An Agenda for America

The critical importance of citizen leadership

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 11, Issue No. 11
February, 2013

By Dan Coughlin



(Author’s Note: This article expands my focus on leadership beyond just business leadership. While the target audience is the citizens of the U.S., I believe the ideas in this article can have practical value for citizens in countries all over the world.)

Elected Government Officials and U.S. Citizens

For the sake of the argument I want to present in this article, I’m going to divide all of the people in America into two groups. The first group consists of elected government officials who impact national laws, policies, and decisions. The second group consists of everyone else. In the first group there are 537 people (president, vice-president, 100 senators, and 435 members of the House of Representatives.) In the second group, there are about 315 million people. I want to look at three major national issues (health care, education, and the national debt) in terms of the role of leadership from both of these groups.

Here are a few comments about the first group. I admire anyone who is willing to run for and then attempt to fulfill the role of representing the citizens of the U.S. in making important decisions. I admire these folks primarily because I think they do really important work in our democratic society and it’s not the kind of work that I would ever want to do.

Before you go down the path of criticizing all politicians, imagine trying to reach a decision in representing people who have polar opposite beliefs. To put this in perspective, think of just representing your family and friends in making almost any decision for them. You’re likely to tick somebody off no matter what you do.

Within my own circle of friends, the range of beliefs is incredible. They range from far right-wing, conservative Republicans to extremely liberal Democrats, from hard-core Catholics to devout atheists, from people who think taxes should be raised significantly to others who think the economy would soar if taxes were slashed, and from people who think abortion is absolutely wrong to people who believe every woman should have a right to choose on her own. I have an opinion on many national issues, but I also know of at least one person whom I admire and respect who will completely disagree with me on each one of these beliefs. The thought of representing my own friends in making a decision makes my head spin, which might explain in part the complexity of getting anything done in D.C., especially since they have to represent the opinions of millions of people.

Now I’m going to shift my attention to the second group, the 315 million citizens of the U.S.

As far as I know, this is still a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. I want to focus on the role we can all play as citizen leaders in improving health care, education, and the national debt.

Health Care and Its Cost

We’re trying to solve health care from the outside-in. We keep expecting hospitals, doctors, and nurses to lead the way in making us healthier. And we expect government officials to figure out how to foot the bill or reduce the bill so we can get that health care we need. But this is attacking the problem from the wrong angle, in my opinion.

The most effective way to reduce the cost of health care and improve our health is for each of us to seriously take better care of our bodies. This is a basic concept. Eat healthier and exercise more regularly. Don’t give me the excuse you’re too busy to eat well. Even fast-food restaurants offer salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and bottled water. And exercise. 15 minutes a day of stretching, leg lifts, and pushups will go a long way toward improving your health. Add in walking and jogging and some light weight-lifting and you will make great progress.

This is one example where every American can lead the way toward reducing the cost of health care and reducing the national debt. Imagine if we stopped watching shows about the bickering in Washington and invested that time in learning about our personal health and working toward getting healthier. We are wasting our breath watching politicians argue while we could be exercising to improve our breathing. We have to stop thinking the problem is only in D.C., and realize that every one of us can play a significant role in getting in better shape.

Our national debt stands at about $16.3 Trillion. Even if the government taxed every dollar that every person in America made last year and put it all toward paying off our debt we would still be trillions of dollars in debt. We have to alter our behaviors as citizens if we are going to turn the corner on our national debt. And one good place to start is for each of us to take a significant role in getting healthier. We literally cannot afford to wait any longer for someone else to care for our health more than we do ourselves. By getting healthier, we as citizen leaders, can play a tremendously important role in reducing our nation’s spending on health care.


The same holds true for education. We keep expecting schools, administrators, and teachers to better educate our kids, and then we complain mightily when we see our standardized test scores going down compared to other countries. Let’s focus less on how our ACT scores compare, and let’s focus more on working with our kids to understand their schoolwork better. In other words, let’s shift from complaining about what isn’t being achieved, and let’s focus more on sitting at a desk with our sons and daughters to work with them to improve their process of learning. Let’s stop pointing fingers and instead invest that time with our children at the kitchen table.

In my opinion, the most important years to develop great study habits are between the ages of nine and sixteen. That’s when it really kicked in for me. Some people will argue that preschool and elementary school are the key ages, but I believe kids are getting a lot of parental attention in those years. It’s when they become middle-school students that there seems to be a belief we should let them go it on their own. I think that’s a big mistake. We don’t let our kids “go it on their own” when it comes to driving or playing sports. We observe them and give them lots of feedback. Well, the same thing needs to happen in regards to their schoolwork. We as parents need to be very familiar with our children’s academic work and how they approach it. It’s very likely that somewhere in the process of reading or doing math or completing a project that our children simply don’t know a certain step. Then they feel bad for getting a poor grade and then they start believing that they aren’t capable of doing something. Then their self-esteem goes down and they stop trying as hard.

What’s the remedy?

It’s not blaming the system. It’s not pointing fingers at teachers and administrators. The primary remedy is to work more closely with our children. Remember, there are 315 million citizens in this country. If we focus our attention on working with our children, we can play a very important role in helping them to be stronger academically. If we really truly want to improve education in the United States, it starts at home at the kitchen table. This is not complicated. It does require leadership at home. It’s not about asking the government to pass a law. It’s about pulling up a chair and sitting next to a young person at a critically important time in his or her life. The thought of, “Homework is their job, not mine,” is essentially the equivalent of saying, “I’m not taking any responsibility for our nation’s poor academic performance. That’s somebody else’s fault.” I’m not talking about doing the homework for our kids. I’m talking about working with them to help them see what it is they are missing along the way.

National Debt

I do think elected government officials have one common responsibility. In my opinion, they have to install economic parameters. And I believe the most basic economic parameter is to stop spending money we don’t have as a country. In every conversation regarding our national finances there are three types of representatives at the table, but only two get to speak and vote. They are Democrats, Republicans, and The Future. The first two squabble over increasing taxes or reducing government spending, but in the end they keep spending money we don’t have as a country. And the debt grows and grows and …

November 3, 1980 was election day and my 18th birthday.

On that day, the national debt was pretty close to zero. That means the generations before I became an adult made sure that our government paid their bills off so that my generation didn’t have to pay for their spending. Over the next 32 years, the debt steadily grew to $16.3 Trillion. That means during my adult years we as a country have steadily created monumental debt that will dramatically affect the lives of future adults in America. Is there anything worse than sticking it to our kids financially? We have to draw a firm line and stand by it. Isn’t that what leadership is about?

I’ve served on four different not-for-profit boards. By far and away the number one issue I’ve argued for is more reasonable spending. I’ve tried to make the point that you have to be very, very careful what you invest in, and you have to do it within the parameters of the money you have. This is true for small business owners, Fortune 500 companies, and countries. Of course, there is a time when you have to take out a loan in order to fuel activities that can generate greater income, but if that becomes you’re on-going modus operandi then you will quickly fall into the debt trap that kills many businesses.

We passed that point as a country awhile ago. A long while ago. We need The Future to have a voice in the decision-making in Washington, D.C. We have to stop increasing our debt and we have to pay off the debt we have.

Financial Parameters Increase Innovation, They Don’t Decrease Innovation

When companies have a hard figure on how much they are willing to spend on innovation, the people in those companies become more innovative. Look at Apple in the late 1990s and look at the Walt Disney Company in the mid-1950s. They borrowed some money, but it was very limited. And yet they knew they had to innovate their way out of very tough economic times. The parameters forced people to think very carefully about what to do. For the past 30 years on a national level we have consistently avoided having to think very carefully about where to place our investments because we simply keep increasing our debt.

As citizen leaders, I believe we have to demand that our country stops spending money it doesn’t have. Both sides have been guilty of overspending, no matter how much each side blames the other. As a country, we have to collectively make a stand to stop creating bills that we can’t afford to pay. Will it require difficult choices? Of course it will. It also required difficult choices on the part of our citizens and on our politicians in 1776, 1863, and 1941.

Conclusion: An Uprising Against Our Own Bad Habits

There are two groups in the U.S., elected government officials and citizens. Both groups have responsibilities as leaders. No one is off the hook when it comes to taking responsibility for the future of the U.S. Where we are at as a country in the year 2020 is largely dependent on the choices we make now. Leadership means influencing how other people think so they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way. For each of us to be effective leaders we have to walk our own talk. We have to demonstrate that we are serious about improving our own health care and the education of our children. We have to communicate very clearly that we want our country to stop spending money it doesn’t have. We have to demand that we pay off our debt as a country. These are acts of leadership. None of us can afford to say it’s somebody else’s responsibility to deal with these issues. It’s all of our responsibilities. We need as much of a collective effort as American citizens needed in the Revolutionary War and the world wars. This time we’re fighting against our own bad habits of the past three decades.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page