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Common ground: The essence of true leadership

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If the direction of our national policy debate continues to be as polarizing as it has been since Inauguration Day, we may be in for a very long four years.

On the upside, Americans are experiencing a renewed sense of civic engagement, which is something that was sorely needed given that roughly a third of the country opted not to vote in the last general election.

Now, people nationwide who previously dropped out of politics are brushing up on their history, reading actual legislation instead of simply taking for granted what they see on the news or in their social media feeds, and monitoring the moves of their elected officials, some of whom they may not have even recognized six months ago.

And yes, being engaged, for some, also includes peaceful civic disobedience. It’s important to recognize peaceful protest as an act of patriotism, and altogether different from the more aggressive (and angry) “Black Bloc” tactics that agitators may employ to drive home their own message.

What I find discouraging about this point in American history is how sour every political debate seems to become, including those around regulations that have far-reaching impacts on the health and life insurance industries, namely the Department of Labor fiduciary rule, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the two pieces of legislation that make up the Affordable Care Act.

The political noise, paired with a lack of dialogue around this legislation, is worrisome, because health care and retirement planning are challenges facing all Americans, not just those who choose to pick a partisan side.

I am reminded of a comment that an old college friend made to me recently. “Left, right … it’s all the same,” he said. His point was that some debates are simply unwinnable, no matter where you stand on the issues. So why waste time on polarizing propaganda — like whether we are a nation of “nationalists” or a nation of “globalists,” for instance.

If this past election cycle proved anything, it was that Americans rarely appreciate being put into boxes, and no one likes being labeled. What people do like is knowing that they have been heard, because honest discourse, even (or perhaps most especially) contentious discourse, is the only sure way for people with different perspectives and experiences to find common ground.

In this climate, the measure of leadership may now be how well an agency or official can bring dissonant groups to the table to engage in productive dialogue. That means, to engage in any kind of forward-thinking planning, today’s leaders must illustrate that they can hear, acknowledge and respond to an opponent’s position.

Read more columns and articles by Elana Ashanti Jefferson:

Let’s make a pact…

4 times the Super Bowl made people think about life insurance

9 ways to make better prospecting connections

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