Put nearly two dozen nationally-known leaders of industry, government and the nonprofit sector in a corporate penthouse overlooking Manhattan. Give each person lunch, a legal pad and a question: "How can we solve the leadership crisis in America?"

The result was a unique "leadership roundtable," sponsored last week by NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund. For three fascinating hours the diverse participants played a game of verbal volleyball, brainstorming ideas that seemed to raise more questions than provide definitive answers.

But it was all part of the plan formulated by the National Organization for Women's education and legal-services branch, which is marking it's 10th anniversary with a yearlong project focusing on New Leadership in the Public Interest.

Roundtable participants -- chosen as "forward thinkers representing varied interests" -- included: Charles L. Brown, AT&T Chairman of the board; Carol Bellamy, president of the New York City Council; EEOC chair Eleanor Holmes Norton and William H. Donaldson, dean emeritus of the Yale School of Organization and Management and chairman of Donaldson Enterprises.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, in light of recent publicity, Bendix Corp. chairman William Agee canceled right before the session, citing "personal business."

One thing all 20 participants agreed upon, noted fund director and moderator Muriel Fox, "is that the old charismatic authority style of leadership will no longer work the same degree. A time of limited resources and unlimited special-interest groups requires a more unifying, more sopisticated leadership . . . that may take a crisis to emerge."

A major reason for America's leadership dilemma, said Oakland Tribune editor Robert Maynard, is that "we are in a decade of transition." The intergration of minorities and women into the mainstream of society has resulted, he said, "in a new set of needs.

"We are in a half-and-half state -- between people with an older mindset and those with a newer mindset. These tensions are being worked out. Plus, we have to deal with the reality that as one-sixth of the world we can't consume one-third of its resources.

"New leadership will have to help Americans understand this new relationship with the rest of the world . . . and help us put our priorities into a different perspective that is not materially based."

The leadership selection process is also a root of the problem, said NOW president Eleanor Smeal. "To become an elected official, you've got to look good on TV and be able to raise lots of money.

"But there is no way for complicated issues to be dealt with in the three minutes you get on TV -- it all gets reduced to slogans and jargon. And people have gotten cynical. When you speak idealistically about doing things for the common good, people think you're naive. We've got to bring back the belief system that you can play hardball and not be a crook."

But it's not just government leadership that is in crisis, stressed Donaldson. "Look at the huge losses some of our biggest industries are now sustaining. One problem is that we have these large organizations -- public and private -- that have grown beyond an imaginable scale.

"But no one has gotten around to defining what is necessary to run these goals. Instead we're still teaching leadership and management in traditional terms."

"We have no shortage of people who want to get to the top," noted AT&T's Brown. "The problem is how to identify them and help them flower."

The answer may lie in a new leadership style, suggested futurist Peter Schwartz of SRI International (formerly the Stanford Research Institute). "The current [leadership] paralysis is in part a function of the dominance of the masculine style of leadership," he said, "which is based on analytical, rational quantitative thinking and relying on heirarchical relationships of authority.

"To preserve a free and diverse society it must be balanced with the style of leadership generally perceived as feminine . . . which relies on adaptive relationships for support and tends to look for integrated solutions to systematic problems."

"In the communications business you've got to have that stimulative, emotive kind of leadership," noted Lewis Young, editor-in-chief of Business Week. "You can't order someone to write a good story.

"Corporations are now playing with something called participative managements. This gives everyone involved in a problem a voice in how it should be solved. People don't have to have their solution accepted, but they do have to feel someone is honestly listening to them.

"A good job is now defined by whether or not you can have input into how you do that job, including its hours. Leadership necessary for this doesn't mean letting people run wild, but letting them feel they have a chance to use their creative powers."

"New leadership must provide people with a vehicle through which they can contribute no matter what their position and background," said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of sociology and management of Yale University. "Task forces, community advisory groups are all good ways."

Other suggestions for improved leadership included holding a constitutional convention to "update our 200-year-old government," providing public funding for political campaigns and offering training in some of the qualities important to "new" leaders such as mediation, risk-taking, coalition building, pursuasion and listening.

"But we can't expect a single, magical solution," warned NOW founder Betty Friedan. "There aren't any simple answers to the complex kinds of problems we're faced with today. We've got to consider help from many sources and come up with a variety of options."

These answers may only come through crisis, noted council president Bellamy. "The silver lining in the dark cloud of this time of finite resources is that we may forced to come to leadership through the back door -- forced by hard times."

"We need people who will have the guts to say 'Your single issue isn't the most important thing,' said EEOC chair Norton. "A leader will have to make the people aware they can't focus on themselves and their problems alone, but stress that they are part of a whole."