What Kind of President Do We Need?

Research reveals eight key qualities of leadership.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

 Zscout370 via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Presidential flag
Source: Zscout370 via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As we consider future presidential candidates and watch our nation’s leaders grapple with complex global challenges, it’s time to look beyond partisan politics to ask what kind of leadership we need.

Research has shown that successful presidents have these key strengths.

Communication skills. Presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan could connect with people to get their message across. Many celebrities have this ability to connect, known as “stage presence.” But effective communication includes not only speaking but listening. To understand the needs and concerns of their people, our presidents must be able to listen with respect and the “unconditional positive regard” affirmed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers (Rogers, 1961).

Credibility. Authenticity, honesty, and integrity. Credible leaders keep their word, walk their talk. Carl Rogers would say that their words and actions are “congruent” (Rogers, 1961). As James Kouzes and Barry Posner found in over twenty years of management research in North America, Mexico, Western Europe, Asia, and Australia, what people most desire in a leader is credibility: they want to be able to trust their leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 1993).

Emotional Intelligence. The ability to recognize, understand, and manage our emotions and to recognize and understand the emotions of others. Daniel Goleman’s research has shown how emotional intelligence promotes success in any field (Goleman, 2005). It is especially vital for presidents, who must consider divergent points of view and listen to their advisors even when they tell them unpleasant truths. With emotional intelligence, our leaders can deal with crises without caving in to anger, anxiety, or depression.

Optimism. As leadership researcher Kim Cameron has found, successful leaders are “energizers,” with optimism that motivates and inspires their people (Cameron, 2013). Ronald Reagan was known for his optimism, Theodore Roosevelt displayed unquenchable exuberance, and Franklin Roosevelt reassured a troubled nation with his optimistic fireside chats (Cannon, 2000; Jamison, 2005; Dallek, 2017).

Strategic Thinking. Successful presidents think strategically. They have a working knowledge of governance and see current challenges in a larger perspective. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has pointed out, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were strategic thinkers who found vital lessons in history and personal role models in the presidents who had come before them (Goodwin, 2018).

Courage. Great leaders have the courage to tackle difficult problems, to rise above adversity instead of succumbing to what psychologist Martin Seligman has called “learned helplessness” (Seligman, 1975; Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993). Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy displayed such courage when facing the enormous challenges of the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Inclusive Vision. Successful leaders bring people together, inspiring them with a vision of greater possibility (Dreher, 1996). Theodore Roosevelt offered people a “square deal, Franklin Roosevelt offered a “new deal,” John Kennedy offered a “new frontier,” and Abraham Lincoln, appealed to the “better angels of our nature.”

Leading by Example. The best leaders demonstrate moral maturity instead of focusing on their egos (Dreher, 2015). They are democratic, not autocratic. Motivated by a concern for their people, they follow Abraham Maslow’s path to self-actualization instead of a Machiavellian ethic where the ends justify the means (Maslow, 1954). Affirming principles of fairness and compassion, they lead with the highest values of their nation.

What about you?

What former presidents do you admire and what qualities do you look for in a leader?


Cameron, K. (2013). Practicing positive leadership.San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Cannon, L. (2000). President Reagan: The role of a lifetime. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Dallek, R. (2017). Franklin D. Roosevelt: A political life. New York,NY: Viking.

Dreher, D. E. (1996). The tao of personal leadership. New York, NY: HarperCollins.                      

Dreher, D.E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T.G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam.

Goodwin, D. K. (2018). Leadership in turbulent times. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Jamison, K.R. (2005). Exuberance. New York, NY: Random House.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B.Z. (1993). Credibility. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maslow, A.H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helplessness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.