I am a natural optimist who, not surprisingly, believes that most people are. But from time to time, an unexpected catalyst reactivates my positive outlook. I recently spent two weeks on a motorcycle trip across the American south and west. While there were numerous days and discoveries full of wonder, it was a single day in Memphis that affected me more than the entire rest of the trip. These are uncertain times for many as they worry about global political and economic changes, with pessimism and fear about the future. My day in Memphis caused me to come away feeling that, whatever bumps in the road confront our neighbours in the USA, they will find the right direction before too long.
Hard to imagine anyone who grew up in an era of rock ‘n’ roll not making a pilgrimage to Graceland, home of the King of Rock. While the house with his musical legacy is a huge tourist draw, perhaps making an even greater contribution to the economy of the city and the Elvis Presley’s estate than when he was alive, I was struck more by what it was not. Graceland is dwarfed by the homes you will find today in the affluent neighborhood of any large city. Despite a larger than life onstage presence, Elvis lived for many years in a comparatively normal home unlike the many superstars who have followed him with their ever growing displays of excess. Elvis is remembered in the city for 50+ charities he personally supported, without fail, with significant annual donations. While known for his love of cars, he is also remembered for surprise gifts like a new car to someone in need who he met just in passing and to his cadre of work friends and companions. I left Graceland not just nostalgic about his music (unavoidable) but with a new respect for a world superstar who remained genuinely human in many ways and in touch with the world around him. You can’t go from obscurity to global success in any field without changing, but you don’t have to lose touch and abandon the world you came from either.
My second Memphis King was Dr. Martin Luther King, assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in 1968. The motel and the rooming house across the road occupied by the sniper have been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. We spent the entire afternoon in the museum until they kicked us out at 6 PM. The story of civil rights progress presented at the museum shows a repeating cycle of resistance (sometimes passive, other times aggressive) to unacceptable conditions until things get better. The museum documents several centuries of social injustices and the battle to change them, whether it was slavery, racism, sexuality, gender identity and more. The changes don’t happen right away. Often there were backwards steps, in government, laws or economic conditions, sometimes for decades, but the human spirit to persevere for what is right seems to fight back unstoppably, if not undaunted.
So, I came away reassured that the future must be greater in the medium and long term, despite steps forward and back in the short term. It may seem there are a lot of things wrong today, but I believe people will continue to mobilize for what is right. Moreover, new technology empowers social justice faster and farther than ever before, from the immediate public condemnation of an airline violently ejecting a regular passenger from a flight, to organizing social demonstrations or recording atrocities by oppressive regimes. The battles for social justice are getting new and better tools every year, so the future looks bright to me.
And now – the tomato. Travelling the Mississippi delta, two things are inescapable in profusion and variety, Blues music and BBQ. Memphis was the culmination of a broad sampling of both, and our day of the two king’s museums ended at an unassuming (though jammed) BBQ restaurant, listening to Blues music. While there will always be big social issues to confront over the long haul, we need to remember now and then to “smell the flowers” through small comforts like food and music. If you are a fan of BBQ, there are countless descriptions and interpretations across different states. However, as aficionados well know, the traditional BBQ accompaniments are slaw and beans, full stop. In the South however, they add their own twist with fried green tomatoes. I saw the movie many years ago but never thought I’d eat them. Well, if you ever have the chance, there are countless varieties, all seemingly delicious. What an unexpected pleasure. So, my day of new found optimism experiencing the legacy of two kings, born in humble situations who went on to achieve greatness and touching millions left me believing in society’s good prospects while enjoying simple new food and music.
Executive Management & Business Transformation
In addition to his work with Osborne Group clients, David is an active volunteer with several social, educational and cultural causes and he believes the future will be great. He also believes the current trend of using social media for alternate facts and selective news will be greatly overcome by the active use of social media to support social good.
Visit osborne-group.com for other ideas and opinions from our Principals on a range of topics. Their views are their own and do not necessarily represent The Osborne Group’s perspective. The Osborne Group provides interim executive management, consulting and project support across all sectors and over a broad scope of service areas.