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America's other deficit: leadership

A staggering 80 percent of survey respondents say we have a leadership crisis.

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Several years ago, the pioneering leadership scholar Warren Bennis wondered how it could be that the much smaller society at the time of the United States' founding could have produced six world-class leaders: Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and Franklin – while in recent times, he suggested, we seem to struggle to find even one or two.

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Indeed, at the presidential level, our survey indicates that relatively few Americans believe they will be choosing, on Nov. 4, between two good leaders (albeit proponents of divergent policy agendas).

Only 30 percent of Barack Obama's partisans have even moderate confidence that a President McCain would prove to be a good leader; and a mere 19 percent of John McCain's supporters have that level of confidence about a President Obama.

The near-perfect storm of challenges facing the nation has created an urgent need for better leadership. But how do we restore the public's confidence in leaders in our most important institutions and sectors?

They have to earn it back.

Those of us who work in these domains have ample opportunity – and in these troubled times, the responsibility – to do our part.

In some of these sectors, there is a pressing need for leaders to demonstrate greater commitment to the common good and less to their own self-interest. More such commitment is expected from those in the public sector than in the private. But the financial crisis has made abundantly clear that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest by even the most private of private sector actors can have calamitous results. Those consequences affect both the economy and average Americans. Accordingly, more should be expected from private sector leaders than minimally meeting their legal obligations.

Our policymakers, simply put, must be extraordinarily competent. Consider the challenge of the ongoing financial crisis. The center of gravity of the administration's response has shifted a couple of times and will probably continue to evolve. But what is striking is how few – in the government, or among its critics – purport to know exactly what to do to solve the problem.

Public sector leaders must level with the American people about the challenges our nation faces, and the trade-offs and sacrifices entailed in addressing them.

The magnitude and complexity of these challenges demands extraordinary effectiveness. The public is ready for leaders in all sectors to reaffirm and demonstrate their commitment to the common good and to pull their weight in meeting the challenges of our times.

David Gergen and Andy Zelleke are director and codirector, respectively, of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.