Leaders, Heroes, and Role Models Survey Analysis

Columnist : Lincoln Institute

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


America is a nation that reveres its past and is proud of its history. Our founding fathers, and other great leaders, have been immortalized in many ways: from having their likenesses chiseled into the rock of Mt. Rushmore, to gracing the front of our currency, to the array impressive monuments in and around the nation’s capitol.

Against that backdrop toil the leaders of today. Do they measure up to Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, and others who are generally agreed upon to have been great leaders of our nation?

The Lincoln Institute’s “Leaders, Heroes & Role Models Poll” asked 750 registered voters across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: “Do you agree or disagree that America’s leaders today do not live up to the standards of great leaders from our nation’s past?” And the answer, by a two-to-one margin, is: our current leaders are not performing to historical standards.

Sixty-five percent of the poll respondents say the leaders of today are not upholding the standards of leadership set by past generations of Americans. Of that 65%, 42% strongly agreed that today’s leaders did not pass muster, while 23% somewhat agreed. A total of 31% said our current leadership is performing to the standard of leaders past; with 15% strongly holding that view, and 16% somewhat taking that position. Another 3% were undecided.

Registered Democrats were more likely to say current national leaders were not in the same league as great figures from the past than were registered Republicans. Seventy-two percent of Democrats feel the current national leadership was falling short, while 55% of Republicans hold that view. There was also a stronger intensity of feeling among Democrats that current leaders were lacking (51% strongly hold that view, 22% are somewhat in agreement). Among Republicans, 29% felt strongly today’s leaders do not measure up, while 26% somewhat agree with that statement.

Interestingly, there was not a great difference of opinion on this question when it came to the self-described ideological background of the respondents. Sixty-nine percent of Liberals agreed that current leaders fall short of historical performance, while 66% of Moderates and 61% of Conservatives hold that view.

At 39%, honesty emerged as the single most important personal characteristic or quality poll respondents said they would look for in a leader, while 21% said leaders need to have “integrity” and exhibit “ethical” behavior. Those traits finished ahead of having a person possess traditional “leadership qualities,” which were cited by 6%.

Honesty is a particular trait upheld by female voters, with 41% of women saying honesty is the most important quality in a leader. Thirty-six percent of male voters gave that as the most important leadership quality. Honesty was cited more frequently by respondents over the age of 60, 53% of whom placed honesty highest on their priority list. Conversely, honesty was cited by just 30% of those in the 30-44 age group. Self-described Baptists also placed a premium on honesty (52%), while just 25% of agnostics feel that quality is important.

The next most important quality (5%) was that a leader needed to be “confident” or “self assured,” while 4% said being “intelligent” or “smart” was the most important characteristic they would look for in a leader. Four percent said they would first look for a person with strong morals as a leader. Having “vision” was cited by 3%, and being a “risk taker” was the top quality listed by 1%.

Other qualities mentioned by at least 1% of the respondents included being hard working, respectful, religious or spiritual, creative or innovative, playing by the rules, or being inspirational.

President George W. Bush received the most responses (25%) when those polled were asked to name a person living today who he or she considered to be a great leader. Former President Bill Clinton was cited by 10% of the respondents, followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell with 4%, U.S. Senator and Democrat Presidential Nominee John Kerry polled 3%. Pope John Paul, II and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani were mentioned by 2% of the respondents.

As might be expected, Republicans lead the way in naming George W. Bush as a current great leader. The President was the choice of 45% of Republican poll respondents, while just 8% of Democrats gave the nod to the incumbent. Former President Bill Clinton received the most mentions by registered Democrats (18%), with just 2% of Republicans naming Bill Clinton as a great leader. President Bush was also the darling of respondents saying they are Conservative, with 40% naming him as a great leader as opposed to just 6% of Liberals and 14% of Moderates.

Others who were mentioned as a great leader by at least 1% of the respondents included former President Jim my Carter, U.S. Senator John McCain, retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, evangelist Billy Graham, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former South African President Nelson Mandela, and U.S. Senator John Edwards.

Looking back through history, and naming a person no longer living who they would consider to have been a great leader, the most mentions went to former President Ronald Reagan (17%), followed by former Presidents John F. Kennedy (11%) and Abraham Lincoln (11%).

A partisan divide was also evident in this question. Thirty-one percent of Republicans named Ronald Reagan as a great leader as opposed to just 7% of Democrats. Nineteen percent of Democrats gave the nod to John F. Kennedy, with just 4% of Republicans citing his leadership ability.

The list continued with former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt receiving 8% of the mentions; the first U.S. President, George Washington, at 6%; civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at 5%; former President Harry S. Truman at 4%; former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had 4%; and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was noted by 3%. Among religious figures mentioned by those surveyed, the Lord Jesus Christ was cited by 2% of respondents and Mother Theresa by 1%.

Also receiving mentions by at least 2% of those responding were Mahatma Gandhi of India, former U.S. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard M. Nixon; and civil rights leader Malcolm X.


Before the airplanes hijacked by Al Queda terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center , the Pentagon, and a field in Somerset County , Pennsylvania , it might have been safe to assume that many felt America had entered an age without heroes. But, the events of September 11, 2001 proved without a doubt that heroes still walk in our midst.

Our “Leaders, Heroes & Role Models Poll” asked respondents if: “We currently live in an age without heroes?” Overwhelmingly the answer was “no,” that in fact there are still many heroes gracing America by their presence. Sixty-three percent of those polled disagreed with the assertion that this is an “age without heroes,” while about one-third (36%) agreed with the statement.

Honesty emerged as the single most important quality or trait our polling sample looked for in a hero, cited by 23% of the respondents. The other traits to receive a double digit response were “integrity/ethical behavior” at 15%, and being “brave/showing courage” at 13%. Exhibiting “leadership qualities” placed fourth with 5% of the responses, along with “compassion/caring”. Having strong morals received 4% of the votes as did being “confident/self assured.” Another 2% said heroes should be “respectful,” while 1% listed being hard working, being a risk-taker/entrepreneur, having the “ability to inspire,” the “ability to communicate,” being “intelligent/smart,” and showing “loyalty”.

Women were slightly more likely than men to consider honesty as the most important quality or trait they look for in a personal hero. Twenty-four percent of women looked for honest compared to 21% of the men. By age, people in the 60 plus demographic placed the highest premium on honesty (34%), followed by the 21% in the 30-44 demographic. Honesty is a trait equally valued across the political spectrum as 23% of Conservatives, 22% of Liberals, and 22% of Moderates made it their top quality pick. Forty-three percent of Baptists, along with 33% of Methodists, Mormons, and evangelicals cited honesty as their most sought-after trait.

While only 9% of the survey sample listed being an elected official as a job title or occupation they felt was “most heroic,” when asked to name a specific person – living or dead – whom they consider to be a hero, 24% named a politician. Heroes also exist in our personal lives, as evidenced by the fact that 16% named a family member as someone they consider to be a hero.

Members of the armed forces were cited as being heroic by 8% of those polled, while a pastor or member of the clergy were named by 7%. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, victims of 9/11 and firefighters each were accorded hero status by 4% of the respondents. Another 2% listed an actor or musician, while 1% cited at athlete, a scientist/doctor, teacher, or a friend/acquaintance.

Men (31%) were more likely than women (19%) to name an elected official or politician as their personal hero. Governmental leaders were also cited more often by persons in the upper age demographics, with 27% in the 45-60 and 60 plus age groups naming an elected official. Cites for political leaders were uniform across both party and ideological lines.

Verbatim responses to the question of naming a personal hero covered a wide range of names and categories. Among the names cited were astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, General Douglas McArthur, abolitionist Frederick Douglas, Princess Diana, philanthropist Milton Hershey, fictional film character Scarlet O’Hara, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, native Americans, athlete Jim Thorpe, founding father Patrick Henry, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fox News broadcaster Oliver North, the Apostle Paul, and numerous family members including mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.

Firefighters and members of the armed forced emerged at the top of the list of occupations named as the most heroic. Twenty-three percent cited firefighting as the most heroic occupation closely followed by the 21% who lauded our service men and women. Policemen/women were mentioned by 12% of those responding, while 9% named elected officials.

Teaching was cited by 6% as being the most heroic occupation, as was being a doctor or nurse. Another 2% listed “pastor/clergy,” a “parent/relative,” while 1% said social service volunteer, a blue collar worker, or a homemaker. Movie stars and athletes received less than 1% of the mentions.

In receiving the most cites by respondents as the most heroic occupation, firefighters drew an equal number of responses from men and women (23%), while men were more likely (27%) to list the military than women (17%). Firefighting as an occupation was particularly strong in the younger age demographics, with 29% of 18-29 year olds listing it as the most heroic occupation, 32% in the 30-44 demographic, 25% in the 45-59 age range, and 12% of those over 60.


What makes a person a success? Is the successful person one who has acquired great wealth or had an outstanding professional career? Is the successful person he or she who is most loved by his/her family and friends. Is the successful person the one who is most content and satisfied with their own life?

In an effort to obtain some insight into what makes a person a success, our “Leaders, Heroes & Role Models” poll posed a series of three questions to sample of 750 Pennsylvanians.

First, we asked whether the responded would agree or disagree with the statement: “The most important measure of success is how much money a person makes.” There was overwhelming disagreement with that statement as 95% reject wealth as the chief barometer of personal success. Only 4% agreed with that statement. No only was the quantity of money a person acquired rejected as the prime measure of success, it was rejected with a strong intensity of feeling. Eighty-one percent strongly disagreed with the posed statement, while another 14% somewhat disagreed.

When asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “The most important measure of success is how others think of you,” we got a more mixed response. Thirty-eight percent agreed that how others think of you is the single most important measure of success. However, 60% disagreed with that statement.

This question also evokes a less intense response. Among those who agreed that how others think of you is the most important measure of success, 17% strongly agreed, while 21% somewhat agreed. Looking at those who rejected that yardstick, 35% strongly disagreed and 25% somewhat disagreed.

Men and women were almost equal in response to that question, with 39% of women and 37% of men agreeing that the opinion of others counts the most. By political party affiliation, Democrats were more likely (43%) to care how others felt about them than Republicans (34%). Support for the question also increased the older respondents got, with 31% of 18-29 year olds agreeing with the question and 45% of those over 60 expressing agreement. Also, the value placed on the opinion of others declined as the respondent’s level of educational achievement rose. Fifty-six percent of those without a high school diploma said the opinion of others is the most important measure of success, while 43% of high school graduates held that view, and only 31% of college graduates agreed.

By a clear margin (94%-4%), poll respondents felt that: “The most important measure of success is what a person does to help others. There was also a strong intensity of feeling to the response as 69% strongly agreed with that statement, while another 25% somewhat agreed. The cross tabulations on this question were virtually uniform across all demographics.

Against that backdrop, the “Leaders, Heroes & Role Models” poll then sought to define those qualities and traits, along with specific individuals, whom respondents held up as role models in their lives. Consistent with the top trait cited for leaders and heroes, “honesty” (51%) emerged as the single most important personal characteristic or quality those polled look for in a role model. Also, consistent with the other two categories, being ethical and/or having integrity placed second with 18% of the responses.

The trait of “honesty,” while the top answer in all three categories (leaders, heroes, and role models), received the highest number of mentions in the role model category. This indicates that honesty is a highly valued trait on a very personal level to most survey participants. By comparison: honesty was named as the most important personal characteristic or quality by 51% when looking for a role model, 39% when selecting a leader, and 23% in holding someone up as a hero.

After honesty and integrity, “leadership qualities” were cited by 9% of the respondents as the most important personal characteristic or quality they look for in a role model; followed by 6% naming “strong morals,” and 2% saying they admire someone who is intelligent or smart. Another 1% of the survey sample listed being “confident/self assured,” “hard working, “respectful,” “religious/spiritual,” or being “creative/innovative.”

Taking a look individually at the traits respondents look for in selecting a personal role model, we asked them to rate the importance of each trait on its own merits, not in relationship to other traits. Here are the results:

  • One Hundred percent said “honesty” is an important quality they would look for in a role model, 98% said it is a “very important” quality.
  • “Integrity or Ethics” were cited as a “very important” quality by 93% of those polled; another 6% said it is a “somewhat important” quality.
  • Eighty-four percent said “having a strong moral character” ranked as a “very important” quality in their selection of a personal role model, with another 14% saying it is “somewhat important”.
  • Being “intelligent or knowledgeable” is a “very important” trait to 73% of those polled, and another 26% list it as “somewhat important”.
  • Fifty-nine percent say it is “very important” for their personal role model to be “confident or self-assured. That quality is “somewhat important” to another 38% of the sample.
  • Respect for others ranked high as a “very important” quality as 86% of respondents said it is so and another 13% list the quality as “somewhat important”.
  • Likewise, 78% said it is “very important” for their personal role model to have “leadership qualities”. Such qualities are ranked “somewhat important” by another 21%.
  • Seventy-six percent said it is important for their role model to be “religious” or “spiritual,” while 23% did not rank that quality as important.
  • Creativity and innovation are prized as a “very important” quality by 46% of those polled, yet another 48% ranked the quality as “somewhat important”.
  • The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well as 78% say they select as a role model a person or persons with that quality. Entrepreneurial spirit is viewed as not important by 19% of the sample.
  • Poll respondents admire people who are outspoken and “challenge authority”. Eighty-one percent say being outspoken is a quality they find important, while 17% don’t view such a trait as being important.
  • In seeming contradiction to results of the previous question, 72% say it is “very important,” and 24% “somewhat important” that their role model plays by the rules.

Politicians and elected officials lead the list of people, living and dead, specifically named by those participating in the poll as someone they consider to be a role model. Thirty-seven percent named someone who has served or is serving in elective office as their personal role model.

Men (44%) were more likely than women (30%) to select a politician or elected official as a role model. Also, more Republicans (43%), than Democrats (31%) accorded elected official role model status. There was also an age disparity. Of those in the 18-29 demographic, only 18% named an elected official as a role model, while 40% of those over 60 did so.

After public officials, the person most often named as a personal role model was one of the individual’s parents. Fathers were cited by 13% of the respondents, while mothers were named by 6%. Eight percent named other family members. Taken together, family members were listed by 27% of those polled as their personal role model.

Pastors and clergy also serve as role models to a significant segment of our poll sample. Ten percent claimed their pastor or clergy person as their personal role model. Two percent listed either a friend/acquaintance or an actor/musician as a role model. One percent named a member of the armed forces, an athlete, or a teacher.


The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc. retained the services of Susquehanna Polling and Research in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to conduct the “Leaders, Heroes & Role Models” poll of 750 registered voters across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The statewide poll was conducted September 16, 2004 through September 19, 2004 and has a margin of error of ±3.58% in 95 out of 100 cases.

The key demographics of the poll include the following:

Gender: 54% female, 46% male;
Party Affiliation: 46% Democrat, 42% Republican; 9% Independent/Other;
Age: 5% 18-29, 22% 30-44, 43% 45-59, 29% 60 plus;
Area Breaks: 5% Northeast, 11% Southwest, 12% Central; 12% Northeast/Lehigh Valley, 15% Southcentral; 23% Southeast, 11% Allegheny County, 11% Philadelphia.