Opinion

Obama's election network can transform US consumer culture

Our sense of entitlement may ingrained, but change is possible.

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As a new "stimulus package" wades through Congress, one wonders if we're simply repeating past behavior and hoping for a different result – one definition of insanity.

The breakdown of individual and corporate responsibility in America has contributed dearly to the economic mess we're in. More handouts won't address that breakdown, but change is possible, and President Barack Obama's election proved it.

He and his team transformed the culture of US campaigns with his Internet-enabled community organization engine. "Why not use that model to begin to change the culture of economic responsibility in America?" suggested Barbara Braham, an organizational development consultant and leadership coach in a conversation with me.

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As ingrained into our society as entitlement may be, culture change is possible. We've seen it with Mr. Obama's election and I've seen it in my work as an executive coach.

A while back, I worked on a project with a large company sporting a command-and-control culture. The executives received data that proved their employees and clients (and therefore their bottom line) were suffering due to their isolation. The culture of the company telegraphed to its employees "shut up and do your job," which blinded its leaders to causes and patterns of production problems, inadequate resources, and haphazard training.

Once the consequences of their actions were understood by those at the top, they began ongoing meetings to listen to all of their employees in small groups – just asking questions and listening without respect to title or level. At first, given the culture, employees were shocked and silent (one executive told me all he heard were crickets). Then the insights began to come, and things improved. Over several years and hundreds of meetings, the employees and leaders collaborated to create a different culture. The clients, employees, and bottom lines are happier as a result.

Corporate "cultures" are, of course, far less complex than the culture of a nation; even a culture change in the workplace takes tremendous focus and determination.

That said, the time is ripe for a makeover when it comes to how we handle our money.

Individual and corporate responsibility is critical to such transformation. Stimulus or not, sustainable change requires that we let go of the carefree credit culture of the past 30 years, in favor of capitalism with care – that is, accountability, helping our neighbors, spending in line with earnings, saving money, and cutting up the cards.

Dr. Braham suggests a broadening and retasking of the Obama election machine to begin to do just that. This one step can have a powerful and positive impact on culture change in America.

Imagine for a moment, instead of firing up a weekend of house parties to raise money and get out the vote, as he often did during the campaign, the president uses his message of hope and Internet-election-community-machine to lead, for example, a national event of house parties. The purpose of these parties though, would be to share tips about seeking and finding jobs, to brainstorm ways to help your neighbors spruce up their curb appeal on a budget, or to share success stories and suggestions about spending less and saving more.

A new team could broaden the database beyond Obama supporters, make it cool and fun (à la MySpace and Facebook), and create a Web-savvy platform that connects all of us to lawmakers and the White House thematically. It could organize activities, make suggestions to, and hear from communities and corporations of common interest around economic behavior, successes, policies, and issues that affect all of us. It would be a Web-era version of government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Obama's "Change.gov" and "Citizen's Briefing Book" are a good foundation, so why not make it really sing and dance?

Let's encourage our new president and his team to continue to use that fine election machine in new ways – to have us as a people and our "corporate citizens" ask not "what our country can do for them," but what we can each do for each other.

The miraculous election machine created by Team Obama can and should be applied in new ways – to create a new era of individual and corporate responsibility. I would rather live in a society that wakes up and responds to a crisis of this magnitude by shifting behavior, than in one somehow hoping to regain economic leadership by doing more of the same and hoping for a different result. Wouldn't you?

David Peck is president of Leadership Unleashed, a California-based executive coaching firm, author of "Beyond Effective: Practices in Self-aware Leadership," and a contributor to BusinessWeek Online.

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