What psychological personality tests reveal about Clinton, Obama, and McCain.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 20 2008 6:50 AM

The Supervisor, the Champion, and the Promoter

What psychological personality tests reveal about Clinton, Obama, and McCain.

Emily Yoffe was online on Feb. 21 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, I applied the principles of personality assessment, based on the theories of psychiatrist Carl Jung, to candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. Forgive me if it sounds like gloating, but here's what my research revealed about the personality type of the future 43rd president of the United States: "They are decisive and little bothered by second thoughts and self-doubt." "Since [they] do not reflect very much on their errors or analyze their mistakes to any great extent, it is difficult for them to learn from their errors, and so they can become caught in a loop, repeating their mistakes."

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

It's time again to apply the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to our presidential candidates. (I did not include Mike Huckabee in my evaluations, because I couldn't bring myself to imagine a Huckabee administration.) The MBTI was developed by a mother-daughter team that wanted a practical application for the ideas of personality developed by Jung. By mixing and matching four poles of personal style—extravert and introvert being the best known—the women came up with 16 personality types. Read more about it here. For reference, I used two books co-authored by MBTI consultant Otto Kroeger, Type Talk and Type Talk at Work. And I relied on psychologist David Keirsey's revision of the 16 personality types. Keirsey sorted these into four overarching categories: Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals. (He describes his classifications in the book Please Understand Me II and at this Web site,  www.keirsey.com.)

Such personality testing is often derided by academia, but it's used widely by corporations, the military, and government to understand different leadership styles and the dynamics of working in groups. Finding out your personality type requires answering dozens of questions such as, "Do you find visionaries and theorists a) somewhat annoying [or] b) rather fascinating?" and "When finishing a job, do you like to a) tie up all the loose ends [or] b) move on to something else)?" Figuring the candidates wouldn't fill out their own questionnaires, I studied their biographies and came to my own conclusions.

Hillary Clinton is a Guardian, and her specific type is an ESTJ, what Keirsey calls "the Supervisor." Supervisors are, Keirsey says, steadfast, cautious, methodical. They are the reliable, detail-oriented people without whom organizations and society fall apart—which is something ESTJs won't hesitate to point out. "[T]heir first instinct is to take charge and tell others what to do," says Keirsey. They are "devoted public servants, seeing their role in government … in almost sacred terms of self-sacrifice and service to others." This service is an obligation, not given "freely and joyously." As columnist Richard Cohen observed about Hillary, "Whether she meant to or not, she has presented herself as a model of caution, of experience hard-earned and not enjoyed. …"

Keirsey says Guardians' "self-esteem is greatest when they present themselves as dependable, trustworthy or accountable in shouldering their responsibilities." In other words, an ESTJ wants everyone to know she's "ready to be president on Day 1." According to Please Understand Me II (all the quotes are from the books), about half of our presidents, from George Washington to George H.W. Bush, have been Guardians, with Harry Truman being an ESTJ like Hillary (she loves to quote Truman's "The buck stops here.").

Guardian leaders are not the big thinkers or the bold doers (although they can take bold action if they carefully conclude that's what the circumstance requires). They have, says Keirsey, "a stabilizing and consolidating effect." In a New Yorker profile of Hillary, George Packer wrote that her now-infamous remark that it took a president to realize Martin Luther King's dream reflected Hillary's belief that "the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society."

ESTJs are most comfortable in the world of the specific. Keirsey says they will listen politely to "theoretical or fanciful" conversation—what an ESTJ surely thinks of as a certain other candidate's gasbaggery—then "shift to more concrete things to talk about, more solid and sensible topics" using their ability to call up at will "an enormous fund of facts." (Ever heard a Hillary speech?)

It is this ESTJ-ness that may explain the failure of Hillary's health-care initiative as first lady. ESTJs like nothing better than digging deep into the specifics of a system and batting out proposals with trusted staff, then presenting the perfect fait accompli to a grateful public. As Kroeger points out, ESTJs can be stunned when the plans fail: "Having packaged the argument so neatly and precisely, how could anyone possibly disagree?" Keirsey says this blindness comes from the concrete-thinking ESTJ's pronounced weakness at the abstract arts of strategy and diplomacy. Hillary neither foresaw the attacks by competing interests nor had the people skills to win over her opponents.

Referring to ESTJs, Kroeger says, "[O]f all the sixteen types this is the most conventionally masculine." The New York Times' Maureen Dowd pointed out that actor Jack Nicholson called Hillary "the best man for the job," and Hillary said on David Letterman, "In my White House, we'll know who wears the pantsuits." But Hillary also revealed the struggle of the ESTJ woman when she told Packer, "[T]he world is only beginning to recognize that women should be permitted the same range of leadership styles that we permit men."

The Guardians' steadfast posture also applies to their marriages. Keirsey writes that they are "extremely loyal to their mates and feel obliged to stand by them in times of trouble and help them straighten up and fly right. As a result, Guardians more easily than any other temperament can be hooked into becoming the rescuer of troubled mates." (Bill Clinton is an ESFP, what Keirsey calls "the Performer"—"thriving on the excitement of being on-stage." ESFPs are also "inclined to be impulsive and self-indulgent, which makes them vulnerable to seduction.")

The ESTJ can, to her detriment, says Keirsey, see the world as inhabited by good people and bad people. Think of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" or how Hillary touts her "battle scars." In TheNew Yorker, a former friend said of her, "Hillary needs enemies."

Kroeger writes that ESTJs "do not cope well when things don't go as planned." They have a "short fuse when anything suggests they are losing control. The ESTJ can become loud, rigid, domineering, and can induce a great deal of stress within anyone nearby." If Truman was "Give 'Em Hell Harry," then the current ESTJ seeking the highest office could end up nicknamed "Go to Hell Hillary."

Barack Obama—no one will be surprised to learn—is an Idealist. His specific type is an ENFP, what Keirsey calls "the Champion." ENFPs, says Keirsey, are "filled with conviction that they can easily motivate those around them." Champions work to "kindle, to rouse, to encourage, even to inspire those close to them with their enthusiasm." Idealists "usually have a tongue of silver" and are "gifted in seeing the possibilities" of institutions and people. Here's Obama on leadership: "[W]e need leaders to inspire us. Some are thinking about our constraints, and others are thinking about limitless possibility."

This ability to move people through imagery and rhetoric carries a danger for the ENFP, says Keirsey—a belief in "word magic." "Word magic refers to the ancient idea that words have the ability to make things happen—saying makes it so." This is the basis of the critique of Obama by his less-soaring opponents. Hillary complains that people ask her to "give us one of those great rhetorical flourishes and then, you know, get everybody all whooped up." (As if she could.) Says John McCain, "To encourage a country with only rhetoric is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude."

Keirsey says Idealist leaders should be called catalysts because "[t]he individual who encounters such a leader is likely to be motivated, animated, even inspired to do his or her very best work." The New Yorker's Packer writes, "Obama offers himself as a catalyst by which disenchanted Americans can overcome two decades of vicious partisanship. …"

Idealists are deeply introspective. According to Keirsey, their "self-confidence rests on their authenticity," which makes them "highly aware of themselves as objects of moral scrutiny." Idealists, such as Thomas Paine, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., tend to be leaders of movements, not office-holders. If Obama is elected, not only would he be the first black president, but according to Keirsey, he'd be the first Idealist president. (Kroeger speculates that Lincoln may have been an Idealist.) Idealists are rare in any executive position. In a survey Kroeger did of the personality types who make it to top management, less than 1 percent were ENFPs—while almost 30 percent were Hillary's type, the ESTJ. But the 16 types are not evenly distributed in the population and ENFPs themselves are rare—Keirsey estimates only about 2 percent of people are ENFPs. Kroeger says the ENFP can be an effective boss. "At their best they bring a refreshing alternative style to top management and decision making."

Keirsey says that the Idealist is the unusual leader who is "comfortable working in a climate where everyone has a vote." In a Vanity Fair profile, Todd Purdum quotes a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's describing his collaborative style as editor of the Law Review. Obama was "someone who wanted the group decisions to reflect the group's intent, not Barack's intent." (This classmate added, "I actually would have been happier for him to say sometimes, 'This is how we're doing this, and shut up!' ") Wanting inclusiveness has been a hallmark of Obama's career and his campaign. Purdum noted that in the Illinois Legislature, "Obama made friendships across the aisle" and used his people skills to get some difficult legislation passed. In a speech, Obama described this ability: "If you start off with an agreeable manner, you might be able to … recruit some independents into the fold, recruit even some Republicans into the fold."

As leaders, Keirsey says, the Idealists possess a "diplomatic intelligence." They "seek common ground," want to "forge unity," arrive at "universal truths," and are "trusting." Given these qualities, it should be no surprise that Obama says that as president, he would quickly sit down with our enemies. He told Paris Match, "I want to have direct talks with countries like Iran and Syria because I don't believe we can stabilize the region unless not just our friends but also our enemies are involved in these discussions."

Plans such as this have resulted in Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, and others accusing the possible next commander in chief of naiveté. Keirsey says the Idealist has to be careful not to make errors in judgment by projecting "their own attributes onto others." Because they tend to have a positive outlook, they can be "surprised when people or events do not turn out as anticipated."

The ENFP can have a problem with "restlessness," says Kroeger. "As a task or responsibility drags on and its mantle becomes increasingly routine, the ENFP can become more pensive, moody, and even rigid." Obama himself referred in a debate to his disorganization and dislike of paperwork—and his self-knowledge that "I need to have good people in place who can make sure that systems run." But as Purdum writes, it is Obama's "restlessness" that prompted him "to take a chance, to aim higher—when others told him to wait his turn."

John McCain is an Artisan, and his specific type is an ESTP, what Keirsey calls the Promoter. The ESTP is, according to Keirsey, "practical, optimistic, cynical, and focused on the here and now." If the ESTP portrait gives you a feeling of déjà vu, it's because George W. Bush is an ESTP, too. They are a common presidential type: Both Roosevelts, JFK, and LBJ were ESTPs. "Artisans need to be potent, to be felt as a strong presence and they want to affect the course of events," writes Keirsey. They hunger to "have a piece of the action," "to make something happen" whether "on the battlefield" or "in the political arena." So many politicians are Artisans because "politics allows not only for maneuvering, excitement, and risk—but for powerful social impact."

In a Newsweek profile of McCain, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said, "He's a real player in the Senate. He has tremendous impact." As McCain said to Esquire, "I get attacked everyday because I'm working with Ted Kennedy. How can I work with Kennedy? Because I want to get something done."

"Artisans also make everyone else look like amateurs when it comes to improvising survival tactics," writes Keirsey. Their wily ability to make do in dire circumstances makes them "successful scroungers as prisoners of war." Newsweek describes how "McCain survived in prison camp by sheer cussedness."

Artisans "are not threatened by the possibility of failure in themselves or others, so they are likely to take risks and encourage others to do the same." That is how a man whose election prospects were dim only a few months ago can say to the Washington Post of the campaign, "Actually, it's been very invigorating, it really has been."

Promoters have strong people skills, but it is not the warm sense of connection one gets from an Idealist like Obama. "Promoters are so engaging … that they might seem to possess an unusual amount of empathy, when in fact this is not the case," writes Keirsey. "Rather, they are uncanny at reading people's faces and observing their body language." Or as the Wall Street Journal recently wrote, "When Mr. McCain took the stage in Sun City, the applause was polite. When he finished, he got a standing ovation. … [H]is ability to sense and ride the emotional flow of an audience is astonishing."

Grand theories are not for the ESTP. "No high-flown speculation for the Artisan, no deep meaning or introspection. [They] focus on what actually happens in the real world, on what works, on what pays off, and not on whose toes get stepped on." This is how you get labeled a "maverick" and "Sen. Hothead." This is why the Wall Street Journal writes, "Mr. McCain's great political strength has also been his main weakness, which is that his political convictions are more personal than ideological."

Keirsey says Artisans "are the world's great risk-takers. They delight in putting themselves in jeopardy, taking chances, facing hazards." (Does this sound familiar? See: Iraq.) When times call for careful planning, or consistent, long-term management, you don't call on the ESTP. Keirsey writes that they "may be careless about details" or "they can be unprepared at times when preparation is called for, and can spring the unexpected on colleagues." "They are like firemen who, having nothing to do set fires so that they can put them out."

So, these are our three choices: an ESTJ, an ENFP, or an ESTP. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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