How Much Do Politicians’ Personalities Actually Matter?

Personality isn’t necessarily a bad guide to leaders’ effectiveness, but there are some major red herrings.

How Much Do Politicians’ Personalities Actually Matter?
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

When Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine announced last week that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Donald Trump for president, she hardly mentioned his policy positions. Instead, Collins focused on Trump’s personality. “His disregard for the precept of treating others with respect, an idea that should transcend politics,” she wrote in the Washington Post, concluding that “Trump lacks the temperament, self-discipline, and judgment required to be president.”


It was less about what Trump might do as president than about who Collins perceived him to be. And since voters tend to think in similar terms, it’s worth asking: Is that a bad approach?

Narcissism Is A (Highly Effective) Decoy

In large measure, modern U.S. political campaigns are personality contests rather than rational choices between policies or ideologies. On the one hand, this isn’t necessarily problematic; studies consistently show strong correlations between leaders’ personalities and their effectiveness as leaders–and not just in politics. In other words, Collins is onto something: Who you are does largely dictate how you lead.

On the other hand, voters (and senators, for that matter) aren’t always able to pick up on some crucial signals of leadership competence. Perhaps more worryingly, they often assume that certain qualities indicate effectiveness when they’re really just decoys. The traits that help people get elected don’t necessarily help them perform well in office.

Among the personality attributes routinely mistaken for signs of leadership potential, none is as influential as narcissism, a trait researchers have linked to “grandiosity, arrogance, self-absorption, entitlement, fragile self-esteem, and hostility.” Narcissists are often deluded about their talents, which (ironically) helps them come across as more talented to others. When you think you’re great, you’re less likely to display insecurities–which creates the impression that you really are great. This kind of self-deception may even have evolved as an accidental strategy to deceive others, which would help explain the preponderance of narcissists in politics.

By the same token, voters tend to be wary (or outright distrustful) of politicians who are cautious and measured. Unsurprisingly, researchers have even found a positive correlation between politicians’ narcissism scores and their chances of winning a presidential election–even though that trait often results in destructive leadership. In other words, voters tend to inadvertently reward leadership qualities that tend to punish them later. Because it’s been linked to charisma, narcissists are likely to entertain, but they’re also less likely to competently lead.

What Effective Leaders Look Like–And Why They’re So Hard To Find

At the same time, there are clearly some relevant personality attributes for inferring leadership potential more reliably. Effective leaders, you won’t be surprised to learn, rank high on integrity, judgment, and the ability to handle pressure. (This is true even in politics–even though we aren’t exactly spoiled for choice of exemplars in that arena, at least not within a given generation.)


From a personality perspective, competent leaders also tend to be emotionally stable, resilient, and open-minded. They’re often smart academically and favor data-driven over intuitive decisions. They’re altruistic and prefer not to be the center of attention. Importantly, they care deeply about how they impact other people and are focused more on the collective welfare than on their own personal success.

Modern electoral politics tends to discourage all this. But when these qualities do coexist, which is fairly rare, such leaders are also likely to be modest; they let their achievements speak for themselves, don’t blow their own trumpet, and resist getting defensive when criticized. In other words, the type of personality most closely correlated with effective leadership is more Angela Merkel than Donald Trump, who is virtually her polar opposite. Effective political leaders are bureaucrats, not showboaters–basically, they’re boring.

Introverted, low-key, calm, rational politicians don’t often survive the popularity-contest aspect of high-level elections. If we could inject some charisma and bravado into those types of personalities, we’d probably end up with a higher proportion of competent political leaders. Alternatively, it would be great if there was a way to enhance the judgment, integrity, and emotional intelligence of the many narcissistic politicians we’re likely to elect–even those who have serious deficits when it comes to actual leadership competence.

Both seem pretty unlikely. In the meantime, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. There’s really no time between now and November to change the implicit criteria voters use to assess leadership potential, however imperfectly, or to convince the media to devote more time to the more boring personalities in politics–even if they may serve us better in government.

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