John Glenn’s World No Longer

As an adolescent in the late 1930s, John Glenn sat transfixed in a high school civics classroom. His teacher, Hartford Steele, educated the sons and daughters of New Concord, Ohio on the virtues of democracy, the basic structure and operation of the American system of representative government, and the duties of citizenship. It would change the course of his live forever.

But the world has become starkly different since those days.

Partisan competition makes leading in a democracy difficult – diverse political constituencies often want policies that pursue competing values (e.g. equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity). This poses vexing challenges for many newly elected and or appointed leaders.

Can formal education grow civically-oriented leaders like Senator Glenn? And if so, can professional development and training later prepare them for today’s highly divided political environment?

As dean of John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, our college exists to inspire and develop the next generation of public and nonprofit leaders who can handle complex issues and make change a reality in civic life. We believe that these issues are solvable, but require examination of what makes democracies successful – from the systems and structures to the individual leaders and their qualities or behaviors.

In the winter of 2019, the John Glenn College conducted a series of focus groups with local elected officials and civil servants about their need for leadership training to prepare for service in democratic institutions – city councils, county commissions, the state legislature, publicly accountable police departments and government agencies.

The focus group participants uniformly reported a need for leadership development in a partisan context.  One respondent highlighted the pressure of serving in a highly divided time: “It’s a strange feeling after getting elected.  You realize that half of your constituents don’t like you because of your party affiliation.”

This insight aligns with national findings where a November 2018 Pew survey found that 44 percent of Americans expect relations between Republicans and Democrats in Washington will get worse in the coming year. This is up from only 28 percent in November 2010.[1]

Another focus group respondent articulated the burden of public leadership by feeling the pressure to serve all those in their community, regardless of their political affiliation: “Balancing what I want to accomplish with what we can realistically do is a challenge. I think I know what we need to do, but it’s impossible to satisfy everyone.”

In 2018 the Volcker Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to advancing effective management in government, conducted an extensive survey of public servants across levels of government in the United States and found similar results. More than half of all respondents across levels of government (and 72 percent of state respondents) indicated that they needed professional development for leading in a democratic context.[2]

One focus group respondent revealed “After four years [in elected office], I feel like I am finally beginning to know what’s going on, but I have so much more to learn. People think they know democracy. I don’t know democracy!”

The requirement to invest in training and preparation for today’s public leaders appears clear. Senator Glenn’s experience as a student of civics convinced him – one of the few people to serve in combat, navigate the stars, and represent his constituents – that the need to invest in public leadership was as important now as it was when he signed up to serve the cause of liberty almost a century ago. He was an inspirational leader for many. But we need to find those with his leadership abilities and help them navigate in a highly divided world. And that is no easy task.



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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.