Leaders, Heroes, and Role Models Foreward

Columnist : Lincoln Institute

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


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and with America engaged in the process of selecting a President of the United States, the time is right to “take the pulse of Pennsylvania” on the subject of those qualities and traits we look for in those we elect to lead us, and those who we select to look up to in our personal lives.

Supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation of Radnor, Pennsylvania, the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. undertook two companion research projects in an attempt to answer the question: Who do we look up to and why?

The first project was a Public Opinion Court focus group session conducted on August 28, 2004 at the Historic Inn at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Hosted by Al Paschall of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Charles Kennedy, Senior Instructor of Political Science at the York Campus of Penn State University, the Public Opinion Court session involved 12 diverse residents of southeastern Pennsylvania entering into a probing and in-depth discussion on the issue.

Using information gathered during the Public Opinion Court focus group session, the project team worked with Jim Lee and Brooke Johnson from Susquehanna Polling and Research, a Harrisburg-based public opinion research firm, to draft questions and conduct a statewide poll of 750 residents from throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from September 16, 2004 through September 19, 2004.

Results of the companion projects have yielded a clear picture of what qualities and traits Pennsylvanians look for in their leaders, heroes, and role models. Both the focus group discussion and the subsequent public opinion poll clearly bore the psychological imprint of September 11, 2001. Firefighters, police officers, and the men and women of the U.S, military were consistently lauded for their efforts on our behalf. Although viewed favorably, athletes, movie stars, and singers were relegated to the lower tier of recognition. Also taking the spotlight were parents, family members, and teachers – considered to be personal heroes to many who participated in the research projects.

And while those participating in the poll felt today’s leaders did not live up to the standards of great leaders from America’s past, respondents still named President George W. Bush and other current leaders as among those they admire the most. The Public Opinion Court focus group session provided an answer for that seeming contradiction. During the group’s discussion it was observed that those we look back upon as having been great leaders were often widely criticized and divisive figures in their own time. Lincoln, Truman, and Reagan were cited as being in this category.

Honesty emerged as the big winner in the statewide poll. Consistently respondents placed honesty at the top of the list of qualities they looked for in selecting a leader, a role model, or in holding someone up to be a hero. Other personal qualities like integrity and behaving in an ethical manner revealed a bedrock desire for decency in those we look up to. During the Public Opinion Court focus group session participants talked earnestly about parents, teachers, pastors, and others who have had a great impact on their lives.

On a personal note, as this project was getting underway my church, Charlton United Methodist in Lower Paxton Township outside of Harrisburg, PA, was holding its annual vacation Bible school. Coincidently the theme of the Bible school was “Heroes of the Bible.

During this same period of time my step-son, Corporal Brian Bradosky was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Al Ramadi, Iraq and sustained significant injuries when an insurgent mortar round exploded several feet from where he was walking. This of course became the subject of discussion and prayer among those at the Bible school, who concluded that Brian was indeed one of their heroes. Several days later as my wife recounted this to Brian he was perplexed at being considered a hero, saying he was simply doing the job he was trained to do.

In the end, as the details of our research on the following pages reveal, real leaders, heroes & role models rarely consider themselves to be such. They are often just regular people “doing the job they were trained to do,” but in the process have a remarkable impact on their family, friends, and nation. As those who participated in our poll concluded, we still are a nation with many heroes.

Lowman S. Henry
The Lincoln Institute
Harrisburg, PA

October 1, 2004