Expert Commentary

National Leadership Index 2012: A national study of confidence in leadership

2012 study by the Harvard Kennedy School analyzes citizens' confidence in leadership across 13 different sectors, including the military, medicine, politics and more.

The practice of leadership in 21st century America must account for a variety of challenges: Declining trust in traditional institutions; the increasing diversity of the populace; the “flattening” effects of technology; a more politically polarized public. News media reports have spotlighted the failings of leadership across a variety of areas, from the military to corporate America, even as salient examples of success, such as that of Steve Jobs, are touted. It’s a confusing time, but what are the hard data associated with perceptions of leadership?

The American public has indeed generally shown declining levels of confidence in their leaders since the mid-2000s. The 2012 edition of the “National Leadership Index,” published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, analyzes citizen confidence in leadership across 13 different sectors: military, medical, nonprofit and charity, Supreme Court, local government, religious, education, Executive Branch, state government, news media, Congress and Wall Street.

The Index results come from automated telephone interviews with 1,013 U.S. citizens aged 18 years or older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The authors use data from the latest Census to ensure that the sample is representative of the general population with regard to gender, race and marital status.

In 2012, the key findings include:

  • Compared to 2011, the number of Americans who believe that their leaders are “effective and do a good job” increased by 9% (from 21% to 30%); the belief that America is suffering from a “leadership crisis” declined 8% (from 77% to 69%).
  • As in 2011, Americans have “above-average confidence” only in the military and medical sectors. “For the eighth year in a row, military leadership inspires the most confidence out of the 13 [tested] sectors.” This was followed by, in order, nonprofits and charities, local government and religious institutions.
  • Conservatives had the most confidence in the military, religious institutions and business, in that order. Liberals placed their confidence in the executive branch, the military and the medical sector. Moderates favored the military, the medical sector and nonprofits and charities.
  • In the 2011 report the lowest levels of confidence were reported in Wall Street (the lowest) and Congress (the next to lowest). In the 2012 edition, confidence in Wall Street increased slightly, leaving Congress in last place.
  • 81% of Americans believe the nation’s problems “can be solved with effective leadership,” an increase from 77% in 2011; 61% of Americans believe that ordinary citizens have “a great deal or a moderate amount of power” to help make America’s leadership more effective and 88% feel they have “a great deal or a moderate amount” of personal responsibility to participate to make this happen.
  • “The last time confidence rose, in 2009, a new president had taken office and renewed confidence in the executive branch helped buoy the National Leadership Index. This year, the sources of renewed confidence are found across the political spectrum and across the leadership of several sectors. For example, conservatives, moderates, and liberals all reported increased confidence in America’s business leaders in 2012.”

While the percentage of Americans who believe there is a leadership crisis has declined, it is still at 69%. Despite the overall positive trends in 2012, the researchers caution leaders not to ignore this continuing concern.

For more details and historical perspective on the field of business, see the 2012 longitudinal study from Stanford University “Confidence in Banks, Financial Institutions and Wall Street, 1971-2011.” The study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, examines historical shifts in public opinion on the financial sector and its employees during periods of instability.

Tags: presidency, religion

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