Presidents’ personalities have sparked plenty of speculation over the course of American history. From the most narcissistic presidents to the loneliest presidents, Americans love to theorize about how each president’s personality traits have shaped his time in the Oval Office. But despite all that speculation, most of us don’t really know which personality traits are the most important for a president to have, especially now that Donald Trump, a very different kind of president, has assumed office.
Which personality traits matter most in the Oval Office? And does Donald Trump have those personality traits? Read on to find out.
As Psychology Today reports, several theories on presidential personalities and personality traits have found that presidents, on average, are more extroverted than other people. It’s not difficult to imagine how extroversion could help a president meet the demands of the office.
Nonetheless, introversion doesn’t disqualify a politician from success in the Oval Office. (Anecdotally, though, it may put him at a disadvantage in campaigning for office.) We’ve elected at least 10 introverts to the White House, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Does Donald Trump have it? Nobody doubts Donald Tump’s extroversion. As The Atlantic puts it, most agree that Trump exhibits “sky-high extroversion.” As the publication explains, “Trump plays his role in an outgoing, exuberant, and socially dominant manner.”
Next: This is one of the personality traits that shows up more often in presidents than in the average American.
Psychology Today reports also identifies assertiveness as one of the personality traits that presidents tend to have more than ordinary people. The Washington Post reports, “Most great presidents have highly assertive personalities, are enthusiastic thinkers and are striving constantly to achieve.”
Assertiveness sounds like one of the personality traits that Americans would have always valued in a president. But it’s actually a modern development. In the late 1970s, Scholastic explains, “public sentiment began to call for a more assertive presidency that could provide greater leadership to a fragmented and interest-ridden Congress and that could act decisively on the array of stubborn problems that troubled Americans.”
Next: Donald Trump may or may not have this surprising quality.
3. Openness to feelings
Interestingly enough, Psychology Today also counts “openness to feelings” as one of the personality traits that’s more common among presidents than it is in the general population. Psychology Today adds that according to one influential study, presidents tend to be more “in touch with their emotions” than the average American. As the publication explains, “this suggests that great presidents valued their emotions.”
Does Donald Trump have it? It’s unclear exactly how closely Donald Trump is in touch with his feelings. (At least when they extend beyond the anger he expresses on Twitter and inflicts on his aides.) Nonetheless, a New Yorker contributor famously wrote in 1997 that Trump had aspired to and achieved “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.” That doesn’t reflect particularly well on the president’s openness to his emotions.
Next: This personality trait can help a president achieve greatness.
4. Openness to experience
Psychology Today reports that another personality trait that correlates with presidential greatness is “openness to experience.” As the publication explains, “presidents who were more open to experience were generally considered greater than those who more closed.”
The publication adds that in fact,”another study found that ratings of presidential openness to experience were strongly correlated with ratings of their intellectual brilliance and their general intelligence.” Openness to experience correlates with what psychologists call “general knowledge” or cultural literacy, and also with measures of IQ.
Does Donald Trump have it? As Truity Psychometrics reports, the answer as to whether Donald Trump scores high on openness isn’t clear-cut. Lower scores on openness correlate with traits like absolutism and conservatism, traits that Trump seems to have adopted in his political career if not in other arenas of his life.
Next: Abraham Lincoln had a lot of this important trait.
Psychology Today reports that the greatest presidents in American history have also displayed high rates of personality traits related to conscientiousness. That includes self-discipline, competence, and achievement striving. The upshot? “Great presidents were sure of their abilities, worked hard to achieve their goals and controlled their impulses.”
Self discipline numbered among the personality traits of one of our most loved presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Inc. reports, “It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln’s strengths but the self-discipline with which he used those strengths for the right purpose” that made Lincoln one of the greatest presidents of all time.
Does Donald Trump have it? Many critics have posited that Donald Trump doesn’t have a lot of self-control or self-discipline. Nonetheless, presidential historian Tevi Troy reports that “discipline remains the characteristic to watch” in presidential candidates.
Next: This personality trait drives presidents to help the less fortunate.
Psychology Today also counts “tender-mindedness” among the personality traits that have served presidents well. As the publication explains, “great presidents genuinely cared about the suffering of the less fortunate.” Tender-mindedness seems related to empathy. However, some researchers have argued that empathy distorts people’s judgment and doesn’t help presidents achieve more in office.
Does Donald Trump have it? The president’s “tender-mindedness” isn’t exactly a popular topic of conversation. But Donald Trump’s lack of empathy — especially for anyone who isn’t white — made a few headlines over his first year in the White House.
Next: This is one of the personality traits that relates to flexibility.
Though Americans like to have a man of convictions in the Oval Office, Slate characterizes malleability as “a necessary quality in a president.” In fact, malleability numbers among the most important personality traits for a president who will need to respond flexibly to the demands of his office. The publication explains, “Constancy has a nice romantic ring to it, but does anyone want a leader who sets a course and then refuses to change it no matter what?”
Does Donald Trump have it? Trump supporters and critics have argued over whether Donald Trump shows malleability. As The Washington Post explains, former president Jimmy Carter characterized Trump as “completely malleable.” Another Post columnist characterized Trump’s promises “as malleable as his principles.” Yet another Post columnist posited that “he is not malleable and will not take advice.”
Next: Donald Trump seems to have plenty of this personality trait.
Counter to the idea that great presidents show malleability, ABC News reports that presidents tend to rank higher in stubbornness than the average American. Stubbornness and disagreeableness don’t sound like useful personality traits for somebody running a country. But in a five-year study called “The Personality and the President Project,” psychologists led by Steven Rubenzer found that both characteristics routinely showed up in presidents’ personality profiles.
Does Donald Trump have it? Stubbornness definitely numbers among the personality traits that Donald Trump has in spades. Politico reports that Trump’s temper “has been a constant force” in his White House, along with his anger and his “disdain for being told what to do.” Even Trump advisers have characterized the president as stubborn.
Next: This is one of the personality traits that helped Donald Trump ascend to the White House.
Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith reports that “The chief business of the modern presidency is persuasion – convincing people to do things they ought to do but don’t necessarily want to do.” Slate also points to persuasiveness as one of the most important personality traits for a president.
To recognize whether a president or presidential candidate has this quality, the publication recommends asking the following questions: “Do they know how to deliver a good speech? Do they know when to stay quiet? Do they know how to read public opinion? Is it possible for a president to short circuit Congress by taking an issue directly to the people?”
Does Donald Trump have it? His critics hate it, but Donald Trump can be quite persuasive. As Inc. notes, Trump persuades people by understanding that most people think irrationally and appealing to their emotions. “When you appeal to emotions, facts don’t matter,” the publication notes. Trump has also mastered “identity politics” and used that mastery to win an election.
Next: Americans admire this quality more than many other personality traits.
The Ladders names honesty as one of the most important personality traits for U.S. presidents. Americans’ reverence for “Old Honest Abe,” even today, illustrates how much we like the idea of honesty in a president. (Even though voters have long regarded an “honest politician” as an oxymoron.) As The Washington Post explains, honest presidents represent themselves and their intentions truthfully. They also campaign without misrepresenting their opponents.
Of course, many presidents haven’t maintained complete honesty on the job. In fact, several presidents have told notorious lies. Even Abraham Lincoln got caught in a political lie or two. As Smithsonian Magazine reports of Lincoln, “the sharp rhetoric skills that carried him from a childhood of rural poverty to the presidency also helped him bend the truth when the situation called for it.”
Does Donald Trump have it? According to PolitiFact, Donald Trump has a pretty abysmal record of making false statements to the American people. Nonetheless, Politico characterized Trump as “America’s most honest president,” reporting that he can’t keep a secret even when blurting out the truth amounts to self-sabotage.
Next: This personality trait goes hand-in-hand with honesty.
On a note related to honesty, University of California psychologist Paul Ekman counts transparency as one of the most desirable personality traits in a president. Writing for The Huffington Post, Ekman defines transparency as “the willingness to share with the public all that can be made known about the decision-making process.”
Ekman notes that transparency “is desirable in a democracy if we are to have an informed populace.” And he thinks that presidents shouldn’t sacrifice transparency in order to protect themselves against criticism or to guard against betrayal.
Does Donald Trump have it? As CNN reports, “Donald Trump isn’t big on the whole transparency thing.” According to Slate, Trump and his team “obfuscate, then congratulate themselves on their honesty the moment they stop committing sins of omission.”
Next: This personality trait can help presidents achieve their goals.
12. A lack of impulsiveness
Ekman also posits that a lack of impulsiveness should make the list of the most desirable personality traits in a president. Another way of describing that characteristic is a “toleration for ambiguity,” according to Ekman.
He explains, “Jumping to conclusions before as much evidence as can be gathered is obtained would be a drawback. Wanting to know about a variety of choices, with the possible advantages and disadvantages of each could serve a president well, with the proviso that sometimes fast decisions may be required.”
Does Donald Trump have it? People have repeatedly characterized Donald Trump as impulsive. U.S. News, for instance, plainly refers to Trump as “the impulsive president.” And Politico reports that top GOP officials and senators have cited “White House chaos and impulsiveness” as a source of deep frustration.
Next: This personality trait relates to a president’s moral values.
13. Willingness to take blame
Ekman also considers a willingness to take blame one of the most important personality traits in the Oval Office. “It may not be the president’s fault when things go wrong,” Ekman explains. “But usually expressing regret for having failed to avert a bad outcome is better than not acknowledging it, blaming it on bad advice, or claiming it was unavoidable.”
The psychologist notes that admitting mistakes sometimes wins people’s respect. Plus, a president gets better advice if his advisers know that “they will not be scapegoated if following their advice led to an unfortunate outcome.”
Does Donald Trump have it? Donald Trump doesn’t like taking the blame for anything. Vox views Trump’s reluctance to take responsibility as a “deep moral failure.” The publication explains, “Trump is hardly the first American leader to fail to take responsibility, or to take too long to do so.” But Vox reports that Trump seems unique in that he doesn’t show an “appreciation for the gravity of his actions,” not an ideal quality for a president.
Next: This is one of the personality traits that Americans admire in a president.
According to The Ladders, commitment also numbers among the most critical personality traits for occupants of the Oval Office. The publication notes that Franklin D. Roosevelt probably numbers among “the most dedicated politicians of all time. He was so invested in his beliefs that he didn’t allow anything to get in the way of his career as a political leader—even a crippling illness.”
Similarly, Ekman counts a propensity for “principled actions” as another requirement for the president’s personality. “The Constitution and the first Ten Amendments provide a moral framework,” Ekman explains. Presidents should have the temperament and knowledge to understand what those documents meant to the founders and to consider how they can act consistently with that moral framework.
Does Donald Trump have it? It may be too early to tell how committed Donald Trump will remain to his campaign promises. But plenty of people have doubted his commitment to the Constitution.
Next: Theodore Roosevelt introduced this as one of the most important personality traits in the Oval Office.
Charisma also makes the list of the most important personality traits, according to The Ladders. The publication cites John F. Kennedy as a prime example of a president who could command a room. And interestingly enough, one of the smartest presidents in American history, Theodore Roosevelt, is credited with introducing charisma as a desirable personality trait in the Oval Office.
The Miller Center characterizes Roosevelt as the first modern president. He made the presidency the center of American politics with his bold personality and use of executive action. And by winning a second term, he became the first president elected more on his character than his party affiliation.
Does Donald Trump have it? Americans have debated whether Donald Trump has charisma. Many think he does, even when he makes false statements. As The Atlantic reports, that “could be because Trump, like many charismatic leaders, casts his arguments in ways that tickle the emotional parts of our brains while telling the more rational lobes to shush.”
Next: This personality trait can help presidents in high-pressure situations.
16. The ability to keep your cool
The Ladders points to the ability to keep one’s cool in tense situations as another of the most useful personality traits in the White House. As an example, the publication reports, “Whatever your political party, and whatever your stance on President Barack Obama in the White House, you have to admit the man can keep his cool in a tense situation.”
Nonetheless, many presidents have had infamous tempers that they struggled to keep in check in the Oval Office. Donald Trump already seems to number among them.
Does Donald Trump have it? Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has repeatedly attracted criticism for failing to keep his cool under pressure. As The Washington Post reports, Trump doesn’t keep his cool, and he doesn’t wait to respond to a high-pressure situation. In fact, he seems ” incapable of inaction, preternaturally irascible, and fixated on payback.”
Next: This combination of personality traits is the best match for the presidency.
17. An ‘active’ and ‘positive’ temperament
As Newsweek reports, Duke University presidential scholar James Barber developed a classification system for presidents’ personalities. He grouped them into four psychological categories: “active/positive,” “active/negative,” “passive/positive,” and “passive/negative.” Barber classified presidents as active or passive based on how much energy they put into the work of the presidency, and as positive or negative based on how they react to their work.
Barber considered active/positive personalities as the best match for the presidency. According to Newsweek, active/positive presidents “not only dive into politics and government with gusto, becoming whirlwinds of activity, but they truly enjoy doing it.”
Does Donald Trump have it? As per Barber’s system, Donald Trump has an active/negative profile. Other active/negative presidents included Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush. Newsweek explains, “If there is one lesson from Barber’s work it is, ‘Do not put active/negatives in the White House.'”
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