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What Qualities Do You Want in Our Next President?

Research points to four key leadership strengths.

AngelSharum. photo of the American flag waving in the wind. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons
Source: AngelSharum. photo of the American flag waving in the wind. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons

Today is Super Tuesday, and political candidates have been debating issues from health care to climate change, jobs, education, and foreign policy. Yet as we approach the 2020 presidential election, have you stopped to consider the qualities we need in America's next leader?

The Gallup organization has studied leadership for decades, interviewing over 20,000 senior leaders, and asking a random sample of 10,000 people what qualities they most wanted in a leader. These qualities are trust, compassion, stability, and hope (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 82).

Trust: Gallup research has found that we want to be able to trust our leaders. Leadership researchers Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes call this quality “credibility” (Kouzes & Posner, 2011). Corporate consultant William Bridges lists 10 ways that leaders can build trust, which range from keeping their promises to admitting their mistakes to respecting other people’s points of view, concluding that “a single key to the building of trust” is to “tell the truth” (Bridges, 1992, p. 79).

Compassion: We want our leaders to understand and care about us, to have the best interests of the citizens and the country at heart. Research has shown that compassionate leaders are more effective and can even be transformational (Dreher, 2015; Singer & Ricard, 2019; Vianello, Galliani, & Haidt, 2010). History offers examples of compassionate leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who combined care with transformational political power (Schwartz, 2019).

Stability: We want to know what to expect from our leaders. As the Gallup study found, we want leaders with stable core values, who “provide a firm foundation” of “security, support, and peace,” especially in times of challenge and change. One way in which leaders can provide stability, the study found, is to be transparent in their communication (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 87).

Hope: Finally, we want optimistic leaders who inspire hope, who make us feel “enthusiastic about the future,” leaders with vision who can chart a path through current problems to new possibilities (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 89). Psychologist Shane Lopez (2013) has found that leaders can build hope by:

  • Creating excitement about the future
  • Setting new goals
  • Overcoming obstacles and demonstrating progress

Our current presidential candidates have a crucial challenge in the days ahead. While it’s all too easy to fall into divisive politics, attacking each other with blaming, shaming, and name-calling, this only leads to greater polarization, taking this country into what neuroscience research has called the “low road” of fear, defensiveness, and anger (LeDoux, 1996). As Gallup research has shown, we need leaders who can appeal to what Abraham Lincoln (1861) called the “better angels of our nature,” offering us a new vision of hope for our time.

This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


Bridges, W. (1992) Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

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.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Lincoln, A. (1861, March 4). First inaugural address.

Lopez, S. J. (2013). Making hope happen: Create the future you want for yourself and others. New York, NY: Atria Books.

Photo: Angel Sharum Photo of the American Flag waving in the wind.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

Schwartz, R. (2019). Using compassion and mindfulness to balance the impulses of power and care. In T. Singer & M. Ricard (Eds.). Power and care: Toward balance for our common future—science, society, and spirituality, (pp. 75-78). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Singer, T. & Ricard, M. with Karius, K (Eds.) & H.H. Dalai Lama (2019). Power and care: Toward balance for our common future—science, society, and spirituality. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Vianello, M., Galliani, E. M., & Haidt, J. (2010) Elevation at work: The effects of leaders’ moral excellence. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 390-411.