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Temperament and Leadership: Obama vs. Roosevelt

When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes met Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 he said that he had a ”second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament!”

Temperament is the “great separator” argued legendary political scientist Richard Neustadt in his oft read classic Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. “Experience will leave its mark on expertise; so will a man’s ambition for himself and his constituents. But something like that ‘first-rate’ temperament is what turns know-how and desire into his personal account.” Neustadt writes.

A fine temperament denotes a particular mixture of ease, poise, and timing. Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, offers a vivid account of President Obama’s first year in office and dedicates a chapter to President Obama’s legendary “cool under pressure” disposition.

Barack Obama came to office with both a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament. Even his staunchest opponents in Congress didn’t try to deny that he was smart and had an easy rapport with people he met personally. The challenge for Obama concerned his  public temperament and the way his character and style connected to the American people.

Temperament does not always make or break leaders. It’s not a sufficient measuring stick to determine the strength and weakness of a leader. Any leadership position presents temperamentally well-suited managers and bosses with a hundred ways to fail. Obama’s easygoing temperament improves his odds of handling the ongoing challenges and unpredictable events that continue to determine his fate. A good temperament can help ease factionalism and combat challenges that arise during any leader’s tenure, but ultimately execution remains the crucial test of any leader.

In an age when the public gets to ‘know’ the president intimately temperament may seem like an increasingly important factor in presidential elections. Still, America’s leaders haven’t always possessed great temperaments. Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush have all famously lacked a solid temperament and have struggled to connect with the public because of it. Temperament, while helping leaders smooth tensions, isn’t always a key to success. It might be less of a “great separator” and more of a helpful knack.

Picture credit: Amy Arch



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