An upcoming report from Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership once again confirms that most Americans long for leaders better than the ones they now have. The 2009 National Leadership Index (NLI) reveals that our confidence in leaders is above average in only thee sectors—military, medical, and nonprofit.
On one level, then, Americans are like everyone else—we seek leaders who have the real or imagined qualities and capacities that we associate with great leaders. But on another level, one deeper and more telling, Americans have always been, since the start, resistant to leadership, reluctant to grant anyone the right to tell us what to do.
In good part, this ambivalence, and even antagonism, toward those in positions of authority grows out of our revolutionary heritage. As noted by historian Bernard Bailyn, the American Revolution undermined the premises of the old, hierarchical, European order. Defiance "poured from the colonial presses and was hurled from half the pulpits of the land. The right, the need, the absolute obligation to disobey legally constituted authority had become the universal cry."
What came to be considered the American Creed further fueled this resistance to leadership. Get beneath the now platitudinous veneer of words such as freedom, equality, and independence, and you will get to why we do not easily follow even leaders formally designated. As Tocqueville observed in his 19th-century classic Democracy in America, "When it comes to the influence of one man's mind over another's, that is necessarily very restricted in a country where the citizens have all become more or less similar . . . and since they do not recognize any signs of incontestable greatness or superiority in any of their fellows, are continually brought back to their own judgment as the most apparent and accessible source of truth."
America's more recent history has further complicated the task of good governance, good leadership, and good followership. The world the '60s made, the various rights revolutions that began about then and continue even now, challenged those in positions of authority with renewed vigor and daring. Remember, to take just one example, the fevered ferment on so many college campuses? As a result, the old ways of behaving (once upon a time students were deferential to their professors!) went out the window, conceptions of what should constitute a curriculum were democratized, and policies such as affirmative action changed the very notion of who should be attending college in the first place. Things got to the point where John Gardner, earlier an impressive leader himself and later an astute student of leadership, cautioned that "we are immunizing a high proportion of our most gifted young people against any tendencies to leadership."
How did the information revolution further exacerbate the situation that Bailyn explains, Tocqueville describes, and Gardner decries? I could count the ways but here will say simply that the impact of the Internet in America has been so great as to change fundamentally the dynamic between those who hold positions of power and authority and those who do not. The Internet has, of course, had similar effects the world over (save in the poorest countries and the few still totalitarian). But in America, the impact of the Web has been especially fast and far-reaching because here it extended and expanded on an already existing condition—one in which, to reiterate, ordinary people "do not recognize any signs of incontestable greatness or superiority in any of their fellows."
To an extent, the changes wrought by technology are generational. Millennials (born from the 1970s to the 1990s) obviously have a facility with cutting-edge communications that most of their elders do not. Still two years before he became president, Barack Obama was almost unknown. He emerged from nearly nowhere because of a grass-roots campaign that used the Internet to raise astonishingly large sums of money from people of every age and to enlist an army of active supporters, of every age, virtually overnight.
In his essay for this year's America's Best Leaders feature, David Gergen points out that "leaders today are discovering, with a vengeance, how much followers matter." It's a point I have made and written about extensively. But as we celebrate America's Best Leaders, it's important to put the point in historical context. Leaders today are discovering how much followers matter because followers matter more than they ever did before. Still, in the United States of America particularly, followers have always mattered. The Founders understood how powerful our collective cultural aversion to power was—which is precisely why, in The Federalist Papers, they went to such great lengths to assure our forebears that the purportedly meager authority of the American president would in no way resemble the overweening authority of the English king.
The bottom line, then, is this: Exercising leadership in America is now, as it has always been and then some, dreadfully difficult. Moreover, the degree of dissatisfaction in this regard is shocking: NLI researchers found that fully 69 percent of Americans agree or strongly agree that "we have a leadership crisis in America today."
All the more reason, then, to celebrate the men and women honored as America's Best Leaders. They deserve our respect, as they do our gratitude. Given that the long odds against them are embedded in history, and embellished by the changes since, the achievements of leaders like these are as astonishing as they are impressive.
Barbara Kellerman is the author, most recently, of Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. Her forthcoming book is Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence.