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Column: Leaders must blend common good, individual rights

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In Hillary Clinton’s new book, she describes a situation where she must balance maintaining and developing a relationship with China, and the fact that a young Chinese man has asked for asylum in the U.S. embassy.

She had to decide how to balance the large common need to have a working relationship with China and the needs of an individual looking for support.

It does not matter what she did. What matters is that this is what leading is all about. It is balancing the needs of “common good” and the “individual.” It is everywhere and all the time.

Most of us tend to pick a side in this balancing act without consciously understanding the dynamic.

The liberals often stand by the need for creating a common good for all participants. The conservative side tends to favor the individual. I agree with both.

We cannot have a functioning society without a strong sense of both.

Our Constitution tried to create this balance, ensuring a strong sense of individual rights (remember, most of the nations at that time were ruled by kings, emperors, czars or other dictators) to try to balance against that type of tyranny.

But its framers knew that letting individuals without a common sense of purpose rule the day could create anarchy and chaos. They were seeking a balance. It goes on today.

Reading the local opinion pages shows us this struggle every day. Maybe it is around guns, reproductive rights, land use, public fund usage, public space or other issues of governance.

For example, Hartsville farmer William Gelfius’ proposal for a 4,400-head swine building in Clifty Township received spirited opposition before receiving approval. Can a hardworking farmer start his new hog business located in the midst of neighbors who protest? It is a prime example of what I am pointing to.

We certainly do not want to discourage the individual willing to take the risk of business expansion, and we do not want to ignore the common good of creating an environment that allows people to live in the vicinity. This is governance and leadership.

We have the constant desire of individuals to exercise their right to carry a gun, and we must balance that with the common need for safety.

Some will say “everyone carrying a gun” is the best for common safety, and others retort “no one having a gun” is best. This is one of the most delicate issues that tend to push people into what I call the either/or mindset.

We seem to retreat to “individual rights are supreme” or “common safety is the rule.” With these mindsets, we find no way to find balance and civil discourse with this issue.

And this mindset is the real issue facing us. Do we look at the world as an either/or situation or a both/and situation. Either/or will create a nonfunctioning society that constantly creates fighting factions.

Let us look at our favorite Hoosier pastime. Basketball is a game of individual excellence and team effort.

We have all seen those teams that have a couple of great players who do not share the ball and create scoring opportunities for others and fail as a team.

Every good coach will stress individual competence and skill blended with the teamwork. Teams win with common good, but they cannot win with a lack of individual effort. It is not either/or.

Working with corporations, I had to convince executives that they had very capable individuals at the shop floor level and at the same time convince unions that working for the common good of the company was in their best interests. It got crazy at times.

Some individuals thought that their new freedom to give input meant that every idea they had needed to be implemented. And some managers thought that they could just walk away from their role of integrators and this was some kind of free-for-all. It was neither.

We need the creative individual to be aligned with the common good. And the common good has to reward and support the creativity of the individual. It goes both ways.

Our world is getting more connected with the onset of the Internet, and we stand at a place of facing a more and more factious world that is breaking apart.

Or we can stand back and look at this tension of the common good and individual rights and ask how to find ways to blend this. To create a working relationship between both of these drives. To make it work for the individual and the common good.

That creates excellence at all levels.

We have an obligation to be personally excellent and to find our fit in the broader world we live in. And leaders have the obligation to constantly reinforce this way of looking at the world.

Columbus retiree Tom Lane served as a consultant to a number of companies in his career. In recent years his has been a familiar name to readers of The Republic’s Letters to the Editor section. He can be reached at

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