The Study of Political Leaders
The preceding chapters have developed a number of important concepts, theories, and analytical frameworks in political psychology. We can now turn to an examination of important topics in political psychology, and we begin with a look at leaders. In this chapter, aspects of personality, cognition, and small-group behavior, all considered in depth in the previous chapters, are brought together to explore political leaders' management and leadership styles. We begin with a consideration of types of leaders, then explore a number of analytical frameworks. The case of President Bill Clinton is used to illustrate the concepts in leader analysis. The Political Being considered in this chapter is, of course, a leader. The elements of the Political Being of interest in this chapter are personality, cognition, emotion, and also the interaction with us, that is, political in-groups in the form of advisors.
We can begin with an illustration of the importance of the personality of political leaders. In recalling the Cuban Missile Crisis, Robert Kennedy remarked: “The fourteen people involved were very significant—bright, able, dedicated people, all of whom had the greatest affection for the U. S…. If six of them had been President of the U. S., I think that the world might have been blown up” (Steel, 1969, p. 22). Robert Kennedy's chilling observation about the men within President John F. Kennedy's decision-making group (Executive Committee of the National Security Council or Ex Comm), during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, dramatically illustrates the importance of personality and other individual leader characteristics in politics. What a leader is like, in terms of personality, background, beliefs, and style of leadership, can have a tremendous impact upon the policy-making process and its outcomes. In the case of Cuba, Kennedy's pragmatism, sensitivity to the needs of his adversaries, his openness to advice and feedback from his staff, and his own extensive, personal foreign policy expertise, led to a willingness on his part to debate the pros and cons of the airstrike option (which he initially favored) and to consider arguments in favor of the less confrontational blockade option to remove the Soviet missiles. Within the decision group itself, Kennedy's collegiality enabled advisers to express their unvarnished opinions during Ex Comm sessions, and his desire for outside advice led to the inclusion within the group of several notable foreign policy experts from outside of his administration. More important, his willingness to consider the possible consequences of his policy actions and his sensitivity to the need for his opponent (Khrushchev) to have a face-saving way out of the crisis enabled Kennedy to successfully avoid war (Allison, 1971; Allison & Zelikon, 1999; Preston, 2001).
Would a different president have brought the same personal qualities or style of leadership to the situation? For Robert Kennedy, the answer was clearly, No. Among the Ex Comm advisers, there were many who lacked Kennedy's pragmatism, favoring instead an aggressive, immediate response to resolve the crisis. Others lacked his empathy toward Khrushchev and his awareness of his opponent's domestic political position. Some clearly had less need for information when making decisions, less desire to search out alternative viewpoints on policy matters, and far lower tolerances for dissent or disagreement over policy than had Kennedy.