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The Six Factors That Drive Confidence in Leaders


For the past four years, the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership has conducted an annual public opinion poll to determine the sector leaders in which Americans have the most and least confidence and the factors behind those confidence levels. The 2009 results have just been released and there are some pretty interesting conclusions.

First, the sectors where the confidence level in leaders are up in a statistically significant way over last year are the military, the executive branch and business. Those that showed a significant decline are medical, nonprofits and charity, state government, the news media and Wall Street. Based on an index where 100 indicates a moderate amount of confidence the only three sectors that scored higher than that level were the military, medical and nonprofits and charity. Of those three, the military is the only sector to score well above 100 on the confidence index with a score of almost 120.

According to the study, there are six key factors that have the greatest impact on Americans' confidence in their leaders. These factors are:

  • Trust in what the leaders say
  • Competence to do the job
  • Working for the greater good of society
  • Share my values
  • Get good results
  • In touch with people's needs and concerns

Given what's happened over the past year, it's not surprising that the military and the nonprofit sector leaders were in the top three. Likewise, when you consider the past year and look at the six most important factors, it's easy to understand why the two lowest ranked sectors were the news media (balloon boy, anyone?) and Wall Street (how about those bonuses?)

Reading between the lines of the study, I see one other factor that's not explicitly mentioned but I think comes into play. That factor is the perceived clarity and importance of the sector's purpose and mission. If you download and read the study, it's striking how much higher the leadership of the military and the nonprofit sectors are rated in all six key factors than are the leadership of other highlighted sectors. I asked myself "What do these two sectors have in common?" and clarity and importance of purpose was the answer.

To stand a chance of being effective, leaders must generate confidence in the people that depend on them. How do you think you stack up on each of the six key factors? How are you doing on clearly defining and communicating why what your organization does matters? If you were going to pick one factor in which you could improve, what would it be? What are three things you could do in the next year to move the needle in a positive direction?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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