Dimensions of leadership for the greater good

September 10, 2014 — 1 Comment

Samuel Wilson

As I noted in an earlier post, it is often best to sneak up on generalities via particularities, rather than tackle them head-on.

Applied to leadership for the greater good, this means that it is prudent to consider the variety of ways in which the good is manifest rather than attempt to measure the good as an abstract unity.

For example, every society has public goods (e.g., roads, public broadcasting) and common goods (e.g., water, fossil fuels) that can be used by all of its citizens, as well as merit goods that are available to citizens on the basis of need (e.g., pensions, charitable support).

Typically, these goods require that citizens contribute to their creation, acquisition, maintenance, or distribution.  The totality of these goods – existing and emergent – provides us with a way of appraising the state of the good.

Equally, it is prudent to reflect on the practice of leadership in the service of specific types of public, common and merit goods rather than rely on overall impressions of leadership for the greater good.

For example, the quality of leadership offered in the service of economic goods (e.g., our stocks of built capital) might be adjudged as higher than the quality of leadership exercised in the service of environmental goods (e.g., our stocks of renewable and non-renewable natural resources).

Sustainability as a guide to understanding the good

In developing our conception and measures of the greater good, and the quality of the leadership offered in its service, we have grounded our thinking in the principles of sustainability.

From this perspective, leadership for the greater good can be understood as those myriad approaches to leadership that serve the long-term interests of the world. This includes not just our communities or our economies, but also the biophysical world in which we are nested and on which we ultimately depend.

In addressing the apparent tensions between the interests of humans and the nonhuman world, we would argue that principles of sustainability guide approaches to leadership that seek to integrate interlocking concerns for conservation of biophysical systems, prosperity and social inclusion, and democracy and participation.

Four dimensions of the good

Using a combination of reviews of existing leadership surveys and indicator systems, consultation with experts, community workshops, and pilot testing we have refined our measures of the greater good to reflect four key dimensions: environment, economy, society and the matter of who decides in a democratic polity.

Environment There are many ways to think about the environment and our relationship to nature, some of which are non-instrumental. However, we have found it useful, consistent with the Balaton group, to think about the environment as the ultimate resource – the ultimate means – upon which our economy, society and human flourishing depend.

Given this, we would argue that four basic natural capitals that ought be considered in any appraisal of the good include: the quality of the water in our rivers and oceans; the quality of our air; the biodiversity of our woodlands and wetlands; and the health and fertility of our soil.

Economy Although there are a range of different capitals to consider when appraising the economic aspects of the good, many are rather intangible and not amenable to observation by non-experts. In consequence, we have found it helpful to focus some of our attention on tangible economic capitals, specifically on built capital such as our stocks of public infrastructure (e.g., roads, dams) and public transport (e.g., trains, trams).

Of course, an understanding of some intangible economic factors can be gleaned from lived experience (e.g., economic and employment opportunities, the availability of fair wages) and we have measured these too.

Society If the environment and the economy are means, then the edifying social dimensions of life and human flourishing might be best regarded as the ends towards these means are directed (e.g., most of us work to live, not live to work). There are, of course, myriad social conditions and psychological states that people want to experience but four recurrent desiderata were access to affordable education, healthcare and housing and communities that are safe and free from crime. 

Who decides? Although necessary elements of life, these social desiderata are largely silent on questions of politics, power and participation. A more complete list of indicators of the good would, especially in a democratic polity such as ours, give consideration to who makes choices and decides what is to happen.

Given this, we would argue that four factors that are vital to understand the good in our society are: the openness, honesty and accountability of government; our engagement with democratic processes, like voting; the extent to which governance is driven by citizens, not special interest groups; and the diversity of the media our and access to information about, for example, government activities.

What does leadership for the greater good ‘look like’ in Australia?

Assessing clusters of indicators across these four dimensions – environment or nature, economy, society and the matter of who decides the direction and purpose of action – provide us with a way of gauging the perceived state of the world within these dimensions and the perceived quality of leadership practised in these four domains.

Notably, the combination of these four dimensions provides us with a compass, of sorts, that give us a sense of where we are heading. Nature, Economy, Society and Who decides? N, E, S, W. As observed by Alan AtKisson and Lee Hatcher, compasses provide orientation, but not direction, which means that they tell us neither where to go nor how to get there.

This means we must decide what direction we want to go, as it were, and how to get there. We would argue that the direction involves, at minimum, ensuring that we do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and that entrenching and expanding the practice of leadership for the greater good is a necessary, although not sufficient, part of understanding how we might bring about this state of affairs.

Leadership for the Greater Good can take many forms but it always needs to be locally relevant and culturally appropriate. As we have argued before, in all cases it recognises the legitimacy of the individual as citizen, the reality of our shared interests, and the importance of balancing competing interests in ways that enhance the public good.

By measuring the perceived state of sixteen goods across the dimensions of environment, economy, society and politics and power, as well as the performance of our leaders with respect to these goods, we hope to help illuminate the state of the good and leadership in its service in Australia.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Quantifying leadership for the greater good « Swinburne Leadership Institute - July 13, 2015

    […] quality of leadership offered in the service of the environmental, economic, social and political dimensions of the good and the extent to which citizens create ‘space’ for the leadership that addresses […]


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