TOPICS: America’s other deficit: Leadership

David Gergen and Andy Zelleke

America has a full plate right now. Must we really add “leadership crisis” to that dish? Apparently so. A startling 80 per cent 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 per cent public consensus.

This view of American leadership, according to the latest survey conducted by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and the Merriman River Group, is up substantially from the already high 65 per cent 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 perc ent 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.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 US is to maintain its position as the world’s leading economic, technological, and military power: 71 per cent 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.