What is the common good?

The defining phrase that ALF stamps on much of its written material is simple: Joining and strengthening leaders to better serve the public good (in practice, senior fellows more often use the phrase “common good”). Is “the common good” too amorphous or subjective to be a useful beacon for civic leadership? No. But it needs rigorous inquiry if it is to have enough meaning to guide the work. The comments of Oregon Chapter director Robin Teater offer useful context:

No one who works with the kind of range and diversity of leaders that ALF consciously incorporates into its program believes that all come into this space agreeing on what, precisely, the “common good” is. It is important to acknowledge that the common good is not simply “what the majority thinks is good.” An ordinary calculator can determine that. As majorities shift, whether in their political, social, demographic, or other dimensions, this simplistic definition of what constitutes the common good will shift in tandem.

The obvious question before us as leaders in rapidly changing, infinitely diverse, staggeringly complex yet increasingly interrelated communities is this: How do we agree on what matters to us? But more probing suggests that this might not be the most powerful question, because the most important goals and values among even a diverse population are remarkably similar. Do a values clarification exercise among twenty random people and it is a good bet there will be surprising consistency among the top three or four values; they will relate to family, health and well-being, peace and relative prosperity. The deeper question may well be the one that naturally follows: How do we agree on the best way to achieve those things that matter most to us?

The transcendent task of modern-day leadership is to develop the social capital that inspires people to expand their sense of self-interest to include their community. It requires a range of skills and attitudes that rarely make it to a list of top ten leadership traits in typical authority-based leadership models.

Far from arriving as a rescuer of communities or organizations, leaders must arrive as learners, healers, and facilitators of relationships. What they must bring are often considered the “soft” skills of leadership, sometimes dismissed as touchy-feely or just plain unnecessary. But we have discovered that before the hard or technical skills of leadership and problem solving can be effectively engaged, the soft skills must till the soil…. It serves the modern-day leader well to understand that the “soft” stuff of leadership is the hard stuff.

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