09/30/2014 10:24 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

Turning to Elders in a Politically Challenged America

At home and abroad, America is grappling with an extraordinary number of core issues challenging our ability to thrive. Yet we're overlooking a key resource in our communities, our states, and around the country. In the interest of our public good and the public's health, it's time to turn to our elders.

The issues that we face are unprecedented. Among others, they include changing weather patterns and their consequences; a lack of consensus on immigration policy; the danger of ISIS; economic and social problems in urban areas; political gridlock in Washington, DC; and the continuing fiscal challenge of rapidly evolving economies. Each has an impact on public health that extends beyond disease and into the broadest sense of public wellbeing.

It's not surprising that Americans are uncertain about the future. According to a September Gallup Poll, 76 percent of adults are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States. Rasmussen Reports found that President Obama's approval rating among likely voters on September 19 was just 46 percent. This discontent extends to Capitol Hill, where Gallup revealed last week a Congressional approval rating of 14 percent, perilously close to its all-time low.

Lack of confidence in our leadership leaves Americans without a worthwhile roadmap. We need experienced leaders who can plot out a principled, unified direction for our future, articulate objectives that create good for all of us, and draw the nation together in a shared vision. Our elected officials have let us down in this department.

We do have one remarkable, untapped resource for such leadership: the wisdom and unifying spirit of elders, a group distinguished not by age but by experience that often accompanies it.

Episodically Americans may turn to its most practiced leaders, but not with any regularity. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came together to lead our nation's response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The Simpson-Bowles Commission offered a bipartisan approach to federal budgetary issues but was ultimately ignored.

A global model that we should consider is the Elders, an independent group of leaders who work together for peace and human rights. Founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007, the group was chaired for the next six years by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and is now chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. About these senior statespeople, Nelson Mandela said, "Together they will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair."

The Elders consist of 12 renowned leaders from 12 countries, including the U.S. Many are household names and several are winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Interestingly, the group defines an elder not as a measurement of age but of experience and commitment:

Elders no longer hold public office; they are independent of any national government or other vested interest. They should have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership. The Elders share a common commitment to peace and universal human rights, but they also bring with them a wealth of diverse expertise and experience... An Elder is also a changemaker - someone who can lead by example, creating positive social change and inspiring others to do the same.

The concept would bring considerable value to the U.S. What if we as a nation, as individual states, as cities and towns, created our own Elders: bodies of influential and aspirational voices who can guide from evidence, come together to create a positive vision, direct us to essential social change, and inspire others to do the same?

Ironically, the original group was formed to take a local tradition and apply it globally. According to the Elders,

"The concept originates from a conversation between the entrepreneur Richard Branson and the musician Peter Gabriel. The idea they discussed was simple: many communities look to their elders for guidance, or to help resolve disputes. In an increasingly interdependent world -- a 'global village' -- could a small, dedicated group of individuals use their collective experience and influence to help tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the world today? Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel took their idea of a group of 'global elders' to Nelson Mandela, who agreed to support it. With the help of Graça Machel and Desmond Tutu, Mandela set about bringing the Elders together and formally launched the group in Johannesburg, July 2007."

Now we must turn full circle and make the concept local again. It's time to apply the model more broadly in the United States and build admired institutions of leadership -- either formally or informally -- that will unite rather than incite, solve problems rather than inflame them, create a future of justice and shared health and well-being rather than inequality and poverty. It's time to turn to our elders and position them to lead from nonpartisan wisdom that can be highly regarded and widely accepted.