New research by the Swinburne Leadership Institute provides compelling empirical evidence of the perceived leadership malaise in Australia. However, in addition to familiar, dismal statistics about our deep distrust of political leaders, this population survey, conducted in late 2014, provides important clues about the roots of this malaise.
Stated baldly, the Australian public does not believe that Australian leaders care about the greater good. Importantly, this finding is not confined to political leaders, although, predictably, political leaders fared the worst.
To illustrate, 68 per cent of respondents thought political leaders were more concerned about self-interest and interests of their close supporters than the wider public interest. The figure for business and religious leaders was 75 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively.
Moreover, 63 per cent of respondents thought political and trade union leaders were more concerned with the interests of present than future generations of Australians. The figure for business and religious leaders was 53 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively.
Although political, business, trade union, and religious leaders could be distinguished in terms of trustworthiness, these different categories of leaders clustered tightly together in terms of their apparent concern for the public good.
The bad news for political leaders does not end there.
As stewards of our commonwealth, political leaders have a special responsibility to conserve, preserve, and restore our common and public goods. Furthermore, we expect that this stewardship of ‘the commons’ will be enacted in the service of all Australians, including future Australians.
The results of this study should give political leaders pause for thought about their credibility as stewards of our collective goods.
Regardless of whether the focus was on the environmental commons (e.g., biodiversity) or public goods in the economic, social and political domains (e.g., infrastructure, access to affordable housing, government accountability), Australians spoke with one voice.
First, Australians regard the present state of our collective goods as much worse than it should be for future generations. Second, Australians do not believe that political leaders are doing all they can to conserve, preserve, and restore our collective goods.
Taken together, this pattern of findings about concern for the public interest, concern for the needs of future Australians, and stewardship of the commons indicates that we have a dim view of political leaders’ concern for the greater good.
Unhappily, it is currently unfashionable to talk about the greater good or its synonyms: the public good and common good. We should be more concerned about this than we are.
Three interlocking reasons why it is time to start thinking and talking again about the greater good are especially salient.
First, after years of beneficent economic conditions, Australia now faces a choice between what the economist Ross Garnaut calls a ‘public interest’ approach to our complex challenges and a ‘business and politics as usual’ approach.
However, in order to choose the public interest approach to our complex challenges, we need to understand the meaning of the public interest. Understanding the meaning and expression of the greater good is indispensable to this.
Second, even if there was agreement about the meaning of the greater good in the groves of academe (there isn’t), expert knowledge about the meaning and state of the greater good would not be sufficient. We, as citizens, must possess a working and shared understanding of the greater good that is peculiar to us, as Australians, and alive to our complex or ‘wicked’ challenges.
Unlike ‘tame’ problems that can be managed by experts or ‘critical’ problems that call for decisive commanders, wicked problems cannot be solved via compliance with experts or through obedience to authorities.
Wicked problems, as the leadership scholar Keith Grint points out, requires that we take collective responsibility for our shared problems. Persuading us to assume shared responsibility for our collective problems is the real work of leadership.
And this leads to the final reason why it is so important to start talking and thinking again about the greater good.
The greater good functions as a type of short hand; a reminder that beyond our individual pursuit of material self-interest, we possess myriad shared interests and face a common future. The very act of talking about the greater good provides the occasion to think anew about the possibility of collective purpose.
Although Australians are justly concerned about the apparent privileging of self-interest over the public interest by political leaders, we, as citizens, can do more to create the beneficent political conditions in which leadership for the greater good can be enacted and sustained.
Re-engaging with and re-imagining the concept of the greater good—one of our most ancient, civilising ideas —is a practical way in which we can view our shared interests and common future with fresh eyes.
It is time to start thinking and talking seriously about this once and future idea.