At any time, in any medium, we can find any number of articles, reports, opinion pieces, and more decrying a lack of leadership in everything from politics to industry. Au contraire. We don’t suffer from a lack of leadership: We suffer from an inability or an unwillingness to follow — to unify, to join, to belong. We’ve swapped w for m. It’s no longer we. It’s me.

Baby picks off your plate. Yours looks better.
And she throws hers on the floor.
Here, in the home of the brave
And the land of the free,
The first word baby learns is more.*

We’re encouraged to develop personal brands, personal career plans, perfect jobs, dream careers, various and disparate manifestations of individual satisfaction. We’re not encouraged to find common causes — to commit to people, entities, purposes, or ideals that might affect the larger world in which we find ourselves singular, self-important aspects.

“What’s in it for me?” replaces Utilitarianism. Consequences be damned. And please don’t bother us with banal prosaicisms about helping or making a difference. Don’t you know how important we are?

From Main Street to Wall Street to Washington,
From men to women to men,
It’s a nation of noses pressed up against the glass.
They’ve seen it on the TV,
And they want it pretty fast*

Having made self-interest synonymous with self-respect — and having no meaningful respect for unity, common causes, or greater goods — we forge on. We work, at least until the next, better opportunity comes along, for companies the websites of which brandish vision statements but no visions, platitudinous pronouncements of their eminence and leadership as reflected, of course, in their own humble estimations.

Clear access to our products and services? Are you kidding? Who cares about our prospects? We write vision statements for ourselves. They’re things of beauty and joys to behold. We play to short-term gain. We pay no heed to long-term achievement, unless it’s our present conception of our own. (“If only I could get ….”) Consequently, we struggle with the notion of leadership, to say nothing of the realities of happiness, contentment, and personal fulfillment.

You spend your whole life
Just pilin’ it up there.
You got stacks and stacks and stacks.
Then, Gabriel comes and taps you on the shoulder,
But you don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.*

In 1991, while I was working for The Travelers in Hartford, Connecticut, a homeless man approached me at the corner of Main and Pearl Streets. Bracing myself for the typical plea for coffee money or train fare, I stopped. He looked me in the eye, unflinchingly, and said: “I’m trying to find the difference between should and shouldn’t. I think it’s a matter of letters.”

Though I wasn’t in the habit of accommodating panhandlers, I gave our philosophical friend a five-dollar bill for his insight. It was my royalty payment for paraphrasing him here, some 24 years later:

I’m trying to find the difference between me and we. I think it’s a matter of a letter.

* Don Henley, “Gimme What You Got“, from the album, End of the Innocence

Image by Hhemken (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.