Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today's Challenges from Around the Globe

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Individual Freedom And The Common Good

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(17 November 2020)

by Barry Johnson, Author, And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Volume One - Foundations, USA

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has expressed frustration over competing with other states and the federal government for ventilators, tests, and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). He has requested a centralized, nationally coordinated effort. Cuomo has a point. On the other hand, when pressed for national coordination, President Trump says he does not want to become a "socialist country." He decentralized by delegating many decisions to the states, including reopening the economy, so they can respond to local realities. One size does not fit all. Trump also has a point.

Governor Cuomo and President Trump are each expressing a point of view shared by many. The points are driven by a powerful, emotionally loaded value attached to an equally powerful fear of losing that value. One value is for the Common Good, with centralized coordination as a means of support. The fear attached to the Common Good is that decentralization will lead to a disorganized government in which the Common Good is lost. The second value is for Individual Freedom, with decentralization as a means of support. The fear attached to Individual Freedom is that centralization will lead to big government in which Individual Freedom will be lost.

Fighting over which is right did not serve us well before COVID-19. It is not serving us well in addressing COVID-19 now and will not serve us well afterward. The assumption that we must choose between Individual Freedom "Or" the Common Good feeds the polarization. When we divide these two powerful values with "Or" we allow COVID-19 to kill many more friends and family members, deepen its damage to our economy, and slow our recovery.

We can move from polarized to optimized.

These two powerful values are both essential and they need each other. They are an interdependent pair called a polarity for which "And-thinking" is required. We need to maximize the benefits of decentralizing to protect Individual Freedom And maximize the benefits of centralizing for the Common Good. We can and must do both, by:

  1. Recognizing the bigger picture
  2. Appreciating the power and wisdom within each point of view
  3. Understanding how power works with polarities
  4. Using a dual strategy to maximize the gifts of each point of view and minimize its liabilities.

Recognize the Bigger Picture - Put Both Points of View on a Polarity Map®i

Polarity Map Figure 1 is a picture of a Polarity Map. The two points of view are represented in the diagonal quadrants. President Trump's point of view (gold) has a strong value for Individual Freedom.

(+A) tied to an equally strong fear of losing that value to Big Government (–D). In support of that point of view it is helpful to Decentralize (Left Pole).

Governor Cuomo's point of view (blue) has a strong value for the Common Good (+C) tied to an equally strong fear of losing that value to Disorganized Government (–B). In support of that point of view it is helpful to Centralize (Right Pole).

We must leverage the tension between these two points of view to achieve the goal at the top of the map (green): Healthy People and Economy. The infinity loop represents the perpetual movement of energy through the system over time. The loop going high into each upside represents the intent to maximize the benefits of both Individual Freedom And the Common Good. The infinity loop going only slightly into each downside represents the intent to minimize the limits of Disorganized Government or Big Government.

There are many values we, as a country, associate with Individual Freedom: "…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,"ii entrepreneurship, individual expression/creativity/initiative, "Give me liberty or give me death."iii "All for one…". The more we value Individual Freedom, the stronger our fear of losing it to "Big Government." There are many negative labels or fears that get associated with Big Government: socialism, China, excessive centralized control, over-regulation, loss of freedom, welfare state, and The Swamp - to name a few.

At some level, we all value Individual Freedom and resist efforts to limit that freedom. We don't like to be told, "Stay at home," or "Stop all non-essential work." While Individual Freedom is valued by both Republicans and Democrats, it is generally held most tightly by Republicans. It shows up in President Trump and most Republican Governors being hesitant to impose stay-at-home orders even when it is recommended by medical experts. It shows up in their taking the lead on opening things up as soon as possible and in the protests at state capitals by citizens demanding an end to stay-at-home regulations.

We also value the Common Good. This requires centralized coordination for the benefit of everyone. There are many values we associate with the Common Good: we are all "…created equal,"iv we are all in this together, we must attend to the well-being of the marginalized as well as the dominant culture, no one left behind, "United we stand." The more we value the Common Good, the stronger the fear of its loss: Freedom without Equality leads to gross inequality including the creation and neglect of marginalized groups. Decentralization without centralized coordination leads to polarization, selfishness, fights over basic needs, redundancy, and Disorganized Government.

At some level, we all value the Common Good and basic equality. The Common Good is valued by both Democrats and Republicans but is generally held most tightly by Democrats.

There is wisdom in this point of view, including its set of values and fears. It shows up when governors collaborate in sharing ventilators and PPE and when medical staff travel across the country to serve where COVID-19 is most lethal. It shows up when Governors give stay-at-home mandates based on recommendations from medical experts knowing it will be hard on everyone and the economy. It shows up when they are hesitant to open things up too fast for fear of giving COVID-19 another foothold.

Understand how power works with polarities

It is easy to see how these two points of view can become engaged in a power struggle. Focusing on Individual Freedom seems to be a solution to the many problems with Big Government. Conversely, focusing on the Common Good seems to be a solution to the many problems with Disorganized Government.

When any one pole is perceived as the solution, everyone pays:

  1. We pay by wasting energy in a power struggle over which pole to choose.
  2. We pay when one side "wins" because everyone gets the downside of the winners' preferred pole. If Individual Freedom wins, we all get Disorganized Government. If the Common Good wins, we all get Big Government.
  3. We pay a third time when we find ourselves in the downside of both poles. Disorganized Government is vulnerable to getting bigger in response to its Disorganization. Big Government is vulnerable to being increasingly bureaucratic. The result undermines both Individual Freedom And the Common Good.

A strategy to maximize the gifts and minimize their liabilities.

Since there are two points of view to be respected and empowered in every polarity, we need a strategy, such as a Polarity Map®, to alleviate the tension.

To create a polarity map, advocates for each point of view work with each other to identify the many benefits of preserving Individual Freedom and the many benefits of caring for the Common Good. This process respects the reality that each point of view has benefits and values worth preserving. Advocates for each point of view have a place to stand within the map.

The process continues as they, together, identify the liabilities of focusing on the Common Good to the neglect of preserving Individual Freedom and vice versa. This respects the reality that each point of view has a potential liability worth avoiding. When the map is completed, the group can generate Action Steps to maximize the upsides and identify Early Warning signs to let them know when they are getting into the downsides of either pole.

Whether we are addressing COVID-19 at the local, state, national or international level, making the false choice between Individual Freedom "Or" the Common Good leaves us with the worst of both worlds – a pandemic and an economic recession. We need centralized coordination internationally for the global common good And we need decentralized efforts that support each country in responding to its unique needs. Misdiagnosing this "both/And" polarity as an "either/Or" problem gives the advantage to COVID-19. Recognizing it as the polarity of Individual Freedom And the Common Good will give us more than a fighting chance.

This essay is a condensed version of Postscript Article in And, Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma – Volume One: Foundations, HRD Press (2020).

iPolarity Map® is a registered trademark of Barry Johnson and Polarity Partnerships, LLC.  Commercial use encouraged with permission.
iiUS Declaration of Independence, 1776
iiiPatrick Henry, 1775
ivUS Declaration of Independence, 1776

Barry Johnson Barry Johnson is the author of And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma. Volume One - Foundations. HRD Press, 2020 www.polaritypartnerships.com. He created his first Polarity Map in 1975. Since then he has traveled the world learning, with others, how to apply polarity thinking in their circumstances. Barry is married with 5 children and 11 grandchildren. He likes kayaking and walking anywhere with his wife Dana.

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