Exceptionalism isn’t Exceptional, But it is Important

In one of my classes last week, the professor used the Yankees as an example of an exceptional organizational culture that affects every level of the team’s performance and reputation.  It was a good example because it’s one we’re all familiar with and sidesteps the politicized question of American exceptionalism.  Love them or hate them, the Yankees deliver results that demand respect.  Being a Yankee is an honor that makes you part of a storied lineage; it’s something bigger than any individual even though the team highlights its stars from the past.  This is the greatest strength of the organization: its ability to build an environment that fosters high performance individuals while simultaneously imbuing their actions with a greater purpose.

By channeling individual achievement through the lens of a bigger purpose, the Yankees create a virtuous circle of performance.  But the Yankees aren’t the only organization to promote such an environment.  One of the best examples I’ve come across recently is fictional, but it represents a historical truth.  It’s the famous Roman Lucius Cornelius Sulla, as he appears in Colleen McCullough’s masterpiece of historical fiction The Grass Crown, explaining to a Parthian emissary why Rome has no king.  I quote at length here because it’s that good:

Rome is our king, Lord Orobazus, though we give Rome the feminine form, Roma, and speak of Rome as ‘her’ and ‘she.’ The Greeks subordinated themselves to an ideal.  You subordinate yourselves to one man, your king.  But we Romans subordinate ourselves to Rome, and only to Rome. We bend the knee to no one human, Lord Orobazus, any more than we bend it to the abstraction of an ideal.  Rome is our god, our king, our very lives.  And though each Roman strives to enhance his own reputation, strives to be great in the eyes of his fellow Romans, in the long run it is all done to enhance Rome, and Rome’s greatness.  We worship a place, Lord Orobazus.  Not a man.  Not an ideal. Men come and go, their terms on earth are fleeting.  And ideals shift and sway with every philosophical wind.  But a place can be eternal as long as those who live in that place care for it, nurture it, make it even greater.  I, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, am a great Roman.  But at the end of my life, whatever I have done will have gone to swell the might and majesty of my place – Rome.

But how can a collection of buildings mean so much to a people?, asked Lord Orobazus predictably.  To which Sulla extended his ivory wand and declared:

“This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.” He touched the muscular snow-white forearm behind it.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.” He swept aside the folds of his toga to display the carved curved X of his chair’s legs.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.”  He held out his left arm, weighed down by fold upon fold of toga, and pinched the woolen stuff.  “This is Rome, Lord Orobazus.”  And then he paused to look into every pair of eyes raised to him on high, and at the end of the pause he said, “I am Rome, Lord Orobazus.  So is every single man who calls himself a Roman.  Rome is a pageant stretching back a thousand years, to the time when a Trojan refugee named Aeneas set foot upon the shores of Latium and founded a race who founded, six hundred and sixty-two years ago, a place called Rome.  And for a while Rome was actually ruled by Kings, until the men of Rome rejected the concept that a man could be mightier than the place which bred him.  No man must ever consider himself greater than the place which bred him.  No Roman man is greater than Rome.  Rome is the place which breeds great men.  But what they are – what they do – is for her glory.  Their contributions to her ongoing pageant.  And I tell you, Lord Orobazus, that Rome will last as long as Romans hold Rome dearer than themselves, dearer than their children, dearer than their own reputations and achievements.”  He paused again, drew a long breath.  “As long as Romans hold Rome dearer than an ideal, or a single man.”

This is perhaps a bit dramatic, but it gets at the issue really well.  One can see the pride Sulla has in being Roman and the confidence it gives him in his position.  One can also see the virtuous relationship between individual and collective that’s at the heart of Rome’s success.  And one can see the foreshadowed fate that awaits Rome when this relationship breaks down.

Every nation promotes myth building as a way to create a strong national identity.  Certain individuals, events, ideas, and cultural characteristics are selected as inheritances that differentiate one people from another.  Exceptionalism takes this to the next level by saying we’re not simply different, we’re better.  It’s easier said than done, but if a nation or organization can pull it off, it can be a powerful force for years to come.

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I just want to give a heads up that I’ll be taking a break from writing for a few weeks as I pursue an opportunity that just presented itself and prepare for midterms.  I hope to get back to posting in October, but it might be November before I can get everything under control and return to writing.  See you all soon and thanks as always for reading.

Stephen

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