SHRM Atlanta 4: Tom Brokaw on Why America Needs a Big Idea

It always helps when you can end a big event, like the annual SHRM Conference and Exhibition, with a big idea.

And that’s what Tom Brokaw, the longtime former NBC Nightly News anchor, tried to bring to the Closing General session as SHRM 12 wrapped up Wednesday in Atlanta.

It’s tough being the final speaker on SHRM’s final day (and a short day at that), and as Brokaw noted, it was even tougher for him following Jerry Seinfeld, who served as the entertainment for conference attendees on Tuesday night.

“If Jerry Seinfeld is the margarita, I’m a little bit of the hangover,” he observed.

Hangover or not, Brokaw had a great proposition for that he put to the SHRM crowd — America is in need of “Big Ideas.”

Looking for a “Big Idea”

He said that he was sure the audience would like for him to predict who win the presidential election and that he had written it down, “but I left that back in my hotel room.”

But as he turned serious, Brokaw said he’s troubled by the focus on small change and narrow ideas in this election, and that the lack of “Big Ideas” that we can embrace and debate speaks to a larger problem.

As the author of the book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw has written about the great sacrifices that the World War II generation made during the dark times in the 1940s. Their sacrifice, he said, pointed to one of the key characteristics of Americans: that, “We are at our very best when the challenges are the greatest. When times are most difficult, we lock arms and become greater than the sum of our parts.”

And out of all of that, he said, America came up with “Big Ideas” that changed us and helped to move the country ahead:

  • The GI Bill, that allowed so many returning veterans (including my father, after the Korean War) to get a college education or training at no or reduced cost — because it was paid for by the federal government .
  • The Civil Rights movement, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped bring about some measure of racial equality through a belief in the rule of law and the principles of non-violence.

Something we can rally around

“We’re all in this together,” Brokaw said, and that’s why we need to come up with some new “Big Ideas” now, when we really need it, because, “I’ve never seen the country so bewildered, wary and cynical in what is going on.”

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To Brokaw, “We need to have a ‘Big Idea’ we can rally around, and not a “Red State” or “Blue State” idea… (because) 40-50 years from now, what will historians say is our imprint or our legacy?”

It may that it is just redefining the “American Dream” — the notion that each succeeding generation will have a better life than the one before it.

“What has happened to the American Dream?” Brokaw asked. His view is that it may be time to recalculate it because “there is a price to be paid” for each generation living better and consuming more — especially because, as we’re seeing now, “that we got carried away (with that) … and now have greater consumer debt than we do GDP.”

Brokaw’s “Big Idea” is simple: redefine the American Dream to focus on each generation improving qualitatively rather than just having bigger houses and more things.

This was a pretty heavy speech to wrap up the SHRM conference with, but Brokaw’s great skill is his ability to speak to people in a simple, common-sense fashion — as you might expect from a guy who grew up in South Dakota. He’s able to take the pulse of the people, analyze that, and then give it back to a larger audience in a wise and humble fashion, although as he pointed out, “if there is an oxymoron in American life, it’s the notion of the humble anchorman — they don’t exist!”

Hopefully, Tom Brokaw gave the SHRM faithful enough to get their thinking going so they can go back home and help to drive their own “Big Idea.” Given the state of the economy, our national spirit, and our wide political divide, we surely need it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


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