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The pillars of success for reclaiming the American dream

How do we make the American dream true for more people? 2 keys are building self-esteem and providing role models, as entrepreneur John Hope Bryant shares.

5 min read


The pillars of success for reclaiming the American dream


Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by is by John Hope Bryant and is an adapted excerpt from Up from Nothing: The Untold Story of How We (All) Succeed,” Chapter 4: “The Five Pillars of Success.”

In many ways, the American dream is falling into disrepair. Income and wealth inequality have reached unsustainable breach levels. Racial and political divisions have escalated to heights unseen in close to a century — defining us all more by what is separate and apart, rather than what binds us all together.   

Could there be a set of rules, similar to a standardized math formula, that lays out a framework for why certain groups might succeed in America? Could this framework also explain why other groups — of equal if not greater “merit” — might fail, despite hard work, smarts and best efforts?

I believe there is. 

I call them my “Five Pillars of Success for Reclaiming the American Dream”:

  1. Massive education
  2. Understanding the numbers
  3. Family structure and resiliency
  4. Self-esteem and confidence
  5. Role modeling

And only once the pillars of this framework for success are available to all Americans equally can we fulfill our collective dream of winning.   

Leading the way

Leaders make a great deal of impact on their team simply through the examples they provide. By elevating self-esteem and bolstering confidence, they become the kind of role model their team can look up to, which sets the course for passing on these leadership traits to generations of leaders who set themselves and others up to win. 

Let’s take a more in-depth look at pillars Nos. 4 and 5: self-esteem and confidence, and role modeling, respectively.

Self-esteem and confidence       

Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself, the inside you. Confidence is how you express your competence or competencies, the outside you — and both matter.

Early in my business career, certain business types encouraged me to just focus on using my sales skills to “make money” any (legal) way that I could. Even back then, I knew that was a very short-term view of both the world and my potential in the world. They did not see me as I did — as a winner — before I visibly won. And so I didn’t take their advice. I did something that most everyone around me ignored or placed on the back burner: I focused on the inner development of my true and unique self.       

I hope we can accept that we are not as good as our compliments nor as bad as our critiques — especially those we level against ourselves. I want all of us to simply be happy enough with who we are. Did you know that the greatest compliment you can give yourself is to simply say, “I am”?

When you are confident in who you are, it shines through in your leadership of others. It allows you to lead with certainty, which eliminates fears and insecurities, allowing others to also say, “I am!”

Role models

I am a businessman today because my father was. I love myself because my mother loved me and told me to love myself. I know I am somebody because I was treated like I was somebody, and because I surrounded myself with “somebodys.”

One of those “somebodys” was a banker who made several visits to my fourth-grade classroom to teach financial literacy. What happened to me when I saw that banker in a classroom? It changed my life. 

Today, I am also an entrepreneur, and my organization, Operation HOPE, is a community banker of sorts. The seeds for both of those roles were planted in that classroom that day.

Why do brilliant kids from the neighborhood end up becoming neighborhood drug dealers worth just $100 or $1,000 versus becoming the founders and CEOs of $1 billion global pharmaceutical companies? They have both the intelligence and the outsized entrepreneurial potential, so why the different choices? 

Easy: they are simply modeling what they see.

What happens when kids today see me as an entrepreneur talking to them about business? Aren’t they going to want to model that too? What if they did model that — at scale? 

Every great leader understands the importance of setting an example, but in today’s social climate, being an example of love, positivity, strength and success is as important as it ever has been. 

Access for all 

I want us all to win, and as leaders, that means figuring out how each stakeholder in America can have access to these five pillars of success. They shouldn’t have access just because they are lucky. They should have access as part of an established formula for winning.


John Hope Bryant is an American entrepreneur, author, philanthropist, and prominent thought leader on financial inclusion, economic empowerment, and financial dignity. Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE Inc., the largest nonprofit, best-in-class provider of financial literacy and economic empowerment services in the US for youth and adults. He is also the chairman and CEO of Bryant Group Ventures, and founder and principal of The Promise Homes Company. His most recent book, “Up from Nothing: The Untold Story of How We (All) Succeed,” launches October 2020.

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