Ideas & Debate

Qualities that a president needs

Voters queue to cast their ballot in Nairobi on August 8, 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Voters queue to cast their ballot in Nairobi on August 8, 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I have been reading about Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University Fred Greenstein’s 2004 book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush, in which he considered the qualities of the 12 modern American presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.

The professor assessed their effectiveness or otherwise on six criteria: public communication, organisational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence. And because I am not yet ready to comment directly on our immediate political frenzy, I have decided for today just to reflect on Greenstein’s analysis.

He believes emotional intelligence to be the most important in predicting presidential success, suggesting that without it “all else may turn to ashes”. Four of his 12 presidents stand out as “fundamentally free of distracting emotional perturbations”: Eisenhower, Ford and the two Bushes.

Four others were marked by “emotional undercurrents that did not significantly impair their leadership”: Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan. That leaves Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, all of whom were in his judgement “emotionally handicapped”.

Johnson was subject to severe mood swings; it was Carter’s rigidity that harmed his performance; and Clinton’s “defective impulse control” eventually resulted in him being impeached.

Nixon was the most emotionally flawed of the dozen, displaying anger and suspiciousness “of Shakespearean proportions”. Greenstein sees him as the classic tragic hero who was “defeated by the very qualities that brought him success”.

Great political ability does however sometimes derive from troubled emotions, admits the professor, while adding that when the person in question has their finger on the nuclear trigger the risks are scary.

Greenstein published a new edition of his book in 2009, in which he assessed George W. Bush following his two terms. This later edition also includes a chapter on the leadership style of President Barack Obama and how the author expected it to affect his presidency and legacy.

I hope he’s planning a further update in a few years’ time, reviewing how Obama did use his outstanding emotional intelligence and also how Trump will have rated on the six attributes.

Meanwhile Dr Barbara A Perry, the Director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia, has already assessed the current US President: for her he scores low on emotional intelligence, cognitive style, vision, and organisational capacity. But where he has been superb, enabling him to win the presidency, is in public communication and political skill.

Yet in order to appeal to the over 60 million Americans who voted for him last November – most of whom are still cheering him on – surely he needed to draw on emotional intelligence, whatever his vision and motives.

Where I am with Dr Perry though, and I am sure Professor Greenstein would also agree, is that Trump’s obsession with only knowing he’s winning if others are losing makes him a real loser in the emotional intelligence department.

So for leaders to fully qualify as being emotionally intelligent they must not only know how to persuade people to follow them but to be taking them to some much better place. (Bear in mind that both Hitler and Stalin were said to be brilliant in using their emotional intelligence to get their countrymen and women to follow them, even with motives that were the opposite of pure.)

Let me now turn to Kenya’s four presidents. How emotionally intelligent would you say they have they been? Have they been leaders who brought their people together around common visions and values to achieve ambitious and uplifting objectives for the country? Did they build great teams around them? Did they both connect with the elite and with the common mwananchi?

And what about our other political leaders, past and present? Who were among the most visionary, the most emotionally intelligent, the best at building and leading high performance teams? And who were the least gifted? Then, who among our emerging politicians deserves our admiration?

This article appears on October 26, the day scheduled for our presidential election rerun. On the assumption that it does take place, hopefully the six criteria for presidential success I have shared will help you assess and decide once more.