Do Americans trust their leaders?
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.
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