Written by Miguel Gasca
The study of Political Psychology began in the 1940s, and although a relatively new field, it has quickly gained popularity for its personality approaches to political behavior. Since then, one of its central focuses of the field has been on that of the minds of political leaders and in the role that their personality plays on their management style and ultimately the decisions that they make while in positions of power.
Today we know that “personality is placed at the bottom of the brain, representing its roots, and therefore, the most fundamental element” (Cottam et al, p.14, 2016) of a person. It is what guides our everyday behavior, the decisions we make, what we like or dislike, what we accept or reject, and overall what makes us unique from the next person to us. This paper will be focused on examining the personality of two past presidents, George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, and how their personality type impacted their management style and ultimately the decisions they made during critical events.
The Current Research and Literature
Today the current literature points to several important findings in the analysis of leaders. It suggests that while personality is central to the decisions a leader makes, it is also greatly dependent on the situational context that the leader finds himself in. The current literature states that only under the following three conditions will personality play a vital role in the decision making process of political leaders: “when the political enviorment permits change, depends on the person’s position, and it varies with the personal strengths and weaknesses of the person” (Unit 2 lecture notes, p.1).
Meaning that when political leaders have the power, and the situation is right to exert that power, certain traits in their personality will shine through and guide their political behavior and management style.
Today we know there are three types of management styles that a leader may select from. They are the formalistic, the competitive, and the collegial. The formalistic management style emphasizes a hierarchy where the president for example is the most important person in the room and everyone else is below him. It values structure, organization, and the chain of command. The competitive management style is unstructured, and as the name states it is competitive in nature.
It’s based on the idea that the president and its inner circle will argue and challenge each other’s opinions, thoughts, and ideas. The collegial places an emphasis on teamwork, equal contribution, and in finding a solution. It states that all members are considered equal including the president. Ultimately the management style that the political leader selects is dependent on his/her personality.
Lastly, another equally important finding are the many personality traits, theories, and models that have been developed in an attempt to explain the role that a leader’s personality plays on the political decisions he makes. While the list is great, the Leader Trait Analysis (LTA) is currently the most widely accepted and used leadership theory among political psychologists today.
Other popular and commonly used models/theories include the Big Five Personality traits model, the Herman/Preston LAT framework, and the use of psychobiographies among many more. This paper will be using both the LTA and the Herman/Preston LAT framework to analyze the personality’s of former president George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, as to date, researchers are still not completely satisfied with any method but one thing is agreed upon, “if personality comprises different independent elements, it follows that the most complete personality assessments and the most accurate predictions from personality to political behavior will use combinations of multiple variables” (Huddy et al, p. 447, 2013).
Meaning that if our aim is to get the most accurate understanding of a leader’s personality and the relationship to its decisions, we need to look at him through various lenses and not just through one theory, variable, or model. Together these two models analyze leaders based on their “need for power, the locus of control, ethnocentrism, need for affiliation, cognitive complexity, distrust of others, self-confidence, task interpersonal emphasis, and the leader’s prior policy experience” (Unit 2 lecture notes, p.5). In my opinion, through the use of both the LTA and LAT model we get a more holistic view of a leader’s personality.
For example, Preston’s addition of prior policy experience is especially important as it gives us the ability to differentiate the type of leader an individual will be in foreign vs domestic policy. For example, according to Preston, Kennedy is a “Director-Navigator in foreign policy and a Magistrate-Observer in domestic policy” (Cottam et al, p.134, 2016) as he is arguably the most experienced foreign policy president to date, all of which will be discussed in greater detail in the following section.
The Personality of Political Elites – John F. Kennedy
The critical role that Kennedy’s personality played during his administration can be best seen in the tough policy decisions he had to make throughout his presidency, one of those being in his management of the Cuban Missile Crisis. To give a quick overview, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October of 1962 and it lasted only 13 days. At the time, communist Cuba feared being attacked by the U.S and so the Soviet Union planted nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter U.S attack.
While Kennedy’s NSC advisors wanted him to respond via an aggressive approach and attack, Kennedy remained hesitant, examined his options, weighted the pros and cons, and chose instead to impose a naval blockade in order to prevent additional Soviet missiles from entering Cuba. Although a safer decision, unfortunately, the Soviets took this as an act of war and aggression and so both sides further prepared for war. Overall, the Soviets wanted the missiles to remain in Cuba and well the U.S demanded that they be removed, resulting in a stalemate.
Luckily, Kennedy’s cool and collected way of thinking prevailed, and he was able to speak to and strike a deal with the Soviet Union. Ultimately agreeing to remove all missiles from turkey and Italy and to not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets exiting Cuba and taking their missiles with them. Kennedy successfully bargained with the enemy, made the correct decisions, and averted a nuclear war. His personality was perfectly fitted to the situation.
Upon looking at Kennedy through the lens of a political psychologist, as briefly stated, his leadership trait analysis indicates that he is a foreign policy expert, a highly adaptive, complex, and sensitive leader, and in summary a “Director-Navigator in foreign policy” (Cottam et al, p.134, 2016). This makes him an adaptive leader that is well aware of his surroundings, of others, and of counter information.
As Cottam stated, “his pragmatism, sensitivity to the needs of his adversaries, his openness to advise and feedback, and his foreign policy expertise led to a willingness on his part to debate the pros and cons” (Cottam et al, p.120, 2016) prior to making a decision. He was a leader that saw shades of grey and multiple choices as opposed to just black and white decisions as his NSC advisors saw. This prevented him from rushing to attack Cuba and potentially igniting a nuclear war with the Soviets as he was well aware of and respected his constraints and limitations.
Coupled with that, he preferred a collegial management style and although he did not listen to his NSC advisor’s plea to attack, his style still allowed his advisors to speak freely and open with Kennedy and made the sharing of information, to which he needed a lot of, easy. Kennedy was open to changing his mind, and in fact he did, as at first, he was for attacking Cuba, but new contradictory information that he received from experts beyond his inner circle discouraged him from doing so.
In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s personality and management style were a great fit for the situation resulting in good decision making. It is the consensus among political psychologists today, that had any other “individual been president instead of JFK, the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis would have been very different” (Cottam et al, p.121, 2016)
George W. Bush
In the case of George W. Bush here is an example of a president that although had many successes and made many good choices throughout his presidency, his personality and management style were ill-fitted for the Katrina crisis. Looking at George W. Bush’s leadership trait analysis and through the eyes of a political psychologist, he “scores low in power, complexity, prior policy experience, and so fits the Delegator-Maverick” (Cottam et al, p.136, 2016) leadership style in domestic affairs. Meaning that he lacks situational awareness, only looks to advise from his tight immediate and likeminded inner circle and doesn’t seek out counter or outside additional information
He prefers to delegate the work to others and as a result is heavily dependent on his advisors for information. Overall, he is comfortable with making quick decisions on limited information and also prefers a formalistic management style, a poor personality and management style combination for the Katrina crisis.
Hurricane Karina hit the U.S on August 29th, 2005. An event where the Bush administration was widely criticized for its poor management style, decisions, and of the unqualified individuals he put in positions of power.
Bush preferred a formalistic management style and as a result not only was it hard for advisors to freely speak with him but also only information delivered via formal methods was heard and delivered, all other information fell on deaf ears. This Included the counter information from multiple weather organizations telling Bush that Katrina would happen. The fact that he was low in complexity, insensitive, a delegator, and someone who was comfortable with making quick decisions on limited information, hurt the people. Ultimately his inner circle wrongly told him Katrina was unlikely to happen and so he went with that and looked no further.
Furthermore, as stated, Bush’s personality favored surrounding himself with likeminded individuals and so he “placed an emphasis upon loyalty over expertise in appointments” (Cottam et al, p.156, 2016), including in the appointment of directors of emergency disaster organizations such as FEMA, a key organization during Katrina.
This resulted in the friends of Bush being put in positions of power to which they were highly unqualified for and so when Katrina hit the unqualified individuals performed very poorly. Emergency leaders were needed but the friends of Bush were not it. Overall, Bush’s personality and his management style were grossly unfit for the Katrina crisis and as a result the Bush administration made poor decision throughout the event.
In conclusion, while personality plays a vital role in the management style and the decisions that leaders make, it is important to note that the situation that the leader finds himself in is equally important in determining if their personality will either help or hurt the leader in the decision making process.
As we saw in the case of George W. Bush and Katrina, his personality lead him to pick the wrong management style and decisions because his personality was simply not a match to the situation, and he failed to adapt to it. Had his personality been that of a more power oriented, sensitive, complex, and experienced individual, he could have done a better job.
Lastly in the case of Kennedy, his personality strongly matched the situation and as a result, he made all the right decisions and prevented a nuclear war. Had he lacked the foreign policy experience, the need for power, been an insensitive leader, and of a low complexity, he may have sided with his NSC advisors, attacked Cuba, and started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Cottam, M. L., Mastors, E., Preston, T., & Dietz, B. (2016) Introduction to Political Psychology (3rd ed). New York, NY; Routledge
Huddy, L., Sears, D. O., & Levy, J.S. (2013). The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.