Presidential Personality Part 4: Charisma and Machiavellianism

Successful presidents deceive...

Posted Oct 29, 2008

In earlier posts, I described how a president who hopes to lead the nation will need to meet the needs of the voting public (Part 1). 

Such a president also will face demands depending upon whether he or she is associated with the present, ruling, political party (the established regime) or seeks, in contrast, to create a new political regime with new approaches and commitments (Part 2). 

Finally, such a president will be successful to the degree he or she is motivated by power (Part 3).

In this post I deal with some further intriguing aspects of successful presidents: their machiavellianism and their charisma.

The personality trait of machiavellianism concerns the willingness and ability to apply skills of deceit, manipulation, and exploitation of others so as to acquire, use, and maintain power. Machiavelli, a 16th century advisor to political leaders, argued that such skills were necessary to control events rather than to be victimized by them.

In a machiavellian world, leaders need to be calculating and to operate with a minimal degree of shame or guilt. They need to carefully craft a public persona that expresses, "greatness, boldness, gravity, and strength," in all the leader does (cited in Deluga, 2001, p. 341).

In the laboratory, people high in machiavellianism endorse psychological test items that include, "Never tell anyone the real reason you did something unless it is useful to do so," "The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear" - and similar manipulative beliefs.  In terms of the acts they perform, they are likely to acknowledge that they "flattered someone to get a favor" or "told a lie to get ahead."

Machiavellianism is in play in politics today, with presidents high in machiavellian characteristics faring better than those without.  Perhaps this is because machiavellianism is related, in ways not yet fully understood, to charisma.

A person with charisma creates an appearance of possessing extraordinary leadership gifts including the competence to cope with crises, radical ideas that depart from customary political practices, and the transcendence of political divisions. The mythology of the charismatic leader is enhanced if he or she can point to a history of past successes.  Successful charismatic leaders also possess a base of loyal and enthusiastic followers.

In historians' evaluations of US presidents, a leader high in charisma is typically described as, "a dynamo of energy and determination," "characterized by others as a world figure," "enjoys ceremonial aspects of the office," and, "keeps in contact with the American public and its moods" (see note below).

In an historiometric study of US presidents, Derluga found that machiavellianism and charisma were highly related. So, in choosing presidents who are cool and charismatic, we are likely also choosing presidents who are machiavellian.

Derluga further found that machievellianism and charisma were important contributors to presidential success - even when controlling for a number of other variables such as the need for power (see the post on presidential motives).

If you ever have made the acquaintance of a charismatic leader, you may find that he or she doesn't allow for many true friends. Such leaders, rather, often may be interested in others as instruments to further their own aims. Machiavellian types, from their own perspectives, must exercise control over close relationships so as to accomplish their aims - to create a desired image that is likely distinct, to some degree, from their inner feelings and selves.

Charismatic leaders with machiavellian qualities don't seem to like or respect interpersonal relations the way that, say, people who value intimacy do.  Such leaders are, in some sense, a personality-type-apart. And yet we "feel" they are close to us as they lead us, we desire them to be near, despite how they maintain their distance as leaders.

So long as our machiavellian-charismatic leader's aims are our own, this may work out well, but be on the alert where our own aims and the leader's diverge.

Notes. Much of this description of charisma and Machiavellianism follows Derluga, R. J. (2001). American presidential Machiavellianism: Implications for charismatic leadership and rated performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 12, 339-363. Rating items characterizing charisma are found on p. 350 of that article. Among the earliest descriptions of charisma comes from Weber, M. (1924/1947). The theory of social and economic organizations. (T. Parsons, Trans.). The psychological study of Machiavellianism had its key beginning with Studies in Machiavellianism, a 1970 book by R. Christie, & F. Geis (New York: Academic Press). New York: Free Press. Descriptions of the actions of Machiavellians are drawn from (my memory of) Buss and Craik's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, "Why not measure that trait?".

(c) Copyright 2008 John D. Mayer