As 2020 Pummels America, Community And Corporate Leaders Need To Step Up–Here’s How
JOSH LEVINE, NOV 17, 2020: While Trump seeks short-term gains with his divisive July Fourth speech, Mayors, CEO’s and other figureheads can strengthen community culture and resilience with renewed purpose statements.
From countries to corporations, the events of 2020 are testing communities’ ability to adapt. A compelling story not only strengthens community culture but allows organizations to weather uncertainty, which has never been more important. I sat down with urban futurist Lev Kushner to discuss the importance of having a shared narrative when building and running any successful group and how it’s crucial in order to navigate and survive change.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Josh Levine: Lev, good to see you again. What’s on your mind these days?
Lev Kushner: There are several macro trends going on in American culture right now. One of these trends is the Coronavirus. Although it has already affected many, the real threat the Coronavirus poses is confusion. People in some parts of the country are being asked to make huge economic sacrifices in order to avoid getting this disease that they have absolutely no experience with. America is this big abstract group with a hugely diverse population, which is one of our strengths, but it also ends up being our Achilles heel.
We have a really weak national story right now. People are experiencing their daily lives in ways that are so different from other people that it’s as if the experiences of other people don’t exist. This concept is reflected in the Black Lives Matter marches and protests. Black people in America have a totally different experience than many others. The national story is just not holding people together. I think this idea also has implications for people who are running companies and trying to build a corporate culture. Not only do companies have people who do not know each other and live in different places, now people are working remotely. How do you hold people together using that shared story?
Josh Levine: When you first brought up this observation, I immediately thought about how it’s relevant to companies and organizations thinking about how to scale a company and the cracks that start to emerge in an organization’s culture when that organization starts to grow. What I found through years of experience and research is exactly what you pointed out — a shared story is crucial, but there’s still a limit to how many people one employee can know, or, more accurately, have the energy to know. In my experience working with organizations, I start to see a breakdown around 50 to 100 employees, even with a strong shared story.
As an organization grows, you have different barriers that are erected, both literally and metaphorically. Much like U.S. states, organizations can have offices in different cities, which leads to a more distributed workforce with varied experiences. So, what you’re pointing out about American society is exactly what my experience has been with organizations: they have these self-clustering micro-cultures.
LK: That’s natural and good, as long as they fit under the same roof.
JL: Yes, exactly. The problem is when those subsets form a stronger identity with themselves than with the larger organization, which is exactly what I think is happening with the American experience right now. During World War II, there was an American identity rooted in the “Us versus Them” mentality of war. Similarly, during the American Revolution, there was a sentiment of, “Oh, this is what we stand for.” But now we’re later in our American dominance, and it’s less clear what we stand for as a country.
During World War II, there was an American identity rooted in the “Us versus Them” mentality of war. But now we’re later in our American dominance, and it’s less clear what we stand for as a country. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
LK: That’s right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with subgroups having really strong identities and really strong glue that holds them together. I don’t think that threatens the overarching story. However, the problem now is that the overarching story is not shared.
JL: What you’re implying is that there is a national story, but I don’t think that there is. There could be, though.
LK: For example, one of the big pieces of the shared national story is the American Dream. If you work hard, go to college, and get a job, then you can live with a better quality of life than your parents did. Over the last 50 years, however, that hasn’t been true. So, there is a national story, but it’s been weakened.
JL: Exactly. The national story is no longer relevant. One of the things that I’ve been talking about a lot recently is how Coronavirus has changed work. I truly believe that all organizations need to rethink their story for themselves in light of this new shared experience.
LK: Yeah, that’s right. Maybe the right question is, “Is the story of the American Dream what’s most important to us right now?” Maybe this is a moment where we should not only be changing the systems that define America, but we should also be thinking, “Is this the story that we want to have binding us together?” Of course, it’s hard, as you know from your work, to simply create a story and announce that it defines you. The story has to be seeded and rooted.
JL: To take that idea even further, in terms of an organization, the CEO is responsible for embodying that story. Organizations who have done this successfully are the ones that, when you look back through their history, you can see moments where the leader stepped forward and said, “This is the vision, this is what we’re doing.” For example, when the United States put a man on the Moon. There was a vision, and there was a responsibility of that leader to achieve that goal.
Something that you and I have talked about many times is that America, as an organization, is suffering because our current leader is not only not embodying our nation’s narrative, but he is actually doing the opposite and creating subdivisions within our society.
LK: Yes, right. I think leadership is synonymous with telling a good story. A big part of leading is being the face and the voice of that story and making sure that, as you go out into the world, everything you say and do ties back to that story. That’s really important for the health of any organization.
I think with Trump, his M.O. as a leader is to pull different groups apart and make bigger walls between the different groups that comprise America. He has not moved from the narrow goal of trying to get reelected to speaking on behalf of all Americans, to telling and embodying a national story. I think that’s also really dangerous from a corporate perspective. That would be like a CEO who only gave love to accounting and pitted accounting against R & D.
JL: The classic example is hyper-focus on sales. One group is favored at the expense of everybody else. Traditionally, marketing is not perceived as something that actually drives the bottom line on its own. Sales, on the other hand, is seen as driving the bottom line and often gets prioritized. However, this division makes a shared story harder to achieve.
The question, then, is “What are the characteristics of a good umbrella narrative?” We’ve talked about countries and corporations alike, so what are some characteristics that make a good story for any group?
LK: That’s a really good question, and a hard one to answer on the fly. I think that a narrative should be specific enough that it has a personal impact but also flexible enough that it can be played with. It needs to be able to live and grow over time. If the context changes, or the economy changes, or the purpose of your company changes, the shared story must be able to live and be flexible through that change. I think that’s super important.
JL: That’s a good point. Another thing a good story needs to do is tap into a truth that exists within people, something that they recognize, but then also dials that truth up a notch. It has to be aspirational.
LK: True, but it can’t be too aspirational. It has to be based on reality. That being said, it also has to stretch and encourage the group to stretch with it. Going back to the American Dream, what makes it so effective is the word “dream.” That word makes people consider their own realities and how they can transform them in the future.
JL: So, where does this leave us? If we believe that, right now, we’re at a moment of re-interpreting the country’s umbrella narrative, and let’s say most organizations are probably also faltering and faced with re-interpreting their own narrative, how do we move forward? There’s a parallel here between the leaders of organizations and the leaders of cities. Both should be asking themselves, “What are the best next steps?”
LK: In moments of high cultural and social fluidity, people are really looking for landmarks. There’s the temptation, when everything’s in flux, to extend yourself outward to reach for new things. You try to be everything to everybody because everything is fluid. But, the more definitive you can be about the core of what you stand for, the more value you offer to your customers. In a sea of unknowns, they just want a known. Stories that are deeply, deeply rooted have real value if you can get it right.
JL: I call culture the keel of business at the end of my book, and I feel like that’s kind of what you’re talking about. The story, no matter which way the wind is blowing, is going to help you stay upright, even if you don’t know where you’re going.
LK: But that’s huge in a storm. Just staying upright is huge. That’s a big victory.
JL: Exactly. Do you think we could name a few examples of good stories? Either from your expertise or from specific cities.
The ‘Keep Austin Weird’ phrase is believed to be coined by Red Wassenich on ‘’The Lounge Show’. The slogan, which now can be seen on t-shirts and bumper stickers across the city has been adopted by Austin Independent Business Alliance. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
LK: I mean, we always talk about Austin. They have such a unique slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” and a thriving live music scene. That one has always resonated well with me because there’s a deeper personality to live music that can be translated into all sorts of other areas of the city. It’s not just about music. It’s not even just about culture. It’s about impromptu improvisation, creativity, and liveliness. I think that is a strong story. Another compelling story, if not always a good one, is San Francisco. San Francisco’s story is fascinating to me because it’s the American Dream on steroids. We are the boom and bust economy, be it the gold rush, the internet boom, or the real estate boom. The topography mirrors the economy in San Francisco — it’s all just verticals. The view that you get at the top and the view that you get at the bottom, and the discrepancy between the two, I think that’s a really powerful story.
What about you? Any great examples from your experience?
JL: I worked with the company Credit Karma and we identified their purpose as being able to help every individual be their best financial selves. While they started with free credit scores, they wanted to grow into any tool that would allow them to pursue that purpose. So, in a difficult time, if they lost an important revenue stream, they still had some guidance and could launch other products to continue to deliver on that idea.
This clear purpose then becomes a guiding principle for those within the company and those considering coming on board. If you’re passionate about financial health and helping people become their best financial selves, you know that you belong at this organization. It becomes a powerful story. That is what I think of in my framework — the umbrella narrative is the purpose. It is why you exist, and now you need it more than ever, and you need to reevaluate it more than ever.
LK: I think that’s absolutely right. It can be daunting to look for a new, completely different story, but that change can also add a great amount of meaning. When you watch your children grow, what adds meaning to your life is that they’ve changed. They’re still the same, but they have changed. It’s the same way with rituals and stories. When they change, little pieces of them change bit by bit, as opposed to wiping the slate clean. I think that makes them much more powerful and much more compelling.
Lev Kushner is an urban futurist and the founder of Department of Here, a strategic communications and economic development consultancy.