February 11, 2011 | Leadership

A long time ago, in a place far away (London around 1980), I was offered the chance to work in either New York or Hong Kong. Both places had tremendous appeal as energetic, exciting cities. While it was not my most astute financial decision, I chose New York because of the huge promise America offered to young upstarts wanting to create change.

Now let me put this in perspective. At that time trying to introduce new ideas into the hidebound processes of the British business world was hard work. The predominant reaction to a new idea was to explain why it would not work, then form a committee to discuss it until its originator eventually gave up. In my few visits to the US, I saw the American reaction as quite different. There was an enthusiasm for new ideas, a rush to implement, and a comfort in solving problems along the way (aka the “20% thought, 80% execution” strategy the Japanese criticized at the time.)

As time went by, the American approach became more circumspect. The implementation of new ideas and processes grew more efficient and the adoption of lean processes moved execution to a new level. But the basic attitude towards new ideas remained the same: how can we make it work?

Has the US lost its can-do attitude?

My fear is we have. The can-do attitude is now found more often in China and India as entrepreneurs break down traditional ways of doing business. In China they appear to take the path of least resistance, i.e., copy first and create thereafter. (Oh, and buy up the rights to raw materials in Africa, finance their national companies to grow market share, and require some domestic manufacturing of all products sold in China.) The result? China is now number one in installed capacity for wind energy and projected to be 50% ahead of its nearest competitor, the US for now, by the end of this year.

In India, their innate ability to do much with very little is now being harnessed by smart businesspeople who are turning new ideas into profitable enterprises. Successful Indian companies — Infosys, Tata, Wipro, Mahindra, Suzlon – abound. And many US and European multinationals have substantial presences there — and not just because of low wages. The appeal is the entrepreneurial spirit, despite large bureaucracies, and a high level of comfort with taking risks.

The US — whether it be from fear or languidness — has moved away from this. The President shows signs of fighting this trend, then vacillates by moving to a “clean” energy goal rather than a “renewable” one. In many US businesses inaction comes from fear of failure or finger pointing. Why take a risk in this time of downsizing and high unemployment? It’s safer to call a meeting, allocate some responsibilities, and set a date for the next meeting. Damn, that sounds familiar.

Fortunately this is not universally true. The developers of Cape Wind have shown amazing determination and persistence in getting the project approved. Google is using its wealth and vision to help finance an off-shore transmission spine along the east coast. Dozens of U.S. companies are looking at ways to improve the efficiency of wind farms and reduce operating costs. Our challenge is to create an environment which supports innovation and risk taking.

So, you might wonder, if I were to be faced with the same decision of where to work 25 years ago, what would I do now? Go East. That’s where the wind is blowing. Kung hei fat choi.