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.

From Adversaries to Allies

It’s all about relationships.

Relationships are at the core for the transformative leadership American Leadership Forum hopes to create. Why is that the case?

When two or more people with shared commitment to their community develop a strong personal relationship, they become a building block of a sound leadership network. Here’s a story that exemplifies that perfectly.

Joe Whitworth and Dan Keppen took an existing relationship that might be called “polite adversaries” to a very different level during their year together in the Oregon Chapter of the American Leadership Forum.

Joe Whitworth: Agriculture and conservation are the two most natural allies that cannot speak each other’s language—and precious few translators exist. Because I grew up bucking hay in the Midwest and later became the head of the conservation group that listed the first Pacific Salmon under the Endangered Species Act, I see both sides. While I know deeply that landowners do not wake up in the morning looking to do environmental harm, I also know that financial realities drive how they manage their operation. So the value I bring to this field is in a kind of translation. Thing is, though, one translator needs another to create and sustain breakthroughs. My ALF experience provided the setting for that relationship to be built.

Dan Keppen: Joe and I met in 2003, when I was executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association. The issue that brought us together was the same that keeps us both in business: water.

Joe: In particularly dry years, with increased pressure on water supplies, farmers predictably dug in on one side, and the “greens” dug in on the other. There was no real dialogue. There were power politics, shout-downs, and litigation. Dan and I found ourselves on panels speaking about our respective interests in the basin. We struck up a relationship built on respect and always talked about finding a way to navigate through the needlessly explosive minefield of agriculture versus conservation, but we never followed through. Whether we were too busy, too far away, or the move was too progressive for our constituencies—we never made it happen. Bottom line is that he and I always knew that our constituencies could easily agree on 70 percent of most issues, but focused on the 30 percent that separated them. And focusing on the disagreements created fear and mistrust.

Dan: So five years later Joe and I end up in ALF together. There, our professional relationship blossomed into one of friendship, in large part due to the camaraderie of the ALF process. Joe is an accomplished outdoorsman, and I remember having to eat humble pie several times when forced to sheepishly approach him for advice on how to tie knots for our rock-climbing exercise in the Columbia River Gorge. He always helped, but added some good-natured ribbing to let me know where I stood. I pulled a good one on him later, though, when the class came together in a circle. The facilitator whispered a phrase to one of our classmates which we were instructed to pass around the circle from classmate to classmate. By the time the message made it around—with a little help from yours truly—it had morphed from “Trouble is brewing, my friend,” to “Joe Whitworth likes barnyard animals.” From then on our classmates referred to him as “Barnyard Joe.”

Joe: ALF forced us together each month for more than a year in a setting apart from our professional roles and allowed us to expand our relationship into a durable friendship. He gained a good deal of admiration from me through his open approach in dealing with the death of his father, a marital change, and the discovery and correction of a brain aneurysm. He constantly tried to make sense of it and make good use of the learning. His earnestness more than made up for his eighth-grade sense of humor.

Dan: As our ALF friendship grew, so did our mutual trust and respect. Joe and I both recognized that the best opportunities to improve trout habitat were on private lands. For groups like Oregon Trout to maximize habitat potential, private landowners like ranchers need to participate. Those ranchers are going to be much more inclined to participate if they get something in return—maybe another cash flow stream, or maybe environmental credits.

Joe: Our mutual trust gave us a willingness to take risks in bringing the new ideas to the table and focusing on those issues where we agree. We are together making folks first uncomfortable and then comfortable in new territory, focusing on forward solutions rather than more of the same.

Dan: ALF gave me a strong belief that leaders should always be ready to stand up for other leaders. Our two organizations work cooperatively in a variety of political and public forums. We recently co-wrote a guest opinion for The Oregonian that focused on the positive aspects of farmer-conservationist partnerships.

Joe: We have some heavy lifts in front of us. Agriculture is at once the most ecologically destructive and humanly critical enterprise on Earth. In the next forty years, we will need to grow as much food as we have in all human history, without destroying the biosphere’s capacity to do it thereafter. We are not on track to do that. We can get there, but not through the old conversations and the old ways. Through the new ones. And for that work, I now have an ally to help me rebalance the scales.

Dan: The “farmers vs. fish” dynamic that very likely could have defined our relationship has instead turned into something closer to “farmers for fish.” The listening, collaboration, and networking that is such a part of the ALF experience definitely played a large part in the strong personal and professional relationship I have to this day with “Barnyard Joe” Whitworth.

Klamath Basin Water Rights

This video gives an overview of the ALF Oregon October 5 & 6 gathering to discuss the Klamath Basin water rights.  It’s a very complicated issue that is a perfect case study for the type of leadership opportunities that are present in America, today.  These issues touch upon all of the values which were addressed in the book.

A Collaborative Solution to Wolf Management in Oregon

Two state senators in Oregon share their experience reaching across the aisle to find common ground on the tricky area of wolf management.

by former State Senator Jackie Dingfelder  (D-Portland)

Jackie DingfelderAs I reflect back on my many years in the Oregon Legislature, I observed that natural resource issues were often some of the most contentious ones debated in our state capitol. Oregon’s identity remains, in many ways, tied to its natural resources.  As chair of the House and Senate Environment Committee, few bills came before my committee with strong bipartisan support.  Fortunately, we were able to buck that trend this past session when Sen. Bill Hansell (SD-29) and I co-sponsored a bill to find a bipartisan solution to a long standing dispute about wolf management in Oregon

After reintroduction to Idaho and Yellowstone in the mid-1990’s, wolves began naturally migrating back to Oregon in 1999, some fifty years after the last known wolf was extirpated through a system of bounties and intentional removal.  This first arrival was politically unwelcome and was deported, but as more wolves followed, the State realized it needed to be proactive and plan for the inevitable.  The State’s Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted Oregon’s first ever Oregon Wolf Plan in 2005, after the largest public input process in the State’s history.  The Plan sets recovery goals ensuring wolves will have a place here and also provides management assurances to address reasonable protections for livestock and other interests.  What followed was a period of growth for wolf packs and a period of conflict around one pack in particular, the Imnaha Pack of Wallowa County.

By the time I met Senator Hansell, five packs had established in northeast Oregon, and the Imnaha Pack had been confirmed to have killed or injured well over twenty domestic cattle within a home range that mixed wild lands and working ranches.  Tensions were rising, including pro- and anti-wolf billboards, threatening letters and phone calls between interest groups, and ongoing litigation that had nullified the State’s authority to lethally remove wolves to address livestock losses. When Senator Bill Hansell joined the Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee in February 2013, we sat down to discuss the issues of importance to our respective districts.  Sen. Hansell raised the wolf management issue as a key concern and invited me on a fact finding trip to Eastern Oregon to learn more. During three chilly days in early April 2013—with Senator Hansell in his Oregon Ducks snow cap and me in my Patagonia puff-down jacket—we met with the Tribes, livestock producers, wolf advocates, local elected officials, and citizens in Umatilla and Wallowa counties to hear first hand their concerns and viewpoints about wolf management.  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Governor’s office accompanied us on the trip.

After hearing concerns from both livestock producers and wolf advocates, Sen. Hansell and I vowed to work closely with the Governor’s office staff to advocate for wolf management policies that both sides could support.  This mutual commitment to work across party lines was key to ensuring success.  After many months of negotiations, both sides worked out a litigation settlement involving agreed-upon administrative rules and legislation, in part because of the pressure from the Legislature, and the good work of the Governor’s office staff.  Senator Hansell and I, along with Representative Bob Jenson of Pendleton, worked closely to move the landmark legislation forward.  After much marveling that common ground had been reached on this particular issue, and that a Portland democrat and rural eastern Oregon republicans were working together to carry it, the bill garnered unanimous support in both the House and Senate.

While I have many years of working on natural resource issues around the state, trips like my visit to Wallowa County remind me of how decisions we make in Salem, regardless of where we are from, impact a wide range of Oregonians. Sen. Hansell and I are both American Leadership Forum graduates and know the importance of finding a collaborative solution.  We are proud to have helped forged a bipartisan solution to one of Oregon’s “toothier” issues.

#     #     #

by State Senator Bill Hansell (R-Pendleton)

Bill HansellDuring my 2013 campaign for the Oregon State Senate District 29, one of the issues for much of the district was wolf livestock predation.  This issue became a legislative priority for me.  After being elected, two things happened that proved to be very important in addressing this issue.

First was my appointment to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.  My Senate District stretches from the Snake River to rural Wasco County, including the six counties in between.  Natural resources provide the economic base for this part of the state.  Secondly, I had the opportunity to meet and work with Senator Jackie Dingfelder, the chair of this committee.

Senator Dingfelder reached out to me as soon as I became a member of her committee.  In true ALF fashion, she reached across the aisle to the Republican freshman from Athena, Oregon.  A friendship began that continues to this day.

When she asked me what priorities I might have I told her the wolf issue was critical for my district.  District 29 contains almost all of the packs in Oregon, and we needed a state policy that would work.

As the session began in early February, it became apparent to me that the probability of any kind of wolf legislation would be very remote.  No one with whom I visited gave it much of a chance.  But in true ALF fashion I wasn’t willing to give up. I reached out to my colleague from Portland, as she had done to me, and invited her to come to Wallowa County to see firsthand what was happening on the ground.

I was delighted when Jackie said I would love to make a trip as long as we did it together. In mid-April after spending a Friday night in our home in Athena, we spent much of the weekend in Wallowa County.

We saw some of the most beautiful country in Oregon; visited with some of the nicest people on both sides of the issue; and were hosted by some of the kindest individuals anywhere.  In addition we were also able to look at some other issues in the area, such as water and the Wallowa Lake Dam.

When we returned to Salem, the legislative wheels started moving.  Within a couple of months a court case was settled, and legislation was drafted.  It then worked its way through the legislative process.  I happened to mention to one of the veteran Senators that I thought we would be able to get a wolf bill passed, his reply was “Senator I’ll believe it when I see it” Well he eventually saw it.

Senator Dingfelder and I testified together at every opportunity, and when the bill came to the Senate floor, I gave the opening argument, and Jackie closed.  It passed 30-0 in the Senate.

Both of us were able to put our ALF experience into practice. We worked together across all sorts of potential differences, for the good of Oregon. I was honored to work with Senator Dingfelder, and call her not only a respected colleague, but valued friend as well.

A brief conversation with Jackie, I shall never forget occurred when, I thanked her for taking time out of her busy schedule to come to my district for a weekend.  Jackie’s response was “No one had ever invited me before, I was excited to come.”

How sad it is in this day of such partisan politics, that we don’t reach out to others and invite them to help find a solution together.  A major highlight of my first year in the Oregon Senate, was crafting a wolf bill with Senator Dingfelder.  We led a team that was very helpful including Rep. Bob Jenson, the Governor’s office, ODF&W, and the Oregon Cattleman Association.  Good public policy, which was good for all concerned, including the wolf, was signed into law due to the collaborative work of two ALF alumni.  This successful effort is, to me, what ALF’s mission is all about, and I was proud to have been a part of it.

A Great Introduction to an Organization Ahead of its Time

Dr. Terryl Ross
Dr. Terryl Ross

Book review on Amazon.com by Dr. Terryl Ross

“The strengths of this book are: it’s short, clear, and a great overview of 30-year-old organization that has been ahead of its time.  I’m a member of ALF Oregon Class 21 and I enjoyed reading this book because it gave me a greater appreciation of the ALF experiences I have in common with over 4000 Senior Fellows throughout the nation.  I personally found ALF to be a transformative experience for me and now I understand the strategy behind the activities and values.  This book has value for people inside and outside of the ALF network because it challenges all of its readers to get involved in online dialogues about themes and issues raised in the book. For a nation that is starving for effective leadership at all levels, this book is apropos.  Just like my American Leadership Forum experience, I’m getting out of this book what I’m putting into it.”

I think the ALF experience needs to be shared with more people and let’s start with our elected officials.

“I never knew.” — On walking a mile in someone else’s shoes

Photo by Allison Spurlock, used under Creative Commons license

Joe Whitworth tells a story about what it’s like to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. For context, this story is set during the wilderness experience of an American Leadership Forum class.

Within our group of vigorous leaders was a competent professional and respected thinker in her field. She struggled with significant chronic pain. She was hoping to make the climb with us and worked hard during the week to put herself in the physical and mental space to do it. But as the week progressed, so did her difficulties. She ultimately would not make the trip.

Striving both to understand the physical challenges among us and make good on bagging the peak, we split into two groups. Those who were feeling strong would climb the mountain, and the remaining small contingent would set up camp with intentional encumbrances. One classmate duct-taped dumbbells to various appendages and one took no food or water. I chose to put handfuls of gravel in each of my shoes.

From a physical perspective, I have had it pretty good, a lifetime of sports played at high competitive levels. But those rocks lifted a veil of understanding for me. I was immediately reduced to nausea as the sharp objects shifted in my shoes while I gathered firewood and set up the guylines for the tarp. By mid-morning I could hardly tie a simple knot, and by noon I could barely finish my sentences. Things that would normally take seconds to do with my hands now took multiple attempts over many minutes.

I never knew.

A year later I received news that my sister, who had been managing pain from an old accident, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Inoperable. She faced it directly, without medication, in hospice. Resolute courage.

I got home and stayed with her for much of the time before she departed on New Year’s Day. Time enough to say everything that needed saying between us. But having that glimpse of the pain, and knowing the relief she must have gained after dealing with it for so long, was key to my dealing with that loss.

I still have those rocks in a jar by my desk.

Joe Whitworth is president of The Freshwater Trust and lives in Portland, Oregon.

This story, and many more like it, are in the American Leadership Forum’s recent book Everything We Know About Leadership, available now.

The Apt Timing of Everything We Know About Leadership …

39a92232df4a0ad8956e24.L._V356385727_SX200_by Jeff Golden, lead author of “Everything We Know About Leadership”

It’s so fitting to have Everything We Know About Leadership come out against the backdrop of one of the most startling failures of national institutional leadership in memory. One has to wonder what the key players in Washington’s budget and debt drama would make of the five core values we lay out in this book. Some would scoff. Others would likely say that they seem well-intentioned, but they’re just not realistic principles of leadership. If “leadership” is about the set of dynamics we’ve been witnessing, that’s probably true. But those who hold that those dynamics no longer serve us well, and won’t again, will find valuable guideposts for a new leadership landscape in the pages of this book.

One of the “powerful questions” we serve up in part III of the book, in connection with the core value of Inner Reflection and Personal Growth, is “How do you contribute to the problem you complain about?” How much differently would the recent national drama have played out had the key players had the inner resources to deeply consider and honestly answer that question?

It’s the kind of question that my collaborators in the writing of this book are used to grappling with. That’s one reason this co-creation was a rich experience. In a world and culture changing as rapidly and dramatically as ours, it’s inspiring to work with people less focused on displaying their knowledge than they are learning what they don’t yet know about leadership. “The learners shall inherit the world,” wrote Eric Hoffer, “while the learned will be beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists.”

I hope this book challenges and enriches your own sense of leadership, which you might choose to share on this blog. That would be good.

Robin Teater on Service to the Common Good

by Robin Teater, ALF Oregon

I am often reminded – and am reminding myself – that one of the key differentiating features of the ALF leadership development experience is that the bottom line of our mission is to better serve the public – or common – good. It isn’t enough for companies, organizations, agencies and other entities to enjoy the increased capacity of more capable leaders. While the cumulative effect of more knowledgeable, self-aware and deliberative leaders is considerable, ALF’s work is unfinished until we can link the talents and collective capacity of ALF senior fellows to some greater good that serves more than just a single company, organization or public sector agency.

While the need for collective action seems ever more urgent as I survey the complex landscape of interconnected issues within the borders of our small state alone, the question that persists is how to harness what is often described as a potentially powerful leadership network in service to a commonly held goal or objective.  Given the diversity of the ALF network, this can indeed seem like a tall order.

Unless, of course, it’s not about that at all.

I have lately been led to wonder if the deliberative process required for us to collectively discover what we care about is where the real service to our communities begins. Perhaps talk is cheap, as the saying goes, but action without deep understanding can be downright dangerous.

Whatever work ALF or any other leaders choose to do, its success will be dependent on their thoughtful engagement with a diverse range of other perspectives – most especially those that differ (even radically) from their own.  This kind of dialogue and engagement is a profound act of both courage and love – leadership practices in too short supply when they are perhaps most needed to address our common challenges, to truly serve the public good.

A future post co-written by myself and an ALF senior fellow will include what I think is an inspiring story of leaders in an Oregon community that did the hard but ultimately rewarding (we hope) deliberative work in addressing a regional issue of almost unimaginable complexity and volatility. In their story there is something important to be learned about service to the public good – and about the many acts of love and courage that it required.