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Do Americans trust their leaders?

Roderick Kramer
Roderick Kramer is a Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Center Advisor to the Center for Public Leadership, on leave from Stanford Business School where he is the William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior.

Confidence in our leaders--and trust in the institutions they lead--are essential if we, as Americans, are to be expected to embrace the policies they propose and the decisions they render. That's one reason why it's so essential--and on a regular and recurring basis--to take the nation's temperature with respect to these basic but critical measures. And that's just what the National Leadership Index, conducted by Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership and the Merriman River Group, has been doing for five years now.

The results of the 2009 survey are in, revealing both bright spots and enduring concerns. Some good news: Although more than two-thirds (69%) of Americans still agree or strongly agree that a leadership crisis exists in America, this number is lower than it was in 2008 by 11%. And, while only 41% agree or strongly agree that our leaders are effective and doing a good job, this is an improvement (16%) over last year's results. Perhaps most encouraging is twice as many Americans now think the country is headed in a positive direction (33%) compared to 2007's dismal 14%.

Americans have long been--and remain--among the most optimistic people in the world when it comes to how they feel about the quality of their own lives and their beliefs about the future, as documented by survey after survey. Consistent with this rosy world-view, the National Leadership Index found a whopping 87% expressing confidence in the potential of effective leadership to solve our problems. In other words Americans still believe in the power of leadership. If they have lost faith, the survey suggests, it's about the current crop of individuals in leadership roles that seem to be driving their disenchantment and dismay -- not the idea that leaders can make a difference.

This finding raises an interesting question: How do Americans define good leadership? What's the "secret sauce"? It turns out trust in what leaders say and competence head the list of qualities Americans associate with effective leadership. Americans need to have confidence in the benevolent intentions and behavioral integrity of their leaders. People need to believe that it's not ego or desire for personal profit that's driving the leader, but rather a genuine interest in the welfare of others.

But good intentions and sterling character aren't enough. People also need to perceive their leaders as competent at executing and fulfilling their mandates. This finding isn't all that surprising: If you are choosing a surgeon for a life-or-death operation, you want to know that individual genuinely has your best interests at heart, but you also want to be sure they are darn good at what they do. If either of these two qualities are lacking in leaders, overall trust goes down.

And that's what the new survey results suggest--Americans value the capacity of a leader to produce results and their ability to stay in touch with the public's needs and concerns.

In the executive branch, public trust has turned upward for the first time since the survey began in 2005. And that's encouraging, because trust and optimism tend to flow down through a social system. A closer examination of the survey results, however, reveals a more complicated story. In fact, confidence in the executive branch varies across the political spectrum. Among moderates this year, Obama inspires more confidence than Bush did in 2007 or 2008. But among non-moderate liberal and conservative respondents, Obama has had a more divisive effect, in large part because liberals give Obama higher rankings than conservatives used to give Bush (thus, it's not a matter of conservatives' negative attitudes being particularly negative, but liberals' positive attitudes being particularly positive).

When it comes to falling trust in leaders, Wall Street and the media appear to be in a race to the bottom, with confidence down significantly for each. Fewer than one in five American's (17%) believe the media is working for the greater good of society, whereas 50% believed the media works on behalf of a small group of special interests. Thus, it seems, many Americans question the objectivity and trustworthiness of the information they receive. Research has shown that the media tends to frame the news--especially political news--in strategic and cynical terms. It may be the public is beginning to associate that cynicism with the messenger. The dismal levels of confidence in Wall Street hardly merit further mention, other than to state the obvious: The American people expect more.

So what's the bottom line? Certainly, it would be nice if the numbers were kinder. On the other hand, we shouldn't necessarily bemoan the lack of confidence in our leaders and institutions if, in fact, their performance is falling short of legitimate expectations. In fact, the vote of no confidence is sometimes the perfectly appropriate response, and it may be the best message to send to our current leaders if we hope to see genuine reform and improvement.

The distinctive American style of governance was predicated--indeed founded--on a healthy wariness of the motives and abilities of those in power. We should never hesitate to be optimistic--and Americans don't. But that doesn't mean we should adjust our expectations for public leaders and the institutions they lead downward. Nor should we relax our vigilance just because we don't like what we see. Public leadership is a trust--and that trust should be tempered by reality and only stingily doled out.

By Roderick Kramer

 |  November 2, 2009; 6:12 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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This thread disappeared pretty quickly.

What's the matter, did the people give the wrong answers?

And I trust that survey/poll about as much as I trust our (cough) leaders.

Posted by: rcubedkc | November 2, 2009 2:51 PM

Leaders? They are not leaders, they are traitors.

Presidents who lie us into wars and are allowed to comfortably retire when they should have faced a firing squad.

Corporate chiefs that buy congressman and "legally" rob us blind while bankrupting the very same corporations that hand them $MILLIONS in bonuses while the employees lose their jobs, retirement, healthcare and homes.

Senators and House members who take money to tow the line for corporate interests while lying through their teeth that what they're doing is in the public good.

Leaders? Hang em all.

Posted by: rcubedkc | November 2, 2009 2:18 PM

No. We don't trust our leaders. We don't trust our newspapers, either. Everyone is on the take, selling out, looking for a fast buck.

Posted by: SarahBB | November 2, 2009 1:58 PM

I am another who, unfortunately, doesn't trust our government. It seems that, by and large, American's majority and its middle class has been shut out of the legislative "process". Generally, this is result of the proliferation of the lawyer/politician who brings no leadership skills to the table, but does have the creepy attorney-like ability to speak to the masses, take sides, and make promises without ever doing so -- but always maximizes their bank account and pop idol status in the mainstream media while in the process.

Posted by: JAH3 | November 2, 2009 1:14 PM

I believe that along with "Trust" comes a well known demeaning word called "Temptation".

Government is the highest ranking job in the United States. These are mostly legal jobs and unfortunately "Politics" is involved. These positions offer a diverse meeting of people of all walks of life. For example: Most politicians have used lobbyists for years and it is a hard habit to break. Others, may not feel "right" about listening to only one side's views and pushing just their needs. I am starting to think that instead of fillibustering (which doesn't solve anything and wastes time) that these Politicians should be mandated to make a decision based on the "votes". This is a job, you can't talk for hours at your job, keeping progress or decision making from actually happening. So why should our Politicians?

These positions are elected "By The People". Who have negative thoughts on who is in office today. So, if you are able to log onto the Internet, then you are able to search each person you have a choice to vote on. Life is about choices and "today" more than ever, we need to choose wisely. Vote on who you "know" would be honest, have your best interests at heart, and would be faithful to the United States of America.

Then, you will have known who you voted for and why. Maybe the anger, hatred, lies, racial remarks etc. will dissapear from places like this one where you can place your comment :)

Posted by: SandiB2 | November 2, 2009 11:41 AM

The only people who trust their leaders are either, ideologues, or just plain stupid people.

Posted by: khm53 | November 2, 2009 9:58 AM

And whatever happened to that old "checks-and-balances" system we learned about in elementary school? Doesn't seem to be working with our "leaders." Everyone has his or her hand out or in someone else's pocket. Taking, taking, taking . . .

Posted by: mejane | November 2, 2009 8:07 AM

I have become one who does not trust our government nor our "leaders:" When they don't pay their taxes -- and I do. When they don't declare their income -- and I do. When they promise and promise and promise -- and don't deliver (sometimes, that's a good thing). When they want me to have the public insurance -- and they have their own private insurance -- and have their hand out for kickbacks or "donations" from the insurance companies. When the government passes bankrupty laws -- and then bypasses them for their own "ideals." When our "leaders" keep throwing money at problems -- and don't get to the root causes of the problems and cannot or will not pass or enforce the legislation they have already enacted. What's to trust? Not much.

Posted by: mejane | November 2, 2009 8:04 AM

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