Poll Shows Americans Still Disappointed in Leaders

Contact: Patrick McKiernan
Phone: (617) 496-4695
Date: October 28, 2010

Cambridge, MA—Americans’ confidence in the country’s leaders remains below-average for the third consecutive year, according to National Leadership Index (NLI) poll results released by the Center for Public Leadership(CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and Merriman River Group. Surprisingly, however, Americans’ predominant emotional responses to their leaders’ ability to handle crises are disappointment and hopefulness—not something much worse, such as anger or fear.

After a steep decline in 2008, confidence in America’s leaders has not returned to the “average” levels identified from 2005–07. Belief that we have a “leadership crisis in America” remained high at 68 percent; 71 percent of respondents believe the U.S. will “decline as a nation” without better leadership.

“This survey represents yet another cry from the American public for more effective leadership, not only in politics, but in many other fields,’” said David Gergen, public service professor of public leadership at HKS and director of CPL. “For three straight years, two-thirds or more Americans have said that we have a leadership crisis and a significant majority believe that unless we address this crisis, the country faces a bleak future.”

On a more granular level, only four of the 13 sectors—nonprofits & charities, the Supreme Court, and medical and traditionally high-rated military sectors—garnered at or above-average levels of confidence. Leaders of news media, Congress, and Wall Street remained the lowest rated.

This year’s survey asked respondents about the number of crises facing our leaders, as well as their ability to handle them. Significantly more Americans, 56 percent, felt that the U.S. faces more crises today compared to the past; only six percent felt that we face fewer. Americans’ opinions of leaders’ ability to handle these crises were split: 51 percent reported “some” or “a great deal” of confidence and 48 percent said “not much” or “none.”

Among the other highlights of this year’s National Leadership Index:

  • Conservatives’ confidence in America’s leaders declined slightly each year from 2005–07, and then declined sharply each year from 2008–10.
  • Confidence in business leadership increased for the second year in a row.
  • Confidence in the leaders of the military, local government, education, and Congress decreased from 2009.
  • When asked about the negative emotions they experience when considering our leaders’ ability to handle the crises we face, as many Americans say they are disappointed (37 percent), as say they are angry, fearful, or embarrassed (35 percent for all three combined).

The complete report is available online at:www.hks.harvard.edu/leadership

The poll surveyed a demographically representative sample of 1,029 U.S. citizens (margin of error ± 3.1 percent)

About the Center for Public Leadership
Established through a generous gift from the Wexner Foundation, the Center for Public Leadership is celebrating its tenth anniversary of advancing the frontiers of knowledge about leadership through research and teaching, and deepening the pool of leaders for the common good through co-curricular activities that include skill-building workshops, fellowships, and programming in leadership for social change. Learn more at: www.hks.harvard.edu/leadership

About Merriman River Group
Founded in 1998, Merriman River is a leader in public opinion research, communication services, and election supervision and administration. Their client roster includes major universities, Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, labor unions and candidates for political office. Please visit www.merrimanriver.com for more information.


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