Nations Need Inspiring Identities Too

I’ve written about the need for organizations to have inspiring identities as one means to unite, engage and align members. Identity is the narrative that describes mission, values and reputation. An identity become inspiring when it connects with the personal identities of the organization’s members.  Nick, the door man at the 53rd Street location of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in NYC is fired up, in part, because of MSKCC’s inspiring identity. Nick believes in MSKCC’s mission to provide “The Best Cancer Care, Anywhere,” he embraces MSKCC’s values of caring about people and being the best in providing cancer treatment (i.e. the value of excellence), and he is proud of MSKCC’s reputation as one of the leading cancer centers in the world.

Nations need inspiring identities too. America has benefitted from its identity as the “land of the free and home of the brave,” with values of liberty, equality of opportunity and justice for all. According to historian Gordon Wood, by the early 1800’s, America’s reputation had been transformed from being viewed as on the fringe of the civilized world to being at the vanguard. An inspiring identity contributed to America’s success.

One region in today’s world that needs to find an inspiring identity is Central Asia.  It includes the countries of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran’s northeastern province of Khorasan, the western border of China and other cities that have been in the cultural orbit of Central Asia. My hope is that that leaders and emerging leaders in the countries of Central Asia read “Rediscovering Central Asia,” an essay by S. Fredrick Star of Johns Hopkins University. The essay appeared in The Wilson Quarterly and it was recognized by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, as one of the best essays of 2009. This essay lays out an inspiring identity for countries in Central Asia. It calls for national identities as leading intellectual centers of the world (as they were from 800 A.D. to 1,100 A.D) rather than as narrow religious or national ideologies.

One of my favorite parts of the essay is when Starr writes:

“Is the best hope of these lands merely to work their way back up to zero? Or can they possibly reclaim some of the luster of their glorious past, and prevail?

And glorious it was. It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the intellectual achievements of Central Asians a millennium ago. In mathematics, it was Central Asians who first accepted irrational numbers, identified the different forms of cubic equations, invented trigonometry, and adapted and disseminated the decimal system and Hindu numerals (called “Arabic” numbers in the West). In astronomy, they estimated the earth’s diameter to a degree of precision unmatched until recent centuries and built several of the largest observatories before modern times, using them to prepare remarkably precise astronomical tables.

In chemistry, Central Asians were the first to reverse reactions, to use crystallization as a means of purification, and to measure specific gravity and use it to group elements in a manner anticipating Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1871. They compiled and added to ancient medical knowledge, hugely broadened pharmacology, and passed it all to the West and to India. And in technology, they invented windmills and hydraulic machinery for lifting water that subsequently spread westward to the Middle East and Europe and eastward to China.

But wasn’t this the great age of Arab science and learning centered at the Caliphate in Baghdad? True enough. There were brilliant Arab scientists such as the polymath and founder of ophthalmology Ibn al- Haytham (ca. 965–1040). But as the Leipzig scholar Heinrich Suter first showed a century ago, many, if not most, of those “Arab” scientists were in fact either Persian or Turkic and hailed originally from Central Asia. This is true of the mathematician and astronomer Mukhammad ibn Musa al- Khorezmi (ca. AD 780–850), who was from the same Khorezm region of the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border area as al- Biruni, hence “al-Khorezmi.” Algorithms, one of his many discoveries, still bear his name in distorted form, while our term “algebra” comes directly from the title of his celebrated book on mathematics. Similarly, Abu Nasr al- Farabi (ca. AD 872–961), known in the West as Alfarabius, whose innovative analyses of the ethics of Aristotle surpassed all those of Western thinkers except Thomas Aquinas, was a Turk from what is now Kazakhstan, not an Arab.

Let’s hope for the world’s sake that Central Asia finds its way back.  I agree with Starr when he writes “the idea of a fresh flowering of Central Asia may seem a distant prospect, but it is not impossible, especially if Central Asians become more familiar with their rich heritage and draw from it relevant lessons for the present.”

Michael Lee Stallard speaks, teaches and writes about leadership, employee engagement, productivity and innovation at leading organizations including Google, GE, NASA, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. Most recently, Michael and his colleague Jason Pankau filmed a 90-minute program for Linkage’s Thought Leaders Series that will be released in January of 2010. Michael wrote the guest editorial for Talent Management magazine’s January 2010 edition and last month his article on how the force of connection boosts productivity and innovation was featured as the lead article in the UK’s Developing HR Strategy Journal. Click on these links to learn more about Michael and Jason in the media and their speaking engagements.

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