Selecting a President

Adrian Furnham

What to look for when selecting the most powerful person in the world? Professor Adrian Furnham presents three select in and three select out.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Recruitment and Selection

Who to vote for in the US Presidential election? What would an HR professional or Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychologist advise?

Stage one is always a job analysis. One is appointing someone to a particular position. To adequately, even exemplarily, fulfil that position with all those other e-words (efficiently, effectively, energetically and that special English 'effortlessly') one needs talents and skills.

Psychologists call them abilities, traits and values. HR people call them competencies. The idea is to derive a parsimonious, rank-ordered, list of necessary and sufficient competencies required for this particular job.

A leader is a leader

But to save a huge amount of wasteful consultant time and money why not look at other top leadership jobs. The President is after all really only a special senior management role. Is it really any different from heading up the any big company? A leader is a leader is a leader.

Borrowing from other examples it is pretty easy to come up with a sound HR-acceptable list: strategic thinking, ability to inspire others, persuasibility and communication skills, ability to plan and manage change, team management......etc.

Look at the diary of the current incumbent. What do they do all day? How much time and what skills are require to "schmooze foreign potentates", fob off prying journalists, get the top-team up-to-speed and of one voice, plan an election campaign, etc.

Select out as much as select in

But there have been some really interesting developments in the selection business. Perhaps the most important is the concept of select out as much as select in. The old way was to list and then look for evidence of competencies you wanted. Enough evidence and you got the job.

But we have known for years that there are special jobs: bomb disposal expert, spy, submariner that require a special sort of vetting. Here one looks not only for what one wants but also what one does not want. Thus there are select in and select out lists.

Factors leading to derailment

Business psychologists have recently found evidence of factors that lead to derailment. One really does not want them in the person with the finger on the nuclear button. The top three are excessive boldness, mischievousness, self-confidence and Machiavellianism. The paradox is often the characteristics that help one climb the greasy pole are those that later lead to derailment. Under stress or with considerable power the less desirable aspects of people do emerge. And we all pay the price.

Three select in and three select out

So a good short list to put the fear into any challengers. Three select in and three select out. Insufficient evidence of the former and too much of the latter means NO.

Select for:

  • Integrity: This is honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness. At some level one should be able to be sure what is being said is true. It takes courage to maintain integrity in politics.
  • Intelligence: This more than street-smarts but being analytic, logical, quick-on-the-uptake. We have plenty of evidence of shortcomings of the short-changed. Where people were educated is not a good indication of intelligence anymore.
  • Inspiration: The ability to be uplifting, enthusiastic, positive...to create and sustain fellowship. All the more important in out multi-media age. This more that reading auto-cues.

Select out:

  • Irresponsibility: Evidence of amoral, impulsive, selfish behavior in the past that is to do more with fulfilling personal ambition than anything else. A good measure is how many friends the person has retained from past worlds (school, work, family)
  • Excessive self-confidence: Clear evidence of a narcissistic streak manifest in everything from dress to the number and types of individuals chosen to serve their personal needs.
  • Stress-proneness: Its tough at the top. A leader needs to be hardy not moody; resilient nounstable.

So how about using this as a check-list for who to vote for?

The above list could fit all sorts of senior positions. But are there unique competencies and characteristics for the job of President? They need to be able and stable; hard-working and hardy.

But there is the sticky issue of values. After politics is or was supposed to be informed by values or what we used to call ideology.

This article is first published in Psychology Today on July 12, 2016.
Link to article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sideways-view/201607/selecting-president

Text: Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University College London and the BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 28. October 2016

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