I spend my days traveling from one American community to another. Some of them are bustling larger cities. Others are quiet small towns. What they all have in common is the burning desire to revitalize themselves: to become more vibrant, prosperous, livable, and loveable than they are right now. And as I work with these diverse groups of Americans, I see a theme that we might all heed as Independence Day approaches:
Those communities that work together, win together.
In communities where people come together, put their self-interest on the back burner and work as a team, things get done. In communities that don’t, nothing gets done. It’s really that simple.
While America is often proclaimed the land of rugged individualism, this is more myth than historical truth. After all, our ancestors settled down in small communities where they worked together, shared what they had, and leaned on each other when times were tough (which, let’s face it, was basically every day in a land of bear attacks, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, and life-threatening epidemics).
And on the larger stage, our nation’s founders had to work together in a similar fashion when they decided to bring America into being.
They were working toward independence as a new nation, but they had to rely on interdependence to get there. And as leaders of communities of all shapes and sizes and demographics and political persuasions, we can all learn a lot from them.
Here are four big lessons we should all heed as we seek to move our communities toward vibrancy:
HISTORY LESSON #1: Our founders set aside their self-interests and created something that worked for everyone. Lots of different professions, industries, and interests were present at the birth of America. Cabinet makers weren’t fixated only on the wood industry, nor silver smiths on the silver trade. Everyone was fired up to contribute to something bigger than themselves. They bought into the overarching mission, and weren’t bogged down by endless debate over the short-term costs of their plan of action.
TAKEAWAY FOR TODAY: Don’t be overly concerned with your own wellbeing. Setting aside your own short-term best interests may accomplish far more for everyone in the long run. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, this includes you.
HISTORY LESSON #2: They didn’t let ideological differences stop them from achieving something tangible. Despite bitter disputes and differences of opinion, a group of people with little in common other than their shared determination that change was needed were able to get mobilized and get something done. While there was much to be decided about the way things would function in the new nation, they all recognized that there wouldn’t even BE a new nation if they didn’t set aside their disagreements and move the ball down the court.
TAKEAWAY FOR TODAY: Know what matters. Don’t get bogged down by petty disputes about how things should get done and let it sabotage the greater task at hand.
HISTORY LESSON #3: They weren’t constantly trying to steal the spotlight from each other. Instead, they agreed to let someone else be “the one in charge.” No one complained that John Hancock’s signature was bigger than theirs, or that so-and-so got to sign the Declaration before they did. (Okay, it’s possible, but we can see by the document that resides in the National Archives that it got done anyway!) The founders kept their focus on the ambitious mission/vision of standing up to one of the most powerful authorities in the world: the King of England.
TAKEAWAY FOR TODAY: Don’t always try to make it about yourself, or worry that your teammates are getting the spotlight. Keep the greater goal in mind and stay focused on that.
HISTORY LESSON #4: The founders didn’t wait on the government to “fix it.” Instead, they joined together and took bold action at the local level. The changes desired by American colonists weren’t coming from Great Britain. And so, in the summer of 1776 delegates from each of the Thirteen Colonies took it upon themselves to challenge British authorities and make change happen—their way.
TAKEAWAY FOR TODAY: Remember that citizen-powered change is the most powerful change. If it’s to be, it’s up to you and me, not government agencies. (Local governments tend not to have the budget to drive fundamental change, and due to election cycles, officials come and go. Many won’t be around to see long term projects through.)
Yes, early communities needed each other and that drove a lot of their interactions. We went through a period of time where we started to believe we didn’t need each other and that clearly isn’t true. We now realize that working together is the only way we can make our cities and towns thrive.
No one is saying America’s founders were perfect. They were far from it, as we are. But one thing they got right was the knowledge that they needed to work together for a common cause. Teamwork is a powerful force. We couldn’t have built a nation without it, and we can’t build a better community without it either.
About the Author:
Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community and founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the community’s quality of life and moving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties forward.
He is a businessman, a visionary, an entrepreneur, and a mentor to many. He currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida. For more information, visit www.vibrantcommunityblueprint.com and www.studeri.org.