U.S. sailors unfurl a giant American flag during opening day pre-game ceremonies before a National League MLB baseball game. (DENIS POROY/REUTERS)

This piece is part of the Guest Voices series for On Leadership.

Where are we going and why?

As prosaic as this question may be, it cuts to the heart of what we as Americans should be debating now in preparation for the 2012 elections.

In the late 1950s in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik that jolted America’s sense of scientific supremacy, Time-Life publisher Henry Luce commissioned a series of essays titled "National Purpose." According to Luce biographer Alan Brinkley, contributors included 1960 presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, New York Times columnist James Reston, and evangelist Billy Graham. The series was published in book form and while the points of view were disparate, a central theme was the need for America to rediscover its purpose.

Purpose is the origin, or more precisely the catalyst, for creating an organization. As fundamental as purpose is, leaders consistently overlook it—and  in doing so ignore a reservoir that can sustain through good times and bad.

The nature and power of purpose is of particular interest these days when polls show that faith in government is seriously eroding. Not since the days of Herbert Hoover have Americans felt so disenfranchised, which tells us something about how the role of government has evolved. Until the days of Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover's successor, people had little expectation that government could or should play a role in our lives. Government, as practiced then, was an abstraction, more confined to classroom civics than to people's lives.

The New Deal changed that expectation. And with good reason. The nation was economically prostrate. Americans were hurting, physically and psychically. Roosevelt showed what government of the people and by the people could do for the people. That perception was ratified in the mobilization for the Second World War, when millions of men and women engaged in the fight against fascism. They demonstrated through their sacrifice what they could do for our government, or more precisely for us.

Not unexpectedly, after nearly 80 years the sheen of the New Deal and its successor, the Great Society, has worn off. To many Americans, the cost of government seems too high. Or more precisely, the return on the tax dollar seems low. This is markedly so when we observe a crumbling infrastructure that includes our roads, water systems and schools.

So today we ask, What is the purpose of our government? Conservatives want to abolish it, or Hooverize it to pre-New Deal days. Progressives want to re-energize it with more spending on social programs and less spending on defense. Both in their own way want to depersonalize government. There is validity to both arguments, but debating them is party centric not electorate centric.

Instead we should focus on what we expect of our government. Is it better roads, schools and health care? Or is it less of everything? I would argue that unless and until we rediscover our central purpose about what government can and should be, all the discussion over national debt, immigration, social safety nets, consumer protection and national defense is moot.

To this I will add, let’s embrace a discussion of what it means to govern. Too often, as Mario Cuomo might say, we are swayed by the poetry of the campaign (hoping for a better tomorrow) than by the prose of governing (doing what it takes, however messy, to get the job done). Governance sadly has lost its appeal.

Yet to our country’s founders, who were schooled in the civics of ancient Greece and Rome as well as sobered by the dictates of the British Crown, governance as a process of providing for societal needs was the highest form leadership—and when expressed as democracy, the most universal form of leadership.

Such a discussion over the purpose of government would elevate our national debate over who should serve next as president. Only when leader matches purpose, or purpose matches leader, will that society succeed.

John Baldoni is a leadership educator, executive coach, speaker and author of 10 books, including Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself , published in fall 2011.

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