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Leaders, Heroes,and Role Models:
Who do we look up to and why?

The Report by:

Charles L. Kennedy
Senior Instructor
Department of Political Science
Penn State York

The Public Opinion Court focus group session was fittingly held at the offices of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce at Valley Forge on August 28, 2004 . The topic was “Role Models, Heroes, & Leaders.” The members of the focus group discussed this issue in the same room where George Washington, the first U.S. President, once dined. (The building was originally constructed in the 1700s.)

It was a very diverse group that assembled at 9:00 a.m. —50% were registered Republican, 33% Democrat, and 17% Independent. Fifty percent were between the ages of 30-50; 33% were 50-65, and 17% were in the 18-30 age group. The male-female ratio was 58-42%, respectively. Regarding religious affiliation, 33% were Protestant and 33% were Catholic; 17% were Jewish; 8% were Hindu; and 8% were Orthodox. Fifty percent had a college degree or higher, and the other 50% were either high school or post-secondary certificate.

LEADERS

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods
Where's the street wise Hercules to fight the rise in us
Isn't there a white knight upon the Pirate seas?
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO – Bonnie Tyler

Just as Bonnie Tyler deplored the lack of heroes in her 1984 song, “Holding Out for a Hero,” so did the members of the focus group. On the statement, “We currently live in an age without heroes.” Seventy-five percent (75%) of the group either agreed or strongly agreed. They seemed to reflect the cynicism that is so rampant in contemporary American society, particularly regarding political leaders.

When asked to name four or five people “living today whom you consider to be great leaders,” Bill Clinton was listed by 25% of the respondents; Rudy Giuliani and Oprah Winfrey by 17% each. Significantly, neither President Bush nor Senator Kerry received any support.

The group also reflected “the cynicism of a cynical age” when 75% either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, “America's leaders today do not live up to the standards of the great leaders from our nation's past.”

Interestingly, the primary standard that the group considered “the single most important personal characteristic or quality that you look for in a leader” was honesty. Fifty percent of the group felt strongly about the point. It should also be emphasized that honesty was also the most important trait that the group looked for in a role model.

Whereas, the group struggled to cite many contemporary great leaders, they had no problem listing several great leaders who are no long living. The most frequently cited were:

Abraham Lincoln 58%
Ronald Reagan 42%
John F. Kennedy 33%
George Washington 33%
Thomas Jefferson 25%
Dwight Eisenhower 17%

During discussion the issue came up that in contemporary society, it was difficult to be considered a great leader, when there is such instantaneous and around-the-clock coverage by the news media. The emphasis on negative campaigning was also examined. The group was divided and inconclusive when asked to address the question: “Who is responsible for negative campaigning—the politicians, who develop the negative ads and speeches; the news media, because this is what they emphasize and focus on; or we the people, because this is what we pay attention to.” The group was relatively inconclusive, but did agree that “there was plenty of blame to go around.”

The idea of a charismatic leader was also addressed. The group was asked to address the issue as to whether the county needed a charismatic leader today. During discussion it was brought up that the charismatic leader is inspirational, gets people “all fired up,” tends to see solutions in black and white, and is usually very divisive. The moderator quoted Charles DeGaulle of France about Winston Churchill of Great Britain (two charismatic leaders), “He gets angry when he is wrong, and I get angry when I am right. We are very angry at each other all the time.”

When asked to name an outstanding leader from the business or corporate world, Donald Trump received 35% support from the group; Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey 17%. The traits that were considered most important were hardworking, motivated, and creative.

For outstanding leaders in the world of religion, Pope John Paul II was listed by 25%, and in the world of sports, Joe Paterno was listed by 17%. Interestingly, the traits of honesty, personal character, and compassion were among the traits cited as important for leadership in both the world of sports and religion.

For an outstanding leader in the world of politics and government, President Bush was cited by 17%. No other leader received double figures. Conversely, Senator Kerry was not listed at all.

HEROES

I need a hero
I'm holding on for a hero until
the end of the night
He's gotta be strong and he's gotta be fast
and he's gotta be fresh from the fight
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO – Bonnie Tyler

Fifty-eight percent of the focus group ranked a father or grandfather as a hero. The main traits that made these people a hero was: hardworking, honest, compassionate, and self-sacrificing. On the item of ranking a living person that they did not know, but considered a hero, 33% listed a firefighter. The key trait that they listed was that “they risk their life, to help others.” During discussion of this issue, the group expanded their definition to include “risking their health, wealth, reputation, and position to help others.”

The group was also asked to rate occupations or functions on a scale of one to five—with one being the most heroic and five being the least heroic. The top five positions were:

Avg. Score

Parent 1.9
Member of the Armed Forces 2.0
Teacher 2.0
Policeman 2.1
Firefighter 2.1

The moderator (a teacher) found it interesting that many considered teachers heroic. He commented that he hoped, “I was a role model to many and was proud to be a role model, but I don't consider myself heroic.” This also led to considerable discussion among the group and an emphasis on “the positive impact that a teacher has on so many.”

At the opposite end of the scale were:

Avg. Score

Small business person 3.1
Blue collar worker 3.2
CEO of a major corporation 3.3
Elected official 3.5
Movie star 4.2

Listed in the middle of the pack in order were: Astronaut, Clergy, Organ Donor, Doctor, Professional Athlete, Social Service Volunteer, and Homemaker.

On the always interesting and thought provoking question of, “If you could have dinner alone with one person, currently living who you do not know personally, who would you choose?” The leading vote getter was President George W. Bush with 33%. The reasons included: to understand his thoughts and pressures, to discuss Iraq , and to discuss education. The other leader vote getters were former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. Interestingly, President Bush's opponent, Senator John F. Kerry, was not mentioned.

On the same question, but with “somebody who is no longer living,” there was a wide range of responses including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Princess Diana, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

ROLE MODELS

It's gotta take a superman
to sweep me off my feet
I need a hero ... I'm holding on for a hero …
He's gotta be larger than life.
HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO – Bonnie Tyler

On the issue of role models in their personal lives, 50% listed their father or grandfather. In second place was a teacher with 25%. The major traits that they listed for father/grandfather were hardworking, honest, compassionate, and positive. The major traits for the teachers were honest, challenging, and thoughtful.

On the question of “people who you do not know personally, but consider to be a role model,” the leading vote getter was Oprah Winfrey with 25%. She was described as honest, hardworking, determined, and caring. Former President Ronald Reagan came in second at 17%. Reagan was described as optimistic, strong character, dedicated to values, and strong convictions.

When asked to rate several qualities of a role model on a scale of one to five with one being most important and five least important, the top three responses were:

Avg. Score

Honesty 1.8
Integrity/Ethical 2.1
Respects Others 2.1

Those qualities on the bottom end of the scale were:

Avg. Score

Religious/Spiritual 3.3
Entrepreneurial/Takes Risks 3.3
Challenges Authority 3.5

The other qualities listed in the middle in order were: hardworking, leadership ability, knowledgeable and smart, self assured and confident, creative and innovative, plays by the rules, and achieves success.

When asked what they considered the most important measure of success:

  • 90% disagreed or strongly disagreed that it is “how much money a person makes.”
  • 75% agreed that it is “how others think of you.”
  • 100% agreed or strongly agreed that it is “what a person does to help others.”

It is interesting that the basic character traits of honesty, hardworking, compassionate, and positive that the group identified as most important in a role model are the same traits that were intertwined with the selection of heroes and leaders. If this focus group is a harbinger of public opinion (and most tend to be), then President Bush and Senator Kerry would be well advised to take heed. The focus group is telling them that the candidate who best conveys the traits of honesty, compassion, hardworking, and positive outlook will be elected President. This is what the people want in a role model, a hero, and a leader.

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