catching up in today’s economy is only for the very hungry nations. The South Koreans figured this out many years ago.
We all love to talk about leadership and its many dimensions. In fact, there’s such a plethora of literature, journals, websites and blogs (and yes, I include myself among the ranks of the guilty), that we become numb after a while trying to absorb each writer’s “unique” perspective. But are these perspectives unique?
My issue is that we can write about leadership until the cows come home. However, what’s typically missing is the lack of a clear link between all the theory and fuzzy feel-good-stuff and the practical applications and the consequences for our collective standard of living.
The meter’s ticking, folks. As I said, the South Koreans are hungry for more, as are the Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turks, Brazilians, Bulgarians, Hondurans, etc. They’re making the needed sacrifices to expand their economic growth that our grandparents made in the early to mid 1900s. A case in point is my oldest daughter (now 33), who went to South Korea some eight years ago to teach English. Her students went to school all day and then met with her to learn English in the evening. Their parents wanted them to be accepted to North American universities. Being bilingual is their ticket to success, along with hard academic work.
Given a globalized economy where decisions are made in seconds, where information is transferred and accessible in split seconds, and where almost all work can be done anywhere in the world, the savior for America is its capacity for creativity and innovation. We can’t rely on transnationals to do what’s in our best.
The need for self-empowered leadership has never been greater. With the democratization of cyberspace and the eagerness demonstrated by Generation Y, I like to think that there’s still hope for us as a society to maintain our standard of living.
We need to assert ourselves as citizens and take action to maintain our standard of living. What’s needed is a moonshot, reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s call to action in the early 1960s, which spawned innovation, energy and hope for a better future for not just Americans but Canadians as well.
I believe that the subject of this post is of extreme importance to our future wellbeing. Please take a moment to share your comments, ideas and links.
The commercial storm leaves its path strewn with ruin. When it is over, there is calm, but a dull heavy calm. (Afred Marshall, British economist, 1842-1924)
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