America's other deficit: leadership

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

America has a full plate right now. Must we really add "leadership crisis" to that dish?

Apparently so. A startling 80 percent of the American people believe there is a leadership crisis in this country. In a nation so sharply divided on so many issues – politically and culturally – rare indeed is an 80 percent public consensus.

This view of American leadership, according to the latest survey [PDF] conducted by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and the Merriman River Group, is up substantially from the already high 65 percent reported when the annual survey began in 2005. And that 80 percent may well understate the degree of dissatisfaction existing today, since the survey was completed as the financial crisis was still unfolding this past September.

The first reaction of some may be to ask what the remaining 20 percent can possibly be thinking, given the pileup of policy failures on the part of our political leaders. Another reaction might be that the perceived "leadership crisis" may simply be a rough proxy for the public's dissatisfaction with the Bush administration and the current Congress.

But strikingly, our survey finds that the negative consensus on the nation's leadership goes beyond government – and reaches nearly every one of the country's most important sectors and institutions.

In the case of business, the executive branch of government, Congress, religion, education, the Supreme Court, and state government, the public's confidence in their leaders has suffered the biggest drop since our survey began. Not surprisingly, over the past year the single sharpest decline in the public's confidence registered against business leaders. Only Congress, the "alternative" news media, and the executive branch of the federal government inspired lower ranking.

Leaders in only two institutions – the military and the medical profession – enjoy even a "moderate" level of public confidence. And then just barely.

Moreover, the public seems to understand that this leadership deficit is unsustainable if the United States is to maintain its position as the world's leading economic, technological, and military power: 71 percent agreed that without better leaders, the US will decline as a nation.

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.

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.

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