Take a minute to list the top three American leaders of the past half-century. It does not matter whether they are politicians, religious leaders, or social reformers. Focus on the greatest examples of leadership. For many, names such as Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind. Other examples might include Billy Graham or even Henry Kissinger.

Now, name the greatest leaders of the last 10 years. The question becomes much more difficult. Part of the challenge is that the passage of time frequently gives way to nostalgia. The more controversial aspects of the leaders are forgotten and their agreed-upon virtues are more easily celebrated.

At the same time, the quality of leadership does seem to have changed markedly. Earlier this year, Fortune magazine released a list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. While it only represents one perspective, President Obama did not make the list at all. How is the “leader of the free world” not an automatic inclusion on virtually every list of great living leaders?

Does former President George W. Bush engender the kind of respect attributed to a great leader? How about John Boehner or Harry Reid? Are George Soros and the Koch brothers inspirational reformers?

We have plenty of smart, capable individuals who helm our government, industry and culture, but we are currently experiencing a leadership vacuum. Many of us have become accustomed to identifying leadership by position rather than character because we have so few examples of the latter.

Many of our government heads and corporate leaders have become predictable functionaries. They perform their roles, stay on message and then move on to the next task. The job is done, the world moves on, but it frequently feels plastic and uninspired.

We might happen to agree with them, but would we follow them into uncharted territory? Do we continue to respect them when they disagree with us? Are they able to convince us to sacrifice our immediate self-interest for grand ideals?

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. critiqued the church for being “a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion” rather than “a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Many of our positional leaders have become thermometers for popular opinion rather than courageous visionaries. People are rarely disturbed or inspired by those who operate in such a manner. We would be just as well to have a direct democracy if polls were an effective method of guiding our nation. Regrettably, history has demonstrated that public popularity is no safeguard against destructive ideas or institutions.

For that reason, America was established as a republic with divided power, checks and balances, and safeguards against runaway public sentiment. Yet such a model requires leaders willing to cut against those popular opinions, win the hearts and minds of many, and suffer the slings and arrows of the rest.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to filling America’s leadership vacuum is finding those willing to accept its cost. With constant exposure, endless criticism and a tumultuous world stage, it is hard to blame anyone reluctant to serve as a thermostat for our nation, rather than solely a thermometer for their constituents, customers or congregations.

While a nation of free people should have a healthy suspicion of its leaders, we find ourselves in desperate need of men and women with character, a clear perspective on a brighter future, and a patient resolve to help us see and strive for it.

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