This may surprise some of you, but the most admired leaders today aren't our country's political leaders, business leaders (not surprising with the economic meltdown), great leaders from history, or even leaders of social movements. When I asked students in my leadership seminar which leader they most admired, the results were surprising - and quite different from previous years. Instead of selecting national, international, or even local leaders, nearly all students selected a leader who had had direct personal impact on them and their lives. In other words, the most admired leaders were relatives, coaches, mentors, or supervisors. Occasionally, students did mention a sports hero, but for the most part their "heroes" were leaders from their personal life histories.
Why was this surprising? Even just 5 years ago, students tended to pick historical or political leaders, and sports and media figures as "most admired" about two-thirds of the time (only 1/3 picked relatives, friends or coaches). Admittedly, the numbers are small and the data is thin, but if this is a consistent trend, what might it mean?
It could signal a shift in perceptions of leaders. Historically, Americans have had what Jim Meindl called a "Romance of Leaders." We tended to put leaders on pedestals and greatly admire them. Americans, and most Westerners, looked to the great national leaders of the World War II era - Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle - as the prototypes of effective leaders. The leaders of social movements - Gandhi, King, Chavez, and more recently, Mandela - were also admired and esteemed. But perhaps that's not the case anymore.
Certainly many of our national leaders have been embroiled in scandals or failed initiatives that would knock any "hero" off their pedestal - our past two Presidents ended their terms amidst scandal (Clinton) and failed initiatives abroad and at home (Bush). Our current President is teetering on the pedestal that many of his supporters placed him on. The number of politicians - governors, senators, congressmen - who are dealing with scandal and disgrace seems staggering. The same can be said for many sports heroes (Woods, and a host of steroid-using athletes). Perhaps these many leader missteps have forever tarnished our images of public figures.
Another possibility is that our definition of "leadership" has changed. A generation ago, the term "leader" was reserved only for those who held high level positions of power and influence. Today, we regularly talk about the leadership of front line supervisors, teachers, coaches, and students. Most colleges, and many high schools, have programs to develop students' leadership, and many of today's students grew up with the notion that anyone can be a leader or demonstrate leadership. As a result, when students are asked about their most admired leaders, they simply look around at the people in their lives.
In any case, something seems to be happening. Our scrutiny and criticism of our nation's leaders seems stronger than ever (our President was called a liar on the floor of the Senate, for instance), so it's hard to stay up on that pedestal. At the same time, our conceptions of leadership are changing, and leadership is more "inclusive." What do you think is going on?
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