Presidents With the Highest Emotional Intelligence — and How Donald Trump Compares
Out of all of the personality traits that American presidents can have, emotional intelligence seems like one of the most useful. Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of the other people around you. Emotional intelligence also includes the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving. Some presidents have been great at that. But others definitely haven’t.
Below, check out which presidents historians think had the highest emotional intelligence. And don’t miss the chance to find out how Donald Trump compares.
1. Thomas Jefferson
Psychology Today reports that Thomas Jefferson numbers among the presidents with the highest emotional intelligence. That trait might explain his ability to accomplish so much. Jefferson connected with people — both in Congress and among the American public — by figuring out how to state his vision in a way that people would understand and identify with. Psychology Today notes that Jefferson showed emotional self-awareness, good impulse control, and strong problem solving skills. These traits all served him well during his time in office.
Interesting fact: Jefferson did lack emotional intelligence in one key area: his attitude toward slavery.
2. Abraham Lincoln
Fast Company reports that emotional intelligence likely accounts for some of Abraham Lincoln’s success in overcoming obstacles such as poverty, the loss of family members, and a lack of education. Lincoln excelled at keeping his vision “in constant focus.” He set aside ego and personal ambition to work toward the goals that he envisioned. Lincoln also worked flexibly with other people, listening and adapting when they had different or better ideas than he did. And he effectively managed his emotions — including his clinical depression — while learning to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
Interesting fact: Lincoln did get angry, just like anybody else. But when he got angry, he’d write a letter. And he wouldn’t send it until he had a chance to calm down. Often, he wouldn’t send the letter at all.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Psychology Today characterizes Franklin D. Roosevelt as the “connector-in-chief.” The publication reports that Roosevelt didn’t have a first-class IQ. But he did have a first-rate EQ, or emotional quotient. Thanks to his struggle with polio, Roosevelt came to empathize deeply with the poor, the underprivileged, and others who were down on their luck. Psychology Today explains, “A consequence of this deep emotional empathy was a strong drive to channel the pain he connected with into action. And because he wanted results, it was never the policy he was wedded to, it was always the outcome. ”
Interesting fact: Roosevelt is also known for his flexibility. And flexibility typically counts as another key trait of leaders with high emotional intelligence.
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Princeton University politics professor Fred Greenstein writes “Dwight David Eisenhower is the least well understood of the modern presidents,” thanks to his unusual approach to the presidency. Eisenhower had an infamous temper. But Greenstein writes that Eisenhower “also had a quality that has come to be called ’emotional intelligence,’ the ability to turn one’s feelings to constructive purposes and prevent them from impeding the performance of one’s responsibilities.”
Interesting fact: Greenstein attributes Eisenhower’s skill at dispassionate leadership to both his “sound emotional makeup” and his “pre-presidential experience” with the Army. His parents also worked to instill “in him a series of controls over his emotions, his temper most of all.”
5. Bill Clinton
Medical Daily argues that among the ranks of recent presidents, the two with the highest emotional intelligence have been Bill Clinton and his successor, George W. Bush. “Both of those had an uncanny ability to really hone in on someone, feel their pain, and make them feel like they were the only person that mattered in the room,” the publication explains. “People who have met both walk away awed by their off-the-charts EQ (with Bill Clinton on the extreme high-end).”
Interesting fact: Some people argue that Clinton has a high amount of emotional intelligence. But others balk at the statement. (They cite the president’s notorious lack of self-control while in office.) But both empathy and self-control are components of emotional intelligence.
6. George W. Bush
Psychologist Drew Westen also reports that George W. Bush exhibited an uncommonly high amount of emotional intelligence. That became especially obvious as Bush he campaigned against John Kerry. Bush appealed to voters’ emotions in a way that left Kerry scrambling to respond. “Kerry had already spent his first millions of campaign dollars telling the story George W. Bush wanted to tell about him, beginning to weave precisely the web of emotional associations in which the Bush campaign hoped to ensnare him: that he was not only privileged but a Northeastern liberal intellectual,” Westen writes. “The Bush campaign certainly understood what ‘average folks’ think about intellectuals.”
Interesting fact: Despite some Americans’ doubts, journalist Richard Brookhiser reports that Bush is definitely “smart enough” to be president. Brookhiser writes, “Bush’s greatest strength as a wartime leader is strategic and personal clarity.”
How does Barack Obama compare?
Medical Daily characterizes emotional intelligence as “the dominant trait of leaders until very recently.” But the publication thinks that it peaked among American presidents in 2005, before Obama assumed office. Medical Daily characterizes Obama as “much more aloof and much less of a social animal than either of his two predecessors.” He attracted criticism for not building relationships with members of Congress. (Of course, The Atlantic argues that the modern political climate is a “prescription for confrontation” on every side.) Nonetheless, political scientist Joseph Nye assures readers that Obama possesses emotional intelligence, vision, and communication skills “in abundance.”
Interesting fact: Obama got choked up when speaking about issues like gun violence. But that might have worked in his favor by increasing people’s support and admiration for him.
How does Donald Trump compare?
Nye reports that Donald Trump “is deficient in emotional intelligence — the self-mastery, discipline and empathic capacity that allows leaders to channel their personal passions and attract others.” Nye writes that Trump “has proved deficient in terms of self-control.” He adds that Trump “has failed to display the discipline needed to master the details of foreign policy.” Medical Daily agrees that Donald Trump has an “exceedingly low” amount of emotional intelligence. But the publication also contends that emotional intelligence “is not as important today as it was 15 years ago. And whether we like it or not, leaders in the next 100 years will have lower EQ than leaders of the last 100 years.”
Interesting fact: Donald Trump has a reputation as a bully. But that’s not implicitly a bad thing. According to Stanford psychologist Roderick Kramer, President Lyndon B. Johnson was known the same way.
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