Friday, November 20, 2009

Politicians – Personality and Problems, Part 1

What kind of person becomes a successful politician? How does that personality type affect performance in office? I'm afraid the answers to those questions do not bode well for the country. The fact is that the requirements to get elected have almost nothing to do with the ability to do a good job and in fact often militate against good decision-making.

Consider for example two people. Joe is an extrovert, a real people person who knows how to get people to like him. Bill on the other hand is a contemplative type, given to thinking seriously about any significant decision, weighing the pros and cons and making careful decisions. Which is more likely to be attracted to politics? The answer of course is Joe. He will thrive on the glad-handing and other aspects of political life. His outgoing personality will attract supporters and voters who think they have a real connection with him.

However in the unlikely event that Bill tries to get into politics he will have a hard time inspiring supporters. Regardless of how correct and well-thought-out his positions, people will think of him as dull compared to Joe. Without the excitement that a more charismatic candidate can inspire, Bill will have a difficult time getting volunteers and campaign donations. Worse, voters may regard him as lacking in leadership. Barring something like a major scandal on Joe's part, Bill has almost no chance of winning an election against him. An outgoing personality is a big advantage in politics.

In fact Timothy Judge of the University of Florida business school says that being an extrovert is correlated with being chosen as a leader, but not with being a good leader. “We go for these effervescent leaders when what's really needed is a dull, focused, plodding [type] building effective groups and organizations.”*

As a decision-making consultant I'm convinced that Dr. Judge is correct, not only in politics but also in business and other aspects of life. The charismatic extrovert attracts followers and gets them excited. However that excitement is often directed at the wrong goal or the wrong means to that goal. This personality type frequently fails to adequately evaluate what he is doing. Furthermore, his charisma often causes his followers to act unthinkingly as well. Too often the result is disaster. Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Adolf Hitler come to mind as examples of this type of personality-driven leadership.

On the other hand, Dwight Eisenhower lacked a charismatic personality. Yet he successfully led the battle against Germany in World War II and later accomplished much as president of the United States. His style was to listen to his advisers, then make the best decision he could. While not all his decisions worked out perfectly that style was much more effective than was that of Montgomery, the flamboyant British field marshal. Eisenhower's more collaborative style led to better decisions than did Montgomery's self-aggrandizing personality.

In most cases, that is what good leadership requires: making good decisions and getting subordinates to carry out those decisions. The extroverted personality militates against those good decisions, though it does inspire followers to act. However enthusiastic action on a bad decision is usually counterproductive, often worse than no action at all. On the other hand, even half-hearted work on a good decision seldom causes harm and usually does at least some good. Furthermore, once followers see the effectiveness of the good decision, their enthusiasm is likely to increase and they are likely to work harder to implement that decision.

The solution is obvious, whether for the voters or the search committee seeking a new CEO or other leader. Seek first wise and collaborative decision-making skills and ignore the charisma and personality of the candidates.

However there are worse problems with the political personality. I plan to discuss a couple of them next time.

*U.S. News and World Report, November 2009, p26

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