How Stephen Colbert Can Save America

Last Updated Jul 12, 2011 3:20 PM EDT

Ronald Reagan ran for reelection on the motto: "it's morning again in America." At the moment, the most accurate tag line would be: "it's sucking in America."

There's one man who can save us, and I'm not joking. It's Stephen Colbert.

One of the most powerful concepts in leadership is that of the "default future"--what people expect to happen if nothing unusual comes along. It's an expectation that lies at the gut level. I've been asking people across the U.S. what their gut says will happen, and their answers include:

  • The US will sink further in debt, and there's nothing Americans can do about it.
  • The space program will end, and the country won't get anything started for another decade or so.
  • Unemployment will stay high, and benefits won't be extended, so poverty and suffering will rise.
  • The educational system is failing students and will only get worse.
  • America will never be great again.
That's why I'm calling the national mood, "NationSuck."

The reason a default future filled with such despair is so important is that people find themselves taking actions consistent with it, even if they don't consciously want to. Specific actions include:

  • For workers: "It's time to do my job, act loyal, not stick my neck out, and not take any risks."
  • For company executives: "Let's just sit on our cash for now, and let's see if we can hold down spending for another year or so."
  • For consumers: "Now's the time to cut spending and wait."
The irony is that, even though NationSuck goes against the national spirit, Americans are actively making it happen through their actions. It's a great unconscious conspiracy, to borrow Warren Bennis' famous phrase.

So why Stephen Colbert?
Elected officials are too busy trying to win the next election, and beat each other over the head about who destroyed the country. Op-ed writers are too busy beating up on the politicians, and their role is to comment, not to lead. Academics are busy studying NationSuck and projecting out how long it will last.

This whole situation is one big insanity fest, and will require someone who can point out the lunacy with humor. In the medieval king's court, only the court jester could tell the king the truth. Protected by humor, and the common knowledge that he wasn't in the running for anything, people looked to him for leadership.

The country needs someone with national exposure, the gift of humor, the ability to speak across party lines, a person whom we would listen to but never take too seriously. In other words, a national court jester. Who else in our country but Stephen Colbert can tell us the harsh truth, and make us laugh at the same time?

Stephen Colbert is also the rare court jester who has credentials. He spoke at a White House Correspondents Dinner during the Bush Administration (granted, they didn't seem to be on to the joke at first), testified before a Democratic-controlled Congress, started a PAC, and wrote a best-selling book. What all of these accomplishments get to is that no one can quite figure Colbert out.

Is he really a liberal making fun of conservatives? Is he a moderate making fun of both sides? Is it really all about him? You get the feeling in watching him-and I'll confess to being a huge fan-that there's an underlying bedrock of core values that's just enough out of view to keep us wondering, even a bit, about what he's really all about. It takes someone "just opaque enough," as I once heard California Governor Jerry Brown say in a speech, to really get things done.

That's Colbert, and sadly, only Colbert.

So what does the country need Colbert to do?
We need him to:

  1. Articulate the default future, until people say, in recognition, "yeah...that's it."
  2. Highlight the fact that the people are actively bringing it about. The reaction should be: "oh sh--." This isn't being done to us--we're doing it to ourselves. This is why we need someone smart and funny, and with national exposure to do it. This situation is tragic, and it's also really funny.
  3. Once we can all see the national insanity, declare, "Network" style, "we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore!" We're going to end NationSuck right here and now.
  4. Remind us of what makes America great. It's a country that can do anything. We're not just the dreamers, we're the builders. America can not only save itself--it can save the world, too, through its optimism and innovation. It's done so before, and this time will be no different.
This process is what great leaders have always done. Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Franklin Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. People called them dreamers, and said they were out of touch. But looking at them in hindsight, they appear to be have said what was obviously going to happen. The irony is: what now seems inevitable happened because they made it happen. Today, the people who should lead are busy .

My question to you, dear readers, is: how do we get Stephen to step up and lead?

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Photo courtesy stephen.moore, CC 2.0.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.