As fall approaches, you can feel election season right around the corner. Mailboxes fill with political mailers, yard signs multiply, candidates knock on doors and news stories intensify. In the approximately 12 weeks until Election Day, I encourage voters to listen to and watch the behavior of candidates. Look for words and actions that reflect something I call policy humility. If she or he has it, consider voting for that candidate. We need more humble wisdom and less contention in the public square.
Humility is a powerful attribute in every leadership role, but particularly germane in public service. Public leadership requires respect for everyone's point of view — not just the privileged, not just those who look like the leader, and certainly not just those who agree with the leader. Policy humility occurs when a leader recognizes her or his shortcomings, seeks to learn from others, shares credit and keeps a laser-eye focus on the common good. Policy humility aligns well with servant leadership, where leaders truly care and possess empathy and awareness for the people they represent.
Humble leaders listen more and talk less. They seek first to understand and then to be understood. They eschew politically cheap behavior and, instead, maintain an openness to constructive ideas. In many ways, humble leaders are post-partisan and post-ideological. They focus on preventing and solving problems, not ideological purity. They value collaboration and compromise because they best represent diverse perspectives. When pushed, they know that principles are not more important than people.
I like to encourage business leaders, students and really anyone who will ask to consider this simple public policy exercise:
Think of one of your public policy pet peeves. It could be excessive regulation, ill-advised school curriculum, burdensome taxes, an inefficient social welfare program or any number of government decisions that impact our lives.
Now, look across the aisle at someone who feels differently. Consider their background and life experiences. Maybe they grew up poor, maybe they have a child with a special need, maybe they lost their life savings in a bad business deal, maybe the IRS garnishes wages they need to support their family, or maybe they have suffered significant hardship in their personal life. Perhaps they have a neighbor who abuses the welfare system or maybe their son is a schoolteacher and works incredibly hard for a meager salary. Maybe they are just wired differently than you.
Even with these differences, perhaps because of these differences, show them your respect. They feel differently than you do, but they have walked and learned life's lessons on a different path. Leaders who possess policy humility know nobody has a monopoly on wisdom and good ideas. They actively pursue understanding.
Take a step closer to this person. See how it feels. If you can't do it out of agreement, do it out of respect. Then, ask them to do the same. Now, repeat the process and take another step closer to them. After just a few steps, everything changes. You have both demonstrated respect and empathy. You have shown a willingness to be more informed. You have demonstrated policy humility.
If our elected officials followed this practice, amazing policy innovations would happen. Medicare and Social Security would be reformed. Public land decisions would gain greater acceptance. Immigration reform would be far more likely. Local land use decisions would be less contentious. Many other policy advances would occur for the betterment of our country and community.
The election season brings a fair amount of trepidation. Sometimes it feels like we have reached a point of permanent estrangement. Sometimes, it feels like, in the words of Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, "Instead of religious people involved in politics, politics is becoming a religion."
I'd like to twist that phrase to say politics is not religion, but politics could benefit from religion. The religion our politics needs is policy humility — leaders who listen more, respect more, compromise more and love more. Leaders who follow our national motto: Out of many, one.