It is fashionable these days to decry the quality of American leaders, and why not?
Not long ago, we celebrated our CEOs as the new masters of the universe; some paid themselves as if they thought so, too, and their faces graced the covers of magazines everywhere. But last year, that universe imploded, and taxpayers were forced to come to the rescue. As Bill George of the Harvard Business School argues, we have come to realize that the economic crisis was less a matter of subprime mortgages than subprime leadership.
Washington has fared only a little better than Wall Street. A new Congress pledged to working together swiftly returned to old patterns of bickering and rank partisanship. With the public continuing to give members failing marks, political strategists warn of another "wave election" in 2010 that could sweep away many incumbents.
Perhaps the biggest puzzle involves America's new president. Barack Obama fired the imagination of the country in the campaign a year ago, and his Inauguration Day was magical. Millions of citizens revere him still, thankful that he—not his predecessor—is in the White House and convinced that he remains our greatest hope.
Yet the glow of Inauguration Day has clearly faded. Less than a year into office, the country is as sharply divided as under George W. Bush. Obama's critics argue that he is rushing too fast with too much government and too much debt; his supporters vigorously defend him in public, but in private some worry that he has not yet made the transformation from campaigner to chief executive. Controversy rages on many fronts.
Crisis of confidence. This is not the first season that Americans have felt disgruntled with their leaders. Months before the economy cracked and Obama rose to prominence, some three quarters of Americans said we faced a leadership crisis. Indeed, confidence in government plummeted back in the '60s and '70s and has never really recovered. It was nearly four decades ago that John Gardner first observed that at the founding, with a population of 3 million, the republic spawned a dozen world-class leaders—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and Hamilton among them—but today, with a population nearly 100 times that, we struggle to produce even one or two.
That the leadership deficit now seems so chronic suggests that the problem goes deeper than the quality of the individuals who come to power. There is something in the culture that makes leadership even tougher and more perilous than it should be. Why, asked Thomas Jefferson, did the American Revolution create a budding democracy while the French Revolution—coming at virtually the same time and with similar values—ended in tyranny? The answer, he thought, could be traced as much to the quality of the followers as to that of the leaders: American citizens were more accustomed than the French to responsible self-government.
Our leaders today are discovering, with a vengeance, how much followers matter. When the economic bubble burst last year, a powerful, angry uprising swept the country and moved into Washington. Obama privately told bank CEOs, "My administration is the only thing that stands between you and the pitchforks." Obama himself was the target of a second populist uprising that came in tea parties, town halls, and public marches. Hatred hung in the air, and some worried about violence.
The president and his supporters have tended to blame the blogosphere and 24-hour news channels that feature extreme voices and manufacture artificial controversies. They have a point. There was a time in the lives of many today when the culture and the media environment were more civil and the country was more united. The 1940s, '50s, and early '60s had ugly moments—remember McCarthy? And Dallas?—but the overall tone was more positive. Was it any accident that those years also spawned Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, and Kennedy?
The occasion of America's Best Leaders gives us a chance to pause and reflect on where and why we have slipped off track. Fortunately, it also provides a welcome opportunity to salute those who are actually succeeding in this environment—men and women who are persevering against the odds and are lighting candles for others. These leaders are a remarkable lot and each an inspiring story. And they are living proof that if we can retain the spirit of the early republic, giants may walk among us again.
David Gergen is director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and editor at large for U.S.News & World Report.
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