Why Don’t We Elect Wise Leaders?
The 2012 election process is in full swing, but almost no one seems happy about it. When pollsters recently asked Americans about the election, 7 out of 10 said that they couldn’t wait for it to be over. In part, the electorate’s malaise stems from the fact that none of the G.O.P.’s candidates are generating much enthusiasm from Republican voters, and President Obama’s approval rating continues to hover at less than 50%. People aren’t excited about their options, and as the election process grinds on many voters may be thinking that no matter who wins the presidency in November, he (or she) will not be the sort of leader that we really want.
But exactly what kind of leader is that? What do people look for when picking a president?
Everyone holds a set of expectations, assumptions, and beliefs about what a “good” leader is like. Social and organizational psychologists call these assumptions “implicit leadership theories,” or sometimes “leader prototypes.” For example, most people’s implicit leadership theories include the idea that good leaders are intelligent, energetic, and moral; not many people think that good leaders are stupid, sluggish, or unscrupulous. These assumptions are “implicit” in the sense that people hold their beliefs about leadership without thinking carefully or deeply about them (Kenney, Schwartz-Kenney, & Blascovich, 1996).
So we can ask about people’s implicit theories of presidential leadership. What are the personal qualities that people associate with being a good president? Of course, we want our national leaders to be many things, but one exceptionally important characteristic is that we want our president and other elected officials to be wise. Presumably, most people prefer their leaders to make wise rather than unwise decisions, but then again, most people seem to think that wisdom is in rather short supply in Washington these days.
Political observers don’t talk much about “wisdom” (I certainly haven’t heard the word mentioned in the context of this year’s election), but polls do show that voters want a president who shows “sound judgment,” which comes reasonably close to wisdom. At the most basic level, wisdom requires a set of cognitive and motivational qualities that increase the likelihood that a person will make the optimal decision in a particular situation, a decision that leads to a course of action that will maximize the greatest good for the greatest number. But what are the characteristics that promote wise and judicious decisions? What are the qualities of a wise person?
Psychological research on wisdom has identified a number of such characteristics, but three dominate most conceptualizations of wisdom (Helson & Srivastava, 2002; Sternberg, 1990).
1. Wise people recognize that the world is in flux and that circumstances are likely to change over time. Thus, the wise person displays ongoing openness, flexibility, and a willingness to change one’s course of action as the situation changes. Rigidity and closed-mindedness do not tend to lead to wise decisions.
2. Wise people recognize the limits of their own knowledge and acknowledge the possibility that their personal beliefs, perspectives, and preferred courses of action are often not optimal and, in fact, are sometimes incorrect. Assuming that no one knows everything or has an inside route to intellectual or moral truth, wisdom requires intellectual humility. Wise people seek and rely on ideas and feedback from other people, and change their preconceptions about the best course of action based on other people’s input. And, the more divergent the advisors who are consulted, the wiser the final decision is likely to be.
3. Wise people know that achieving the common good requires them to take all interests and perspectives into account in an effort to see the big picture. Wisdom also involves making a concerted effort to transcend one’s own biases and personal interests when they might not be optimal for most people. Not only must solutions be found that promote the well-being of the greatest number, but given that everybody’s views are inherently egocentric and biased, wise leaders know that the approach that they personally prefer may not, in fact, be the best decision. So, wisdom requires searching for genuine compromise when disagreements and conflicts arise.
Setting aside the possibility that politicians who exhibit this set of characteristics may be a rare breed, consider the fact that the attributes that underlie wisdom are often diametrically opposed to the traits that people seek in their favorite political candidates. For example, a Pew Research Center Poll showed that only 38% of voters polled indicated that “willingness to compromise” is essential in a president, a trait that research suggests is necessary for wisdom. On the other hand, about half of respondents indicated that it was essential for a president to maintain consistent positions and to be forceful, and 30% indicated that it was essential for presidents to show absolute party loyalty. These characteristics fly in the face of the fact that wisdom involves flexibility, openness, and ongoing effort to minimize the effects of one’s own egocentric views and preferences.
Taken together, these statistics suggest that most voters are not looking for a wise president. And, in fact, a large proportion of the population appears to favor candidates who display traits that are incompatible with wisdom—dogmatism, rigidity, overconfidence in one’s own views, and an unwillingness to compromise. It is as if many voters from across the political spectrum are seeking a general who will fight ideological battles rather than a president who seeks wise and effective solutions to the country’s many problems.
Helson, R., & Srivastava, S. (2002). Creative and wise people: Similarities, differences, and how they develop. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1430-1440.
Kenney, R. A, Schwartz-Kenney, B., & Blascovich, J. (1996). Implicit leadership theories: Defining leaders described as worthy of influence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1128-1143.
Sternberg, R. J. (Ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.