Theodore Roosevelt said, "You have got to have the same interest in public affairs as in private affairs, or you cannot keep this country what this country should be."

In this presidential election year, when the nation is focusing on a search for leadership, it remains to be seen whether important voices will emerge from the private sector to help focus the public's attention on crucial economic and business issues.

One thing, however, is nearly certain: Unlike others in the political process, most business executives are not likely to be found advancing their ideas by taking to the stump, lecture circuit or airwaves, save for a handful who are thrust by events into positions of power in the public sector or those who promote themselves as business celebrities.

Most often, and for a variety of reasons, business will contribute to the public policy debate by offering a careful consensus view or working behind the scenes. Though chief executives carry weight in Washington, most shun the limelight and scrutiny that comes with expressing contrary, outspoken or individual views. Other simply express frustration at the political process.

Douglas D. Danforth, recently retired chairman and chief executive officer of Westinghouse Corp., explained that by nature many business people prefer a low silhouette, are publicity shy or like to stick to their own work. Yet, Danforth and others said that approach needs to change.

"There is a profound sense that we have lost our edge as a country," said William Lilley, president of the American Business Conference, a group of fast-growing small and medium-sized companies. "We are groping for symbols of success and, increasingly, we will give greater degrees of legitimacy to people who can achieve things."

That ability to achieve things is, in short, leadership, an elusive quality in an age when television, the press and self-promotion often create media celebrities rather than old-fashioned leaders.

Management guru Peter F. Drucker, in a recent article on leadership, pointed out that real leadership has more to do with performance than flash, charisma or personality.

"Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and Harry Truman were singularly effective leaders, yet none possessed any more charisma than a dead mackerel," said Drucker.

Though the business community has come to play a forceful role in shaping public policy by lobbying specific issues, studying long-range problems, organizing commissions and task forces and establishing political action committees, it often makes its presence felt through intermediaries.

Some of the approaches favored by many businesses are to let their Washington offices represent their views, to hire outside lobbyists or to join business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce that grind out a position and present it as a consensus.

For instance, a group of 200 chief executive officers, the powerhouses of American business, form the low-profile Business Roundtable, which meets regularly. A policy committee, task forces, standing committees and a Washington steering committee analyze, distill views and reach agreement on public policy issues. General Motors Chairman Roger Smith heads the by-invitation-only group.

Some stand out from the pack by writing, speaking and publicizing their views. George N. Hatsopoulos, chairman and president of Thermo Electron in Waltham, Mass., has been known to gather the best minds in business, academia and government in his living room to focus them on key public issues.

Peter G. Peterson, chairman of the Blackstone Group, a private investment banking firm, was a driving force in urging business and government heavyweights to trumpet their positions on trimming the federal deficit, while detailing his own views in a 22-page treatise "The Morning After" in Atlantic magazine.

Though their views often make a difference, a survey to be released later this year by the management consulting firm A.T. Kearney found that chief executive officers "are not willing to invest significant effort in addressing public policy issues they consider critical to U.S. competitiveness because they don't see results." Nonetheless, they rated government policies as "critical or important" to competitive position.

The survey also found that direct lobbying efforts bring successful results 50 percent more frequently than do indirect efforts -- the way most public policy pushes are handled. But little more than a quarter of chief executives take the direct approach.

"We don't have the {Andrew} Carnegies, the big industrialists, the people who came out of the Depression and dedicated themselves to public issues," said Alan H. Magazine, president of the Council on Competitiveness. "In a 'me generation' people are looking for quick results -- largely for themselves. It has an impact on people's willingness to be leaders."

Pat Choate, an economist with TRW Inc. and an idea merchant in his own right, theorized that many business people have a "mythological view" of Washington -- they either spend a lot of money on lobbying and don't get results or work through trade associations and get homogenized views. The chief executives who take care of business themselves are savvy but keep "extra low visibility."

Part of the problem, according to Choate, is that some executives have not caught up with the new rules of the game in Washington.

"They think about Washington as pre-Watergate when you could go to a strong man like Wilbur Mills and cut a deal. Those days are gone. There are 535 operators now and junior people {in Congress} can break into the cycle very easily," Choate said.

E. Pendleton James, who was in charge of senior presidential appointments in the Reagan administration before returning to his own executive search firm in 1982, disagreed that there is a dearth of leadership in the business community. He keeps his own short list of chief executive officers he thinks are public service material.

"The word 'leader' to me means someone {who does things} over and above what he is supposed to do. These people, in addition to running a successful company, have on their agenda public policy issues.

"Moving in and out of government has broadened many of them and their view of the world. These are the type of people a president should have around him," he said.

Many in government and in the business community see 1988 as a time when leaders will emerge in the process of quiet coalition building and planning for a new administration.

"Everybody at this point is keyed up on the transition team," said John Young, president of Hewlett-Packard Co., who has written and worked extensively on public policy issues that affect American business. "The real window will open for 120 days and they are getting their appeal ready."

Some will be foot soldiers in presidential campaigns where new ideas such as "tailored trade," "workplace democracy" and a "share economy" will get their first airings. Others will work behind the scenes preparing policy blueprints for a new administration.

For example, the Business-Higher Education Forum, composed of representatives from business and academia, which takes credit for alerting the nation to a competitiveness crisis in 1983, promises another breakthrough in the competitiveness debate with its task force on "American Know-How: Human Wealth."

Against the backdrop of the presidential election, the project, led by Donald E. Petersen, chairman of Ford Motor Co., and Frank H.T. Rhodes, president of Cornell University, will look at how to revitalize American know-how from the executive suite to the plant floor.

But the willingness to work not only for one's company, but for one's country -- in whatever forum -- is a challenge that many executives do not rise to because their corporate cultures simply do not equip them to do so.

"Most managers have been taught to manage and are internally focused on issues that face the firm," said John P. Kotter, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard's business school. "The only way in the world to get more business people to address public policy issues is to produce people who are leaders as well as managers."