For The Common Good

A review by Thomas J. Rice

For The Common Good; Redefining Civic Leadership, by David Chrislip and Ed O’Malley, is a singular contribution to the leadership literature, a genre that churns out over 2000 volumes a year and shows no sign of waning. With that kind of volume cascading off the press, I’m aware that it stretches credulity to claim singularity for such a slim volume. Still, I’m not alone in seeing something special here: For The Common Good has already won three highly coveted awards in this crowded field.

Why is this book so special?  For openers, it is a direct challenge to an orthodoxy that has dominated a field that was first established as such in the late 60s and 70s.  Even a casual review of this daunting body of work cannot fail to notice that, for all its variety, there is one dominant carrying beam, a mostly-unspoken premise, at the center of this literature:  Leadership resides in the individual in a position of authority with a followership dependent on the leader for vision, strategy, and inspiration. Sometimes charismatic, often not, the leader is always at the center of the action. His character and intellect—and it is typically a man —is the main determinant of the fate of his followers, be they organizations, cities, regions, or nation states. 

Others have broken with this “great man” theory  before, but no one  I’m aware of has prosecuted the case so explicitly, with such theoretical elegance and empirical clarity as have Chrislip and O’Malley.  This is a breakthrough book, destined to become required reading for anyone seeking grounded theory and practical guidance—not to mention inspiration—on the leadership challenges facing their communities and regions.

Ostensibly, Common Good is a case study of the Kansas Leadership Center(KLC), which, in 2007, took as its mission “…the creation of healthy communities in Kansas more capable of and willing to address their most intractable issues by nurturing the quantity and quality of civic leadership” (p. i). And while it does justice to the fine work of the center, it proves to have not just a local application in Kansas, but a global application which translates well across a broad array of cultural challenges around the globe—poverty, global warming, pollution, unemployment, infant mortality, terrorism, etc.

Those who’ve followed Chrislip’s work will know that Common Good is his third book on civic/collaborative leadership, which has been his passion for over thirty years as a stalwart practitioner and disciplined scholar of the civitas. His collaborator, O’Malley, has had first hand experience with the challenges of state politics in Kansas and bridge-building across the great divide of partisan bickering. Together this unlikely duo have produced not just an inspirational statement on why this new model of leadership is imperative, but also a highly accessible theoretical framework that has already passed the practitioner’s test in the field. The result is an exemplary act of civic leadership worthy of Gandhi’s adage that “…we must be the change we want to see in the world.”

The book is organized into three parts: The state, the practice, and the heart of civic leadership.  A foundational essay lays out the history of thinking about civic leadership in the U.S., including a linkage to the four great social movement dating back to the 60s and 70s: civil rights, grassroots, environmental, and women’s—all with common themes which “…threatened traditional power structures, radicalized and mobilized unheard of or disenfranchised voices and, at times, menaced the country with anarchy when institutions failed to change …”(p. 21).

Part of the historical context  Chrislip and O’Malley would have us appreciate is the pioneering work of three pillars of insight into the nature of civic leadership: James McGregor Burns, Mary Parker Follett, and John Gardner. The authors’ review of these three giants of civic thought is a stellar contribution all by itself, a stand-alone gift that broadens and enlivens the civic context in the ways that only great classics—e.g., Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—can do.
Following this erudite foundation, the authors introduce the notion of “Adaptive Challenges”—which they’ve adopted from the work of Professor Ron Heifitz , who is on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government .  They distinguish adaptive from technical problems—which can (usually)be solved by relevant expertise. For example, appendicitis—expertly diagnosed problem; expertly provided solution.   How about gun violence? Not so clear, on either problem or solution. And certainly not in the domain of experts. The authors argue that almost all our 21st century challenges are adaptive in their complex nature, and cannot be addressed by the traditional 20th century paradigm of top down, hierarchical, authority-centered leadership.

To make headway on our adaptive challenges, the authors argue, we need a “provocative” new approach, based on a set of principles and competencies designed for the multidimensional challenges we face at every level of society. Rather than lay out their theory  in the abstract, Chrislip and O’Malley select five civic leaders—Kansans all—as exemplars of the struggle. These are real leaders who had the courage to step outside their comfort zone, shifting from life-long habits of the heart to the risky business of adopting a new set of principles, and learning the new competencies required by the challenges at hand.

The five exemplars’ stories are the heart of the book.  What could have been a ponderous theoretical framework ( five guiding principles and four competencies) becomes a riveting drama as  the authors skillfully demonstrate the pragmatic value of the principles they’ve used to guide the work of KLC.

The four competencies follow from the guiding principles. They rely on citizen activists’ ability to: diagnose the situation, manage the self, intervene skillfully, and energize others. These are spelled out in detail in four chapters, each followed by a set of reflective questions at the end, designed to embed the learnings and promote the ongoing growth and development of civic leadership.  After more than three decades in the field, I can attest that I have seen expensive leadership workbooks in glossy, bound volumes that are not nearly as complete or useful as the four chapters that comprise Part II of Common Good.

The book closes by coming full circle to a spirited advocacy: a shift from individualistic thinking to a “much more appropriate view for the 21st century…leadership as sharing responsibility for acting together in pursuit of the common good”(p.159). They harken back to the great social movements, the great thought leaders—Burns, Follett, Gardner—and the four competencies all citizens are urged to cultivate. 

For frustrated citizens of a democracy faced with a gridlocked Congress, a “dysfunctional” parade of elected officials posing as leaders, a gaggle of presidential candidates displaying their naked self interest, and scant familiarity with the four competencies detailed here, Common Good could be a lifeline. We could, of course, continue to play the waiting game, cynical bystanders one and all, waiting for a charismatic hero to gallop to the rescue, only to dash our hopes all over again.

Or, we could take heart from this gem of a book. We might insist on choosing leaders who’ve demonstrated their commitment to the common good, who have the competence and courage to challenge us to take a risk, to become the leadership we’ve been waiting for, worthy of our precious democracy.

Chrislip and O’Malley have done their work, and given us an extraordinary gift: A choice, when we thought we had none.

The rest is up to us.

¹ 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award;  IndieFab Book of the Year;  finalist in University of San Diego Department of Leadership's Outstanding Leadership Book of the Year award, 2014 .