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Presidential Personality Part 3: Power Motivation

What motivates a person to become president?

This is Part 3 of a series on how the next president's personality may influence the country and its direction...

In earlier posts, I have described how the two 2008 contenders - or any president who hopes to lead well - must communicate forcefully, elicit loyalty from the nation, treat others justly, clarify the country's identity, and guide in a strong, active, positive fashion.

I described, in addition, how each of the candidates will face different demands. If Barak Obama becomes president, his main task will be to implement a new political agenda and commitments. If John McCain becomes president, his main task will be to distinguish himself from previous Republican administrations while continuing the basic principles of his party and strengthening them.

Those describe some of the tasks the elected individual will need to carry out. Now, consider how the makeup of their personalities will make a difference.

Assume a hypothetical person who is "average" in all his or her personality characteristics. Such an individual would certainly fail as president to some degree. "Average" is unlikely to want to lead, or to communicate forcefully, or to guide in a strong positive fashion. What do we need to change in "average" to get successful president?

One key characteristic is the power motive. We must add in an above-average desire for power in this individual to get the person (and the country) moving in a good direction.

In the mid-20th century, one group of psychological researchers studied three motives in particular: the motives for achievement, affiliation, and... power.

The achievement motive concerns striving to meet criteria of excellence. People high in this motive want to accomplish things while meeting high standards of performance - they want to approach perfection.

The affiliation motive concerns being liked and having contact with others. People high in this motive want to spend time with others and to be liked by them.

The power motive concerns a need to exert control over others. People high in this motive want to influence others, to direct and guide them, and sometimes, to reward or punish them.

David Winter has studied the motivational profiles of US Presidents with an eye to determining what motives predict about a president's performance. Winter examines these three motives by coding the presidents' written materials such as speeches, memoranda and the like (Winter is particularly partial to presidents' inaugural addresses).

Winter has coded all US Presidents to date on these motives and though his sample size is small (there being just 42 presidents to-date) his findings are clear: the power motive is key to a president's success.

Why is the power motive most important?

Well, affiliation-oriented presidents are focused on being liked. They have some attractive qualities: for example, they appear to be involved in negotiating more arms-control agreements than other presidents (but the observed sample-size is small, as arms-control is a recent phenomenon); such affiliation-motivated presidents also, however, are more likely to get involved in scandals due to loyalty to their friends.

Next, consider the problems of the achievement-motive president.

Achievement motive presidents are energetic but often find the job unrewarding. Achievement-need individuals hold high ideals: excellence, adherence to principles, and the like. Sooner or later, however, they will be forced to compromise those ideals by the realities of political processes, economic necessities, and bureaucratic pressures - and they don't like doing so. They begin to perceive themselves as stuck in a swamp of compromises. Their energy levels may drop (they may work fewer hours), they may try to retain or exercise power in what Winter calls a latent, authoritarian "shadow," seeking to preserve a meritocratic tyranny. (According to Winter, Nixon was a high-achievement president, highly frustrated by the job, who attempted to retain control using shadowy techniques in the Watergate scandal; Winter, pp. 561-562).

As Winter puts it:

"Power-motivated presidents...invest a good deal of energy in their job, and they enjoy it. In politics, personal control is not a given, but must be continually created, negotiated, and "schmoozed." In such contexts, achievement-motivated political leaders seem to engage in a compulsive series of unsuccessful attempts to wrest control (Winter, pp. 561-562)."

What can we expect from high-power presidents? Their rated greatness by historians will be higher than that of presidents with other needs. They are, unfortunately, more likely to enter us into wars than presidents with other motives, and (back to the good side) they are more likely to be forceful and positive - two attributes that we as citizens greatly desire.

High power-motive presidents (and presidential candidates) are identifiable because they seek to influence other people and the world more generally. Their interest in influence may be expressed in stories, imaginings, plans, and other written material. In Winter's system an actor (the candidate) might take strong forceful actions, such as attacking an enemy, or might provide unsolicited advice (e.g., "I'd like to advise my opponents on what to do here..."), or might try to control others by regulating their lives, convincing other people of a point, or impressing others on the world stage (e.g., "We need to show others we are strong.").

Spangler and House, incidentally, replicated Winter's findings and concluded also that high-power leaders who had greater self-restraint were even more successful (that is, restraint is a valuable commodity in such personalities).

To assess the candidates' power needs, go to John McCain's website ("...put our country first") or that of Barack Obama's ("...leaders who will bring the change our country needs") to see how much of the power motive is expressed by each.

Notes: This material is based on Winter, David G. (2005). Things I've learned about personality from studying political leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73, 557-584. Specific examples of power imagery are drawn from Winter, D. G. (1992) A revised scoring system for the power motive. In Smith, C. P. (Ed.). Motivation and personality, Cambridge University Press, pp. 313-315). Spangler and House reported their findings in a 1991 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 439-455.

© Copyright 2008 John D. Mayer

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