We are drowning in wrong ideas of creativity, intelligence, and leadership

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In his blockbuster research work Good to Great, researcher Jim Collins revealed that facing the “brutal facts” is a key part of reversing decline and transforming a good organization into a great one.

Unfortunately, America no longer has a culture that easily absorbs brutal facts.

After ostensibly winning the Cold War, instead of reinvesting the “peace dividend” to take full advantage if our unchallenged position in the world economy and politics, Americans chose instead to wallow in the feel-good indulgence of synthetic self-esteem and fantasies of a competition-free, consequence-free world.

Americans redefined creativity as something everyone has in abundance, hidden away in some mysterious untapped reservoir that can be accessed if you only believe in yourself … and buy a self-help book explaining how to tap that creativity.

As a result of this dilution of creativity, American culture ground to a halt. Music, art, fashion, and design all haven’t changed much since the early 90s. Films, particularly those made for children, have become a tiresome echo chamber of remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations. The culture has become so devoid of genuine creativity (or, we would claim, the genuinely creative have been smothered by the poseur masses) that Americans are retreating into a sad, inert nostalgia.

Likewise, Americans have redefined intelligence, spreading the definition-smudging fad of “multiple intelligences” and post-modern “everyone has an opinion” relativism so that nobody need be left out.

Self-help profiteers flood the bookshelves with snake-oil remedies to the malady of average intellect, even as the ability to genuinely understand things continues to be denigrated with accusations of intellectual elitism, patriarchal science, and Grammar Nazism. Standardized testing has become a hallmark of oppression, and subjectivism (with all of its attendant cognitive and social biases) is lauded as the best way to judge students. The markers of admirable nerdhood have shifted from being good at math and reason to being knowledgeable about comic books and the latest speculative fiction television series.

As a result, America’s educational rankings, particularly in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) sputtered and plummeted. Arguments about why this happened come from all sides, but the core problem is that we changed our very concept of intelligence so that we could avoid the brutal fact of its rarity.

Worst of all, America redefined leadership to emphasize soft-touch management, people skills, decentralized (dis)organizational structures. Starved of effective leadership, former followers are told that “everyone is a leader” and are urged to “manage up,” act on personal initiative, “take ownership,” and collaborate.

As a result, America is now challenged on all sides, by a resurgent Europe, by China, by India, by the “tigers” and “tiger cubs” of Southeast Asia. These regions were always rising. They’ve only become challengers because America simply stopped rising … and they caught up.

The problem, of course, is that in redefining creativity and intelligence and leadership, America misdefined them. If we want to reverse our decline of America, and the decline of the global civilization that has arisen in America’s wake, we must first correct our misdefinitions and return to sober and rational ideas about creativity, intelligence, and leadership.

Martin Summani, chief editor

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