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THE PARADOX OF DEMOCRACY
(Published: 2007-07-04)

You’re probably wondering how I could turn the 4th of July into a paradox. To be truthful, it’s not my original idea. Ever since I heard Gary Hamel, a leading business strategy guru, speak at a Fast Co. Real Time seminar in June 2002, I’ve been fascinated by what this holiday represents.

I still have my original notes from his memorable presentation. He was talking about resilience as a key component of business strategy, examining why certain companies stand the test of time better than others. He used America and our democratic principles as the perfect example of resilience and pointed out that the paradoxical nature of our founding principles is precisely why we are so resilient as a country.

My original notes from his talk looked like this:

Whence resilience?

Coherence/Diversity
Community/Activism
Strength/Compassion
Courage/Prudence
Timeless/Contemporary

“Paradox is at the heart of things that last a long time.”

Years later, when I read Mardy Grothe’s book “Oxymoronica,” the dots began to connect. Grothe pointed out that paradox is a particularly powerful device to ensnare truth because it concisely illuminates the contradictions that are at the very heart of our lives.

This 4th of July we celebrate the birth of our country and of the democracy that has been at the heart of our American existence for well over 200 years. According to Hamel, the fact that our democracy has lasted this long, and for the most part is in pretty good shape, can be at least partly attributed to its paradoxical nature.

In his presentation at Real Time, he pointed out that for over two centuries America has proven itself to be far more resilient than most of the companies it has spawned, and that “at the heart of the American experiment is a paradox—unity and diversity—a single nation peopled by all nations.”

He noted that as Americans, we are coherent and diverse at the same time. We proudly say: “I am an American,” and at the same time, just as proudly: “I am Asian,” or “Hispanic” or “African American” or “Irish Catholic” or “Mormon.” The list, of course, is endless. As American citizens we are many different things yet we are all one.

Hamlet also point out that Americans love to band together into communities and put on a united front, whether to patrol our neighborhoods or to throw a block party. Yet, at the same time we will actively stand up for our individual rights within the community.

As Americans, we are both strong and compassionate. Over the years of building our country, defending our position in the world, and helping others, we have exhibited both courage and prudence when making decisions (at least for the most part). As a final note, Hamel observes that as an entity we are both timeless and modern. We embrace the classic values of freedom and justice while still having the courage to move forward and make changes as modern times demand. The U.S. constitution has stood the test of time, partly as a result of the amendments that have been made over the years.

Some time after I heard Hamel speak he published a well-received article titled “The Quest for Resilience” (Harvard Business Review, September 2003, by Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas) in which he further demonstrated that “continuous success no longer hinges on momentum. Rather, it rides on resilience—on the ability to dynamically reinvent business models and strategies as circumstances change.” (You can order the complete article online at hbr.com; I highly recommend it.)

In an article in last Sunday’s New York Times, “2,000 Years Later, Wrapped in the Star-Spangled Toga,” Adam Goodheart pointed out that during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin referred to the nation he was helping create as both a “republic” and as an “empire.” Benjamin, wise old man that he was, understood the value of embracing paradox.

Embracing paradox is the big idea behind “The Hummer and the Mini.” In business as well as life, when we learn how to live with the contradictions and make the most of inconsistencies, we will find resilience. Our founding fathers inherently understood the value of embracing paradox by deciding they could have it both ways. That’s why we’re here today celebrating old Glory and enjoying the fireworks.

Happy 4th of July!



Happy 4th!



Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at www.rwtrend.com. All Rights Reserved.


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