01 November 2012

Presidential Character

"Your character is your fate." 

--Heraclitus, Greek Philosopher

Did you know it's possible to predict presidential performance in the White House? 

The same is true for gauging the future performance of a newly minted CEO, but that's another post. 

So how can we know what to expect from the leader of the free world, living at the most famous of all addresses, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, DC?   

Engaging politically

In his book, The Presidential Character, author James David Barber, says it's essential, even with a strong media filter, to get to know a person wanting to take power.

Why should a citizen and voter consider expending this kind of time and energy trying to determine who someone really is?

Whoever wins election to the highest office in the USA is likely going to affect you whether your paying attention or not.  It's in our best interest, and that of the nation, Barber writes, to engage in the process and hold leaders accountable. 

Professor Barber says understanding a President should not be as "some abstract embodiment of civic virtue" but as a human being.   They bring to the presidential task "their own character, world view, and political style," he notes. 

And the presidency is an office that requires "extraordinary sanity."  

Getting to know them

What should we know about a President?  The book underscores the following:

  • Their style.  It's the most visible part of the job of being President.  Rhetoric, personal relations, and homework.  This is not to be confused with stylishness, charisma, or appearance.  

  • Their world view.  This consists of their primary, politically relevant beliefs, particularly their conceptions of social causality, human nature, and the central moral conflicts of the time.  How they see the world determines to a great extent what they pay attention to. 

  • Their character.  The word "character" comes from the Greek word for "engraving."   This is the way a President orients himself toward life--not for the moment but enduringly, according to Barber's research.  Character is how a leader confronts experience and events.  At the core of character is how a person confronts themselves.

Developing potential

What are the stages of personal and professional development for a President?  

For Barber there are three:

  • Character mainly developed in childhood

  • World view in adolescence

  • Style in early adulthood

The more we reflect on these attributes of presidential character the more we realize they apply not only to heads of state and CEOs but to everyone who holds a position of supervision, management, or leadership in business and nonprofits.

What awaits?

While we stipulate that predicting external events is very difficult to do, behavior is another matter.  The best predictor of future behavior is frequent past behavior.  

As the years accumulate there's little deviation from established practices in someone's life.

Self-constructed images are easy to create, but with a profusion of up-close technologies, hard to maintain.  

"You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

That plain-spoken wisdom is most often attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

As one who "belongs to the ages," Lincoln embodies the idea that character remains a president's ultimate fate.     



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