Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Question: How can Americans be more globally minded?
Alan Webber: It’s one of those kind of paint this full... how can you fill this canvass because it’s a requirement and yet as you know from your own experience, Americans while we talk global, we’re still very insulated and we’re still think that Democratic capitalism is a global concept that everybody subscribes to as oppose to, in some parts of the world, a huge oxymoron.
So, I would say if you’re going to aspire to be a leader in the future or today or in the future, in business, government, not for profit another one of my rules is you don’t know if you don’t go. You got to get out there and absorb it and see it and listen and participate in other parts of the world’s way of living and working and doing business, I’ve been very fortunate to get a fellowship to Japan, a fellowship to Germany, a chance to do some deep dives in other parts of the world, you just don’t experience culture shock, you experience business shock, you experience social shock, if you make friends with people in other parts of the world, your American eyes get relensed, they’ll tell you what their world is like.
I’ll give you an example, not long ago I spent some time in Sweden, I’m a huge fan of the Swedish way of life, I think they’re very generous people, I think they’re incredibly thoughtful, they have a standard of living that is terrific, and so as an American, I went in there with a lot of assumptions, biases, positive biases for the most part, but a kind of an American pair of glasses on. I started talking to my Swedish friends and they say, you have no idea what it’s like to be Swedish, there’s a code here that goes back if not years, centuries that prescribes behavior.
It’s written down, you can find it literally on the web, it says stuff like who do you think you are to be better than the rest of us, who do you think you are and be an entrepreneur and try new things? Who gave you the right to be different, better, smarter, wealthier? This isn’t how we behave, it is absolutely a sociological straightjacket that prescribes behavior, aspiration, a whole set of things that Americans, if we actually live there, would find very constraining. Where’s the freedom to be me? Where is the chance to take a risk and fail? Why can’t I dress weird or whatever right?
The Swedish culture as my friends introduced it to me was vastly different from what I was projecting onto to their canvas. So I think the job of a global citizen, never mind leader, is to get out into the world and taste it and listen, listen with open ears, don’t just project our own American biases or habits or assumptions onto other cultures whether it’s pro or con but do it, deep dive into it, listen to people who live there, get their experiences first hand and then use that to formulate a new code of conduct of how you want to be both at home and in the world, I think it opens up whole new vistas of personal conduct, business conduct, creativity, the opportunities to think in new ways or write in new ways, paint, dance, whatever your mode is, technologically to interact, they’re absolutely unlimited.
Once you get out of our straightjacket which is; well, basically, the whole world wants to be Americans, I’m sorry, it’s just doesn’t work that way anymore.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009