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Despite Our Differences, Can We Find a Common Good?

Inside the psychology of "the common good."

Key points

  • The idea of the common good has a long yet punctuated history, replete with diverging meanings.
  • In the context of tribalism and division, a shared sense of the common good is elusive, but vital.
  • How can insights from psychology help foster leadership for the common good?
anastasiia ivanova/Shutterstock
Source: anastasiia ivanova/Shutterstock

Against a backdrop of irresponsible leadership and distrust of institutions, there is a pervasive sense among the citizens of many countries that they are not well served by authorities and the institutions these authorities collectively manage, govern, and lead. There is a pervasive sense, chronicled in annual trust surveys and myriad public opinion polls, that authorities and institutions seem disposed to serve self-interest at the expense of the public interest. As a result, there are growing public demands for leadership that serves the common good.

In this context, thinking about the meaning of the common good, the search for the common good, and leadership for the common good is imperative. However, it is also difficult, because, despite all that has been written on the topic, the precise meaning of the common good remains elusive. Although the concept of the common good—and its synonyms, the public and greater good—seem familiar and commonplace, they are difficult to define in a precise or comprehensive way.

Indeed, as observed by the philosopher Hans Sluga, the diverse conceptions of the good—such as justice, happiness, liberty, security—and the variety of tribal, local, national, and global communities for which the good is sought militates against the identification of a single, determinate good. Moreover, the common good appears to be as much about process as outcome. Construed in this way, the common good might be better understood as an umbrella term for several interlocking concepts, conditions, processes, and systems that underpin survival and flourishing.

There is a corresponding difficulty in defining leadership for the common good. In the same way that the common good might be construed as an umbrella term for several interlocking conditions that underpin the survival-flourishing of life, leadership for the common good may be helpfully construed as an umbrella term for those leadership practices that, in the long run, foster these conditions.

As posited by leadership scholars John Bryson and Barbara Crosby, leadership for the common good requires leadership to be enacted across several interlocking levels (e.g., team, organization, sector, community) using a raft of practices pertinent to personal, team, organizational, and policy leadership. Given that no single individual can reasonably perform leadership at all these levels, leadership for the common good is, necessarily, a collective effort.

Indeed, according to Bryson and Crosby, leadership for the common good is required precisely in “shared power contexts” in which no single institution or set of institutions has the authority or capacity to manage the complex challenges encountered in these contexts. These contexts, termed “weak regimes” by Bryson and Crosby, are characterized by weak inter-actor agreement about the principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures.

Thus, leadership for the common good necessarily involves the tolerance and juxtaposition of distinct and perhaps competing perspectives: "necessarily" because in complex, pluralistic societies there are reasonable differences of opinion about what is the right, just, or fair thing to do. This, in turn, calls attention to the paradoxical nature of leadership for the common good, as well as the tensions, dilemmas, and paradoxes that much be apprehended and managed in the search for the common good.

Perhaps the most prominent among these is the tension between the individual and the collective, including groups, organizations, communities, and society itself. According to leadership scholars, Donelson Forsyth and Crystal Hoyt, the tension between the individual and the collective—politically, between individualism and collectivism—is “the master problem” of social life and is the tension to which many of the problems of modern life can be ultimately traced. There are a great many other tensions and competing values that could be enumerated.

This search for the common good highlights the importance of engaging the diversity of individual and collective actors that comprise the community or ecosystem within which common ground and the common good is sought. Thought of this way, the search for the common good is as much a top-down process involving positional leaders with formal mandates to lead as a bottom-up process of informal leadership and the discovery of shared reality and common interests.

As the overview above suggests, the common good and leadership for good are important constructs and practices, respectively, and perhaps increasingly so in the context of the tribalism and division of our times. However, these topics are difficult to approach head-on and invite no easy answers. I conceived the Leadership for the Common Good blog as a vehicle to think aloud, as it were, about these complex phenomena and to do so through a psychological lens. My goal in this series is to take a psychological perspective on the meanings of the common good, the psychological bases of divergent conceptions of the good, and the social processes involved in the search for the common good. I hope it sparks new insights and inspiration along the way.


Bryson, J. M., & Crosby, B. C. (1992). Leadership for the common good: Tackling public problems in a shared-power world. Jossey-Bass.

Forsyth, D. R., & Hoyt, C. L. (Eds.). (2011). For the greater good of all: Perspectives on individualism, society, and leadership. Palgrave Macmillan.

Sluga, H. (2014). Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.