John Hope Bryant, 10.22.09, 12:40 PM EDT, as originally published today in Forbes.com
Yes, greed is at the root of our current mess
What we're going through is not just a recession, it's a reset.
Sure, the impact of the crisis is being felt economically, but the root cause isn't economics, nor is it the failure of free enterprise and capitalism. The problem is the abuse of free enterprise and capitalism–greed.
The problem is that we have lost our story line, as a nation and as a world.
My friend and mentor Quincy Jones, the musician, who is one of the people I profile in my new book, Love Leadership: A New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World, once told me that "it takes 20 years to change a culture." Well, over the last 20 years we changed it for the worse. We made dumb sexy. We even celebrated dumb. Over the next 20 years we have to make smart sexy again.
For as long as any of us can remember, our real heroes have woken up in the morning on fire with the power of an idea.
Warren Buffett was obsessed not with money and power but with the idea of investing and creating real value. That's why he still lives in the same home he lived in more than 20 years ago, and why he has vowed to give away most of his tens of billions of dollars before he dies.
Or consider social innovators such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Certainly their aim was not money and power.
Or take my personal hero, the civil rights legend Andrew Young, who will only undertake a project or initiative when he determines that no one else can bring together the parties involved. Young cannot seem to give his money away fast enough. I estimate that he donates three-fifths of his annual income, yet he is one of the richest people I know, measured in values and quality of life, and he wants for nothing.
Or take the founder of Wal-Mart ( WMT – news – people ), Sam Walton, who drove the same pickup truck until the day he died. He was passionate about finding ways to provide the working poor with quality products and services at affordable prices.
Or look at an earlier great American innovator, Henry Ford, who built the first modern automobile and paid his workers enough to be able to afford to buy the cars they were building. Or look at the Henry Fords of our time, the men and women who have revolutionized how we interact in the 21st century. A decade ago MySpace, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist, and Google ( GOOG – news – people ) was a brand new baby. Now they are driving innovation and defining the modern-day social nexus.
All these men and women had one thing in common. They were all alight with passion and purpose that fueled, or was fueled by, a big idea. Yes, in most of these cases the power and the money soon came. But the power and the money were the byproduct. They were never the product itself.
The problem today is that over the last couple of decades too many of our so-called leaders (and of the rest of us too) awoke in the morning not only without the fire of the power of a useful idea; they awoke with only one thought in mind: I want to make money. The next day they awoke wanting more of the same, more money. It was like any addiction.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial literacy, is vice-chair of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy and is the author of Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World.