Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Judging the Capacity to Govern

| March 14, 2008

GEORGE W. Bush promised compassionate conservatism and a humble foreign policy, but governed differently. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson campaigned on the promise of peace, but shortly after their election, took the country to war. Does this make a mockery of democracy? How can voters make intelligent judgments when campaigns are so carefully scripted and slickly promoted?

Leadership theorists suggest we should pay less attention to leaders' policy promises than to their emotional intelligence — mastery of the self and outreach to others. Contrary to the view that emotions always interfere with thinking, the ability to understand and regulate emotions can make overall thinking more effective. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously quipped after meeting Franklin D. Roosevelt: "a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament." Most historians would agree that Roosevelt's success as a leader rested more on his emotional skills than his analytical prowess. The energy and optimism he unleashed in his first 100 days did not grow out of policy proposals in his campaign.

Psychologists have wrestled with measuring the concept of intelligence for more than a century. General IQ tests measure such dimensions of intelligence as verbal and spatial dexterity, but IQ scores generally predict only about 10 percent to 20 percent of success in life. The 80 percent of success that remains unexplained is the product of hundreds of variables playing out over time, and the experts differ about how much is attributed to emotional intelligence. Nonetheless, they generally agree that it is an important and learnable skill that increases with age and experience, and that different people possess it in different degrees.

How can voters judge temperament when leaders work so hard to manage the impressions they make? Politicians dress differently for different audiences. Ronald Reagan's staff was famous for its success in impression management. Even a tough general like George Patton used to practice his scowl in front of a mirror.

If emotional intelligence is not authentic, others will likely find out in the long run, but successful management of personal impressions requires some of the same emotional discipline and skill possessed by good actors. Acting and leadership have a great deal in common. Reagan's prior experience served him well in this regard, and FDR was a master at impression management. Despite his pain and difficulty in moving on his polio-crippled legs, he maintained a smiling exterior, and was careful to avoid being photographed in a wheelchair.

Leaders are always conveying signals whether they realize it or not. Emotional intelligence involves the awareness and control of such signals. It also involves self-discipline that prevents personal psychological needs from distorting policy. Richard Nixon, for example, was strong on cognitive skills, but weak on emotional intelligence. He was able to strategize effectively on foreign policy, but less able to manage the personal insecurities that eventually led to his downfall.

Bush showed emotional intelligence in mastering his problems with alcohol in midlife, and in displaying courage to persevere in unpopular policies. But at some point, perseverance becomes emotional stubbornness that hinders learning and adjustment.

In the view of the Canadian political leader Michael Ignatieff, "it was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take the care to understand himself. The sense of reality that might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. . . . He had led a charmed life, and in charmed lives warning bells do not sound." Like Woodrow Wilson, Bush's stubborn commitment to his vision inhibited learning.

So how can voters judge a leader's capacity to govern? The rigors of our prolonged election campaign in a variety of state caucuses and primaries provide some clues about stamina and self discipline. Tears have destroyed some candidates in the snows of New Hampshire while helping others. How a candidate relates to his or her political party platform, while often derided, tells us something about independence and future appointments. But most important is biography.

While latter day conversions and acting can disguise character, an integrated life over time is the best source of clues about the authenticity of the next president's temperament and how he or she will govern.

Joseph S. Nye a professor at Harvard University. His most recent book is "The Powers to Lead."

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr..“Judging the Capacity to Govern.” The Boston Globe, March 14, 2008.