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Americans are increasingly skeptical about the effectiveness of their leaders

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New National Survey: Americans Are Increasingly Skeptical About The Effectiveness Of Their Leaders

Results of a new, annual national survey of attitudes about leadership show widespread and increasing dissatisfaction with U.S. leaders along with skepticism about the preparedness of younger generations to lead into the future.

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The scientific online survey of more than 1,800 people was conducted by Christopher Newport University researchers Lynn Shollen and Elizabeth Gagnon. Key findings from this groundbreaking look at leadership include:

  • Only 28 percent of those surveyed believe leaders in the U.S. are effective
  • Leaders are seen as less effective now than compared to 20 years ago (60 percent)
  • Leaders are regarded as too removed from the experiences of ordinary people (74 percent)
  • Many believe it is too risky in today’s social climate to be a leader (46 percent)
  • Many believe that unless they are at the top of an organization, they may not be able to be influential even if they try to lead, because leaders at the top are so powerful (49 percent)
  • Younger generations are not widely seen as being equipped to lead (57 percent)

“These results are discouraging because we know that effective leadership is crucial if we’re to thrive socially, politically and economically,” said Shollen. “We do detect a few reasons for optimism but, overall, our findings have to be worrisome for our country’s leaders, for leadership educators and for all who care about the quality of leadership now and into the future.”

The 1,849 respondents comprise a nationally representative sample based on gender, ethnicity, age, income and other factors. They were asked to think broadly of leaders and leadership rather than focusing on specific leaders or situations. Shollen explained, “We are not seeking opinions about Donald Trump or Bill Gates. The survey isn’t intended to examine perceptions of how specific leaders are performing, rather how people view the effectiveness of leaders and leadership generally within the U.S.”

Shollen and Gagnon said the survey defined leadership as the process of influencing people toward achieving a common goal, and leaders were defined as people who influence others toward achieving a common goal. “Regardless of whether you have a formal title, you can be a leader,” Gagnon said. “Leadership happens everywhere, not just in the most obvious places such as government or business.”

But in many places that leadership happens, it is seen as lacking. Fewer than 25 percent of the respondents say leaders in education, religion, national politics or the environment are effective.

Even as they criticize current leaders, survey participants say they are reluctant to step forward. Only 15 percent of the respondents claim they are involved in leading their community (although they may indeed be leading and not identifying their contributions as leadership). Further, it appears they don’t have high hopes for future generations. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents say younger Americans are not ready to lead and only 33 percent voiced confidence that young people will be able to steer the nation through the challenges ahead.

Another cause for concern is that when the morality of the leader is considered, half (50 percent) claim it is more important that a leader works for major issues that align with those the respondent supports than whether the leader adheres to high moral standards. Thus, half of the sample does not value leaders upholding morality as much as leaders supporting particular issues and agendas.

In terms of what respondents are looking for in leaders, 74 percent believe that the best leaders understand the experiences of ordinary people. About two-thirds believe leaders at the national and local levels should create an environment that supports diversity, considers perspectives of diverse people when making decisions and seeks to take care of the natural environment.

About half also say they’re comfortable with a leader who is different than them in gender/sex (56 percent), race/ethnicity (56 percent), sexual orientation (49 percent) or income level (48 percent). Fewer say the same about religious beliefs (43 percent). Political differences are a bigger sticking point, as only 28 percent say they are comfortable with a leader who holds opposing views, and only 34 percent would follow such a leader.

The researchers also asked participants where they went for information about leaders and how reliable those sources are for evaluating leaders. Television is the number one source sought for information (55 percent), trailed by non-social media online sources (44 percent). Half (50 percent) of respondents claim that social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) does not provide them with adequate resources to make accurate evaluations of public leaders, whereas, just over half (53 percent) claim that traditional media (e.g., newspaper, television, radio) does provide them with adequate resources.

Shollen and Gagnon revealed the results of the survey at the 2019 annual conference of the International Leadership Association in Ottawa, Canada, an influential gathering of leadership scholars, educators, practitioners and development professionals.

Shollen and Gagnon plan to delve into the nuances of the overall frequency data by examining the results by demographics such as gender/sex, race/ethnicity, geographic location, religious beliefs, poltical affiliation, sexual orientaiton and income level. These results will be released as they become available. They also plan to conduct the survey annually to track trends and to add questions relevant to contemporary issues.

More comprehensive findings and a fuller explanation of the project is available at cnu.edu/las. 

A four-year public university in Newport News, Virginia, Christopher Newport University is a national leader in leadership education. Its President’s Leadership Program includes more than 1,000 students. The university’s minor in Leadership Studies was honored with the Outstanding Program Award from the Association of Leadership Educators. Christopher Newport enrolls 5,000 students in rigorous academic programs in the liberal arts and sciences through the College of Arts and Humanities, the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, the College of Social Sciences, and the Luter School of Business. Christopher Newport offers great teaching and small class sizes with an emphasis on leadership, civic engagement and honor.

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